Matthew Barney, "Drawing Restraint"

Glen Helfand June 19, 2006

Using film as key component of a grandiose, multimedia body of art, Matthew Barney has become one of the most visible artists of his generation. His five-part “Cremaster Cycle” of films, as well as Barney’s sculpture, photography, and drawings, was the subject of a massive traveling exhibition that climaxed in 2003 at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, where the three-hour opus was set. His next project, “de Lama Lamina,” a myth-invoking mixture of environmentalism and extreme sexual acts, was shot in a Carnaval parade in Bahia, Brazil, in 2004, and is viewed as more of an experimental detour (though sequences from it form Barney’s “Hoist,” featured in the artist/porn omnibus “Destricted”). “Drawing Restraint 9,” a feature-length film starring Barney and real life partner Björk, has already hit theatres (distributed by IFC).

“Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint,” a film and gallery project organized by the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan, opens at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this week. The following conversation took place in San Francisco this spring, during preparations for the exhibition. (Next week, SF360 features a conversation with Benjamin Weil, SFMOMA Curator of Media Arts, about the show.)

SF360: Clearly, your projects relate to film genres, yet they aren’t so often discussed from that angle. How do you describe your use of cinematic references in your work?

Matthew Barney: Film is a liberator for me. At the time I was starting to make single-channel video [not] to simply document real-time performances on video, but to start editing them and to accept that they were going to be narrative, I immediately started to look to film to find examples of stories that described an object, or a sculptural condition, through a narrative. Horror film was the thing I’d already latched on to as a kid, but felt like they were the things to look at — like ‘Jaws’ or ‘Das Boot’ — films where there’s an isolated object in an environment, and the environment becomes a dominant character and infuses the object. The actors become secondary. I think that’s where my influence from film started.

Making the ‘Cremaster’ films it was more about finding a container for each of these stories, which was usually provided by the location, but film genres ended up supporting that. Starting with, for example, the Rocky Mountains and wanting to structure a story around the Rockies and down into the salt flats in Utah. That was the first structure of that story. [Norman Mailer’s] ‘The Executioner’s Song’ was laid over the top of that, and then the Western film genre. That was already embedded in the ‘The Executioner’s Song,’ but it felt like it would be helpful to allow in references from the Western.

SF360: Film is also much more accessible, more democratic as a medium. Do you employ that as a conceptual strategy?

Barney: I was pretty turned on by the possibility of the films being able to exist on their own in a cinema while still functioning for me as making sculpture, as a text that I could pull sculpture from. When that started happening, when audiences started coming to films on their own, that influenced my thinking. I became interested in how far out a film could go on its own before it was unrecoverable from my needs. That’s all been positive, I think. I also am relieved by the fact that there is some aspect to what I do that has a more democratic distribution. It is a very limited distribution in film terms, but in art terms, in sculpture-making terms, where you’ve got an object that you have to travel across the world to see, I enjoy the fact that these have the possibility of a broader distribution. At the end of the day, I want to communicate, and film has certain advantages in its ability to communicate.

SF360: Yet your films are still limited to art audiences; they’re not available on DVD. Why?

Barney: They cannot be distributed as DVDs because they originally sold as limited-edition art objects. If a sculpture is in an edition of six, you can’t make more of them. It’s not right for them to be available to be owned in an unlimited way after they’ve been sold in a limited way. I have the right to do theatrical distribution of the films, which I’ve done with ‘Cremaster’ and ‘Drawing Restraint 9.’ In Paris, they have now, for the second time, brought back the series. It’s certainly a better condition to see it than on a monitor.

SF360: One thing I found particularly interesting about ‘Drawing Restraint 9’ was the way that I was never sure when I was seeing ‘authentic’ costumes and actions and when they were designed by you. Any westerner who visits Japan cannot help but be mystified by things there. How much of that shaped the film?

Barney: It was very easy to find things in Japan that were sympathetic to things I was interested in. Choreography, the formality, the care with which objects are handled, the respect objects they’re given in daily life, not just in religious practice. But I felt like I couldn’t and didn’t want to abstract the environment like I have in the past. I didn’t want to manipulate the ship in any way; [I wanted] to let it be what it was. [I wanted] to go into a real condition and accept it for what it was and let that drive certain aspects of the story. This comes from feeling like I was working in an environment that wasn’t in any way mine. The ‘Cremaster’ projects all had western locations — whether they were part of my bloodline or not, they belonged to me in some way. It felt very different to go to Japan and to try and have the kind of intimacy with the environment that I was used to having. It felt quite frustrating at the beginning to realize that I really couldn’t. I would have to assume this guest role. I think that it eventually became quite interesting, as it became part of making this restraint piece. This interest in shooting the piece on the Nisshin Maru, which is a very politicized piece of hardware. What was probably a really positive thing for the piece would be to tell the story on the ship, let the ship be exactly what it is, yet not pass any judgment on the ship and what happens on it, to just let the story take place there.

SF360: The scene where you and Björk are outfitted in those costumes. You have to admit you both looked kind of ridiculous. How intentional was that?

Barney: I thought of the tea ceremony as a way to bring two people together and be enabled by a host. The structure of the tea ceremony could offer that. Here you have these two western characters coming into a situation that’s foreign to them. You can’t really participate in a tea ceremony if you don’t know what you’re doing. There were a lot of questions of to what level of proficiency they’d be given in that scene. I knew I wanted them to have a magnetism that was pulling them together, I started thinking of the way they’d be pulled magnetically together, and as they were moving, they’d be learning. They could have a certain level of proficiency. But they still needed to feel awkward in that environment, and the costumes were made with that in mind. That it would be difficult to walk in the shoes, the weight of the fur. I’d always thought of a lot of the prosthetic characters in the same terms, that they would have an otherworldly aspect to the way they moved and looked, but the way they’ve moved is informed by the difficultly of moving in a costume like that or in a prosthetic. The satyr piece, ‘Drawing Restraint 7,’ had a lot to do with that. Wanting to make a piece that had a lot of movement in it, almost thinking of it in terms of dance. The way the prosthetic could enable a drama without asking these characters to act.

SF360: ‘Drawing Restraint 9’ followed your work on ‘de Lama Lamina’ in Brazil. Are you branching out to be more international in your scope?

Barney: I feel like I sorted something out in Japan; something was opened up in Brazil and resolved in Japan. I’m quite eager to do a project in America again.

The difference for me is that the ‘Cremaster Cycle’ is very autobiographical. Making something like that is like making a large organism that has many stories in it and many characters and locations that are all aspects of the same identity. ‘Drawing Restraint 9’ is about my relationship to something else, and by accessing that, it becomes more traditional. It’s a relationship between things and the two guest characters. That feels hugely different for me, to actually have to think of the character and the environment as two separate things.

I have no idea what I’m going to do next.