Drawing Restraint 9 stands out from Matthew Barney’s other feature-length films by expanding his exploration of mythological environments into the realm of relationships. While invited to prepare a solo exhibition at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, Barney became fascinated by how Japanese customs and Shinto practices build relationships between things and people. Throughout his film Drawing Restraint 9, Barney highlights the power of these relationships from the perspective of two foreign characters, played by him and his partner at the time, the Icelandic singer Björk who composed the music of the film. Barney commented: “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.” (Glen Helfand, "Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint,” SF360 Interview, June 19, 2006, http://www.sf360.org/?pageid=4072). This separation allows the film to develop beyond the physical and into the spiritual.
Two narratives exist simultaneously throughout the film set on the Nisshin Maru, the world’s sole whaler factory ship. On deck, a whale-size sculpture is cast out of 25 tons of petroleum jelly, a medium staple to Matthew Barney. Below the deck, Barney and Björk are guests in a tea ceremony. The two ultimately transfigure one another from land mammals to sea mammals. The petroleum jelly sculpture is also transformed, from warm to cool and molded to elemental. Transformation is a theme central to the artist’s oeuvre, and it is essential in bringing the ritualistic and sculptural narratives into one master narrative.
Barney’s use of the Nisshin Maru not only alludes to the contemporary debate of whale hunting but also to the more abstract concept of refinement. “The idea of refinement is as intrinsic to Japanese culture as it is to the industries that have over the course of history turned mammal and fossil product into energy-producing fuels... Raw product and experience gain value as they are refined, their by-products discarded and their energy brought closer to that of the spirit.” (Neville Wakefield, Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint, Vol. V, 1987-2007, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 2007, p. 123).
Film continues to be, as Matthew Barney describes it, “a text that I could pull sculpture from.” (Glen Helfand, "Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint,” SF360 Interview, June 19, 2006, http://www.sf360.org/?pageid=4072). Barney constantly refines the medium of film. In Drawing Restraint 9, sculpture is a by-product of film. Barney distinguishes himself from other important visual artists by his allegorical and provocative film projects that often lead to the creation of other artworks, customarily sculpture, drawing and photography. The ongoing Drawing Restraint series, alongside The Cremaster Cycle, is one of the artist’s most acclaimed works.