Drawing Restraint Synopsis
The Drawing Restraint series is a project Barney began while an undergraduate at Yale. The central theme of the series is the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity. Barney’s theory is that encumbrance can be used to strengthen an artists output, much as resistance is used by athletes to build muscle. In Drawing Restraint 1 - 6 (1987-89) Barney climbs around his studio attempting to create drawings while hindered by obstacles and various physical restraints. These early videos were followed a few years later by Drawing Restraint 7 (1993), a three-channel video installation in which Satyrs grapple in a limousine as it drives through the tunnels of New York City. While one satyr chases its tail in the front seat, another attempts to make a drawing in the condensation-coated sunroof of the limousine using the third satyr’s horn. Drawing Restraint 8 (2003) is a sculptural installation of a series of drawings based on the field emblem. A recurring image in Barney’s work, the field emblem is commonly interpreted to signify either two divergent states of being (the two halves of the oval) or a complete entity (the oval) ruptured by an obstacle (the line) -- see the FAQs for more on the field emblem. In Drawing Restraint 9, the field emblem appears as the template for a massive sculpture that is cast in vaseline on board a Japanese whaling ship.
Drawing Restraint 9 is the centerpiece of the series. Barney began work on Drawing Restraint 9 when he was invited to create a work for an exhibition at the 21st Century Museum of Art in Kanazawa, Japan. The film is the result of extensive research into Japanese history and culture, which Barney fuses with his own interests in metamorphosis and indeterminate states. Barney was interested in the restrictions inherent in Japanese rituals, the interconnectedness of humans and nature in Shinto (Japan’s national religion), the historical relationship between Japan and the outside world, whaling traditions, and the process in which dead organic material is converted into energy (specifically whale oil and fossil fuel).
The 143-minute film (shot on digital video and transferred to 35mm film) opens with a sequence showing two halves of a fossilized shell being carefully gift wrapped. This introduces the central themes of ritual and transformation. In Japanese culture, the presentation of a gift is as significant as the gift itself, and the amount of time given to this scene underscores the importance of process to Barney. The footage is accompanied by a track called “Gratitude” sung by alt-country star Will Oldham. The lyrics are adapted from a letter written to General MacArthur by a Japanese fisherman. In the letter, the author thanks MacArthur for lifting the US moratorium on whaling.
Next, the film shifts to the industrial harbor of Nagasaki Bay. A festive parade including oxen, horses, deer, wild boar, and hundreds of Japanese revelers leads a tanker truck carrying liquid vaseline from the factory gates to the harbor. At the port, the tanker delivers its cargo to the Nisshin Maru, an enormous (129.5 meters long by 19.5 meters high) factory whaling ship. The Nisshin Maru has been in operation since 1987 and still hunts whales, making it a frequent target of environmental groups like Greenpeace. As with the locations in Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, the Nisshin Maru functions as both the setting of the film and a character. Metaphorically, the ship can be read as a body in water, a whale in the ocean, or the island of Japan. On board the ship, a giant mold in the shape of Barney’s field emblem is constructed and workers begin to fill it with 25 tons of molten vaseline. In the literature accompanying Drawing Restraint 9, this sculpture is referred to as “The Field”, although it is not named in the film.
Meanwhile, female pearl divers discover a massive log of ambergris while practicing their dives in the ocean. Ambergris is a waxy substance formed as a byproduct of a whale’s digestive system, often containing a large number of cartilaginous squid beaks and shrimp shells. After it has aged in the ocean for at least several months, ambergris takes on an odor often described as a richer, smoother, more animalistic variant of isopropyl alcohol. Ambergris is extremely expensive and is used in the perfume industry as a fixative.
Barney and his real-life paramour Bjork appear as the Occidental Guests. They are led separately onto the ship, beginning a story line which develops in parallel with the creation and metamorphosis of the vaseline sculpture on the deck. The Guests are groomed, bathed, and dressed in elaborate skin and fur costumes reminiscent of traditional Shinto wedding attire. Bjork’s teeth are blackened with squid ink and porcupine quill ornaments are placed in her hair. On deck, the molten vaseline begins to cool and sways gently with the motion of the ship.
The couple join one another below deck in a tatami room. There they engage in a highly-ritualized tea ceremony and their actions are mirrored by the crew laboring on The Field above them. In the film’s only spoken dialog (presented in Japanese and English), the tea master recounts the history of the Nisshin Maru and jokes that the smell of the ambergris is permeating every part of the ship. On deck, cranes lift the giant log of ambergris and place it in the center of the vaseline sculpture.
A lightning storm outside strengthens, rocking the ship violently from side to side and disturbing the cooling vaseline. The Guests come together in an embrace as hot petroleum jelly begins to spill from above and flood the room. As the vaseline rises, the couple pick up flensing knives (used for the ritual carving of whale carcasses) and begin to cut flesh from one another’s legs. The wounds they inflict resemble labia, the splatters of blood semen. Once enough flesh is removed, whale-like tails are revealed beneath the remains of their lower bodies and blowholes appear at the bases of their necks.
On deck, the crew dismantles the rubber and metal barriers which had been holding the vaseline in place and the sculpture surrenders its form, spilling out over the deck. The ship emerges from the storm and sails towards Antarctica through a sea filled with icebergs. In the final shot of the film, two wales can be seen swimming behind the ship.
The Drawing Restraint series is rounded out by five additional components created for exhibitions in 2005 and 2006. Drawing Restraint 10 and 11 were created for the Drawing Restraint exhibition in Kanazawa (2005). Drawing Restraint 10 is a video re-staging Drawing Restraint 6, which was never documented. In this video, Barney jumps on a trampoline which has been set at an angle, attempting to draw two linked field emblems on the ceiling. Drawing Restraint 11 was filmed at the 21st Century Museum and depicts Barney climbing three 40-foot walls to complete a drawing. Drawing Restraint 12 is a similar piece created for the Drawing Restraint exhibition at the Leeum Samsung Museum in South Korea (2005).
Drawing Restraint 13 was filmed at Gladstone Gallery in New York shortly before the opening Barney's Occidental Guest exhibition (2006). The film references two historically significant moments from the late stages of WWII and shows Barney's continuing interest in dramatic encounters between Westerners and Japan. Drawing upon General Douglas MacArthur's infamous landing on the beach in the Philippines (a moment that established MacArthur's legend as he reclaimed territory for the US that had been seized by Japan), Barney appears dressed as General MacArthur and wades through a sculptural wedge of vaseline (the sculpture is also called Drawing Restraint 13). He then signs a number of drawings (which were later hung in the exhibition) with an electric engraving pen and stamps them with a field emblem-shaped brand that has been heated over a bunsen burner. Barney's dealer Barbara Gladstone then affixes a label to the back of each drawing and passes it to the Japanese Delegate to be signed. In the background, actors dressed as American soldiers watch the proceedings. This scene relates to MacArthur's acceptance of the articles of surrender from Japanese officials on board the USS Missouri, the ceremony that ended the war.
Drawing Restraint 14 is similar to Drawing Restraint 11 and 12 -- a video documenting Barney creating a site-specific drawing in a museum exhibiting other works from the Drawing Restraint series. In this case, Barney (dressed as General MacArthur) creates his drawing high above the stairwell in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Drawing Restraint 15 (2007) was filmed during a 5-month transatlantic voyage made by Barney. It depicts Barney drawing with fish blood and hanging overboard, allowing the motion of the ship to control his drawing. Drawing Restraint 16 is a performance/installation similar to Drawing Restraint 11, 12, and 14, that was created in 2007 for the Drawing Restraint exhibition at London's Serpentine Gallery.
Barney has not indicated the how many installments there will be in the Drawing Restraint series. For more information on the symbolism in Drawing Restraint, see Peter Streitman's excellent Drawing Restraint Glossary and the official Drawing Restraint web site. Barney has also issued five books dedicated to the Drawing Restraint series (plus an earlier volume focused on Drawing Restraint 7). See our Drawing Restraint Books page for more information. You can download the press guide for Drawing Restrint 9 (pdf file) HERE.