By Eugene Hernandez, indieWIRE

Hailed by The New York Times as “the most important American artist of his generation,” Matthew Barney has created a series of recent art films that offer some of the more striking images seen in cinema today, often with himself in a lead role. The recent “Cremaster Cycle” films, and now “Drawing Restraint 9,” are films that exist as part of bigger artistic works encompassing sculpture, performance, and video. In his new film, a collaboration with Bjork, Barney and his off screen partner play the roles of two guests who visit the massive Japanese whaling vessel Nisshin Maru. Aboard the ship, while a crew on deck work to create a sculpture made of petroleum jelly, the visitors participate in series of elaborate rituals down below, culminating in an intense wedding ceremony. The sequences — driven by a clear (but minimal) narrative (with hardly any dialogue) — are set to a powerful original soundtrack composed by the popular Icelandic music artist.

The abstract and visually magnificent film (one part of Barney’s “Drawing Restraint” series that has its roots at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan) traveled to a limited number of film festivals and will be a part of the larger “Drawing Restraint” exhibitions in Korea, Europe, and San Francisco.

Due to the particulars of how artist Matthew Barney’s films are funded (by individual investors who own copies of the work), his striking new movie “Drawing Restraint 9” will only ever be seen by a limited theatrical audience and will probably never be released on DVD.

Opening at New York’s IFC Center on Wednesday, March 29, [2006,] it will screen in fewer than 20 cities this Spring. Barney will be appearing at two evening screenings of the film Wednesday in Manhattan, although a number of shows on the first night at IFC Center are already sold out, according to IFC.

indieWIRE sat down for an extended discussion about the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September where “Drawing Restraint 9” had its North American premiere. The following are extended excerpts from the interview.

indieWIRE: I’m a little hesitant to try and have a full discussion about the film because I feel I need to see it a couple of more times, but…I keep going back to this idea of ritual: whether it’s the wrapping of presents, the shaving of hair, or the creation of this sculpture atop whaling vessel. After watching the film I kept thinking about all the rituals that are relevant in Japanese culture and I’m wondering if we can start by discussing whether that was a factor in how you told this story?

Matthew Barney: I was invited by a museum in Japan to make an exhibition there, and this was probably five years ago. And it felt to me like a place where I would be able to find things that I could relate to pretty strongly. But on the other hand I also felt like there’s a certain impossibility to going to a place that is that different from your own culture…So I started thinking about the relationship between guests and hosts. I myself was a guest to this host body, and thinking about how in Japanese culture there are these very formalized relationships between guests and hosts. There’s a whole choreography around that relationship and somehow by identifying myself as a guest, I could start to get my head around how I could do this, and how I could go there and feel honest about what I was trying to do…That’s probably what led to this kind of focus on the image of the whale, or the whaling tradition, which is very strong. It also has to do with this romantic image of being inside a whale, which we know from “Moby Dick” and “Pinocchio” and all these other narratives, which could organize within guest/host relationships and was already in place in my way of working. All those things together started to at least give a structure or foundation for the piece.

iW: How does that then relate to the other eight aspects of the “Drawing Restraint” series. I’m not familiar with them and I understand they take different forms — they’re not cinematic, they’re based upon restraints, drawing, and I guess performance?

MB: Yes, and there’s a room that is a multi-channel video, which is sort of halfway between a kind of real time performance and a cinematic work.

iW: And all nine of them are are part of the museum exhibition? If I were to go to that show, I could see all aspects represented together?

MB: Hmmm. Along with the sculpture from “9”, which is pretty significant…But I think the “Drawing Restraint” project engaged with Japan more in the sense that — and sort of in the way that — Shintoism functions as nature…as a lense to view the world through.

During one of my first trips to Japan, I visited a place called Ise Shrine. Ise is a [city with] a Shinto shrine — one of the most sacred of the Shinto shrines. There are a number of plots that have shrines within this forest. Each of these plots is rectangular and covered with white stone and small pebbles. On half of the plot there is a shrine and on the other half there is a small box. And for twenty years it sits like that, and at the end of the twenty years a duplicate of the shrine is built over that box and the other one is burnt down. And another box is placed on that box and in another twenty years it switches. This has been going on forever. And for me it was a very powerful [image] and I felt like some window into the way that Shintoism accepts nature being dependent upon taking away in order to create. And it started to feel like the “Drawing Restraint” project could relate to that, relate to some very basic aspects of Shintoism, and the whaling tradition belongs to Shinto…

iW: indieWIRE ran an interview with you when “Cremaster 3” opened in theaters and there was a point you made about self-portraiture. I wonder if something like this in which you’re depicting a relationship that is developing aboard a whaling vessel — amidst all this tradition and history and ritual — where your counterpart (Bjork) is someone who you’re involved in a relationship with — is that a reflection of yourself? Are you again looking at a particular relationship, because you’re again putting yourself in it?

MB: I think its one of the fundamental differences between “The Cremaster Cycle” and this piece, is that “The Cremaster Cycle” is something like the way that a pearl develops inside of an oyster, it’s a very hermetic situation, it’s describing a very hermetic thing. And it’s as much to do with itself.

“Drawing Restraint Nine” is more like the way that sometimes Shintoism is described graphically as having to do with a series of internal relationships. If you think about two entities overlapping — the space between them finding a new whole — and then you think about this kind of relationship multiplying to many, many relationships and becoming a way of looking at the world as a series of internal relationships… like the way that Shinto believes that within the rock is everything. God lives in the rock, God lives in the tree, in every part lives the whole. So, that’s very different from the model of “The Cremaster Cycle.”

But I think in terms of that notion of a relationship, I think it’s a relationship on that level, on a more exact level. I thought that working with Bjork would make it easier to tell a love story, which I also wanted to do. I wanted the piece to operate as a love story, but I believe that our interest in working together on this was probably more to do with the fact that its subject matter that we can both really relate to — this relationship to nature.

iW: I had not listened to any of the music before seeing the movie, but I know it was released before the film started playing at festivals. I wonder if you could explain the creative process [with] Bjork, and how it’s an extension of Drawing Restraint Nine…how that collaboration worked. How did her creation of the music either inform your creation of the film or vice versa? Was it entirely collaborative, or did you work separately and then collaborate? How did that dynamic work between the two of you?

MB: I think there are number of different dynamics within the piece. There are certain scenes were the narrative and the music were developed simultaneously, and there are certain scenes where the cut scene was given to her to score and then there are scenes where she wrote a piece first and the piece was edited to that. I think all those are interesting.

I think the one that interests me the most is when the two things are developed at the same time, which certainly feels natural for this way of working because there is no dialogue. You sort of depend on the music to be that, especially when there’s lyrics in the music.

iW: So where did the idea of the opening piece of music — which is essentially the form of a letter — come from, or how did you develop the idea of a letter setting the stage for this story?

MB: I found a compilation of letters from Japanese people to General MacArthur during the occupation, and I found one that had a kind of a tone which felt appropriate, given that visually we were seeing a gift being wrapped. Reading letters from Japanese people to General MacArthur, only years after the bomb was dropped, was completely confusing to me… to read these touching letters to him, I really couldn’t understand it.

There was [something] I read in one of the Japanese whaling books that had to do with the [fact] that one of the things MacArthur did in Japan was [to] suggest that they take their surviving military vessels and turn them into factory whaling ships, which sort of further complicates this Western view of Japanese whaling. The letter was manipulated, and I added the whaling content into it.

iW: I was reading the text of the letter in the liner notes of the CD and I was trying to think about how the letter was used as the foundation upon which you start telling the story, connecting it with the images of the wrapping of the gift (in the opening scene). It’s a beautiful sequence that comes prior to the formal credit sequence where the images of the instruments combine together to form the words “Drawing Restraint Nine.” It’s an amazing sort of preview of where the story is going to go. How did that come about?

MB: It’s a relationship between a kind of prehistoric condition and a contemporary condition. The prehistoric fossil being the source of petroleum and the way that petroleum eventually replaces whale oil as a primary source of energy, and how it could both establish that — the sort of formalized language that the work would take — and also establishing two surrogates for these two characters.

This style of wrapping is used for joyous occasions, like New Years, or a wedding. It’s a typical wedding wrap. The costumes that they wear in the key ceremony are for the Shinto wedding. Of course it’s been translated into mammal fur, but it follows the design in a pretty straightforward way.

iW: Switching gears a little bit, this “Drawing Restraint” project is a culmination point, where you decided to work in a cinematic form again. But, a lot of people who won’t have the experience of seeing everything together — this is their experience of “Drawing Restraint” — the two and a half hour (period of time) sitting in a theater and watching it.

Can you explain a little bit about how or when you decided to use the more traditional – if I can use that word — cinematic way to convey a story, that will reach an audience in a different way than if they were to go Japan and were seeing everything together? Or if they had gone to the Guggenheim and seen everything from “Cremaster” as opposed to going to the Film Forum and seeing the individual pieces in a theater..?

MB: I think it started with “Cremaster 4”, when the Film Forum in New York asked if they could play it. I think they had seen this screening we had made where we set up a projector ourselves and showed it in a space — I had wanted to show it as a linear piece. The pieces I had made before that were sort of functioning more as loops or multi-screen rooms. [With] “Cremaster 4,” I wanted [it] to be seen from beginning to end — when we were invited to show it at Film Forum, it seemed like a good environment for it to be seen.

But what was interesting — maybe not so much with “4,” but with the next piece — “1” and then “5,” this other audience started coming in and seeing them. I got pretty excited about that. And I think it started affecting how numbers “2” and “3” were made…

iW: Really?

MB: Yeah, in that I thought as a text, or as a film on their own they can operate as films — however eccentrically — but they can function and there is an audience for it.

But, they can also operate for me within this other system, this way of making narrative sculpture, where first you make a text and out of that text you make objects. In a certain way, that’s really all they are for me. I start with a story and then I make sculpture from that story, it’s just that the stories become more and more elaborate.

But I think that’s partially been driven by the fact that I’m excited by them operating in both ways and so I’ve pushed them to be more cinematic, because the piece seemed to have the will to do that, and the ability to do that.

So, it’s pretty organic the way that happens, which is also true of my use of video in the first place. When I started using video, it was really just a hand-held video camera held by a friend, who would videotape me doing something in my studio. It was just a straightforward document and slowly those actions became a little more character-driven, a little more narrative, and I started editing them, then slowly they became more filmic…

But slowly…

This article was originally published March 27, 2006 on indieWIRE.