Matthew Barney is greedy for your time. After a good four hours spent between two separate visits to MoMA, I am now the proud owner of a limited understanding of what Barney's work over the past two decades is all about. Drawing Restraint 9 is the umbrella term title of Barney's latest exhibit at SF MoMA, and before visiting, consider the following questions: Do you enjoy art made of self-lubricating plastic? Are you curious about whaling ships? Do you want to see Björk sans eyebrows? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, Drawing Restraint 9 is for you.
Barney's show not only occupies the museum's theater but several large gallery spaces. The major component of his new series is a feature-length film screened daily at MoMA at 2pm. Choosing to see the exhibit and forgo the film is equivalent to boarding the Godzilla ride at Universal Studios if you haven't seen the movie -- there's still a lot to look at, but you'll be wondering what's up with the big lizard.
Though Barney's flick has little dialogue, the peculiar nature and beauty of this big-budget operation holds your attention. Barney's baby's mama and alt-electro-pop queen, Björk, composed the score of the film, which opens with her tell-tale harp-infused beats playing while a woman elaborately packages two fossils. The lyrics of the music narrate the scene and -- I later found out -- were inspired by a letter written to General Douglas MacArthur by a Japanese citizen when a whaling moratorium was lifted after World War II. The thankful whaler sent some fossils to the general as a gift. Does this explain why the exhibit that accompanies the film opens with footage of Barney drawing on MoMA's atrium wall dressed as MacArthur? No, but I hear he hung from the sky bridge on the fifth floor as if it were monkey bars while drawing on the walls, and that's enough for me.
Back to the film. Welcome aboard the Nishin Maru, a powerful whaling ship in Japan. The story follows the journey of Occidental Guests 1 and 2 played by Barney and Björk. The latter, dressed in a fetching pink fur-trimmed red cape and retro hiking boots boards the ship first and takes a bath in a stainless steel tub of water and lemons (hello, iconic film still). A bearded Barney in a bear's fur coat comes aboard next. He settles down for a nap and sleeps like a baby, even when his eyebrows and part of his head are shaved by one of the ship's crewmembers.
Both guests are then dressed in fur kimonos and elaborate regalia in a lengthy ritual. A tender moment occurs when Barney -- dressed and waiting in his new, stick-on fur eyebrows -- hears his woman clomping towards him down the ship's narrow hallway in her brand new whale bone flip-flops. They share an awkwardly sweet silence before crawling through a tiny door to feast on a funky green concoction.
I'll stop ruining it for you here. The film is undeniably eerie, but the cinematography and aesthetic details are impressively overwhelming. When I first sat down in the theater, I overheard someone comment that if Björk was in the film, it was sure to be strange, but it's clear that both sides of the duo are impossibly eccentric. Plus, the combination of his surreal scenes set to her bell-heavy tunes is a naturally marketable fit.
Be sure to check out the exhibit afterwards because there you will see many of the sculptures fabricated onboard the Nishin Maru in the film, as well as parts of the ship cast in petroleum jelly and plastics. Thoughtfully crafted Green-tinged acrylic display tables and roto-molded polycarbonate picture frames showcase Barney's various tiny drawings, and large C-prints of stills from the film wrap around the galleries. Walking through a white-walled pathway that leads through a massive petroleum floor sculpture, which was built on-site, gives a viscerally chilly feeling, like walking through a winter wonderland of whale blubber. An interesting fact to note here is that building the sculpture on-site led to a mid-process petroleum mishap where the goop was spewed from the tanker truck pumping it into the museum onto the sidewalk and a few unlucky passers-by in front of the museum.
There's also a sculpture made of cast shrimp shells, which added my favorite element to the exhibit -- smell-a-vision. Yes, Barney's sculpture titled Ambergris stinks. Literally. But it was nevertheless engaging because not only did I learn that Ambergris is a waxy substance found in the belly of a sperm whale, but after watching the film's child stars build said rank sculpture aboard the whaling ship, I got the chance to smell it up close. Barney is like an amalgamation of the art world and Hollywood, but you don't need tickets to see his movie. You can't come in late and there's no popcorn, but it's the first exhibit I've seen (besides a Prince concert) where you can buy a temporary tattoo of the artist's signature symbol in the gift shop.
Also on view is footage of Barney's earlier Drawing Restraint performance pieces where he attempted to draw while tethered to a wall, jumping on a trampoline, and dressed as Carol Burnett in Mama's Family. There's also a small room with video and photos of Barney and Co. wrestling while dressed in elaborate half-man, half-goat costumes.
There is much more to describe but, if you're at all interested, you should see it for yourself. After all, the New York Times did label Barney "the most important artist of his generation." But be brave! I'm warning you that at the end of the film, Barney and Björk cut away at each other's flesh in a scene that caused half the theater to walk out. On the flip side, you also get to see strange markings on the back of their necks turn into blowholes. And apparently, Barney's newest film is less nightmare-inducing than his earlier works, the Cremaster Cycle film series, which you can purchase in MoMA's gift shop or rent at Le Video.
There may have been an underlying theme related to the use of fossil fuel, which replaced whale oil in 1859, and I did notice Barney's distinctive references to athletic conditioning, but for me, the messages got slightly buried in the sensationalism of the exhibit. On the other hand, I fully respect Barney's design skills, his creatively provocative use of plastics, and the breadth and bravery of his artistic choices. Modern art can be anything and everything, and Barney leaves his actual shoeprints on the walls of galleries and museums to prove it. Overall, I'm glad I invested the time to fully experience Barney's equally showcased films and sculptures, mostly because my friends are all jealous of my new fake DR9 tattoo.
Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint 9
Through September 17, 2006