Of Bodies, Restraints, Whales and Vaseline – Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint in SF MoMa

16.10.2006 Irmeli Hautamäki
Matthew Barney Drawing Restraint in San Francisco MoMa 6. 23 – 9.17. 2006

Matthew Barney’s exhibition Drawing Restraint, which closed recently in San Francisco MoMa was a total work of art, in which works made with various media: sculptures, performances, videos, photographs and drawings all served to produce a complex, multilayered but unified experience. Barney, who was born in 1967 in San Francisco, has been working with the same theme of bodily restraint already for two decades. Drawing Restraint is an ongoing project, where all new pieces complete the same theme.

Barney was involved athletics during his college years. The idea in athletics is to over come a physical restraint, and Barney is using the same idea in art, too. For an example, in his performances he climbs the museum wall like a mountain climber while making drawings on the vertical surface. What matters here is the performance, the deliberate over coming of the restraint as such. The work of art as an object is not the one and only thing, the artist is aiming for.

Images from the exhibition :

The spectators in Barney’s exhibition wandered around quietly and bewildered. The museum space was filled with large sculptures of broken constructions, like a landscape after an earthquake. One had the feeling of having an outing in a site of a catastrophe.

The installation, which composed of different kind of broken objects like a container, columns, ladders, cables, tubes and other equipment of the technological civilization (or rather the ruins of it), all made of the same white, clean mass, was spread all over the exhibition site. It aroused an uncontrolled, uneasy feeling, which got stronger, when one approached a large, amorphous sculpture, made of the same white mass, many meters wide on the museum floor. What was actually going on?

In the learning lounge of the exhibition the spectator was told, that the white material that Barney uses, is called petroleum jelly or thermoplastics. It is a modern product, which has been derived from ancient fossil fuels. The text informed wryly, that petroleum jelly is being used both in solid and in liquid forms in sports, medicine, lubrication and sexuality.

I find out that Petra (stone) elaion (oil) is an organic material, which is achieved from subterranean deposits. I am informed that there is a large variety of everyday chemical products distilled from petrolatum, better known as Vaseline based products, serving the needs of the human body beginning from cosmetic lotions to the personal lubricants used in sexual acts.

What is the role of petroleum jelly in the context of this exhibition? Especially one would like to know, what is its connection to whaling, the other main theme of the exhibition? As a matter of fact there is no connection at all, but still the artist is juxtaposing the whaling, which is still practiced in Japan, and the petroleum material in one large sculpture, which is an authentic whale flencing deck. The two themes go side by side in various other works, too.

Whaling and rituals

A feature film, Drawing Restraint 9 (2005), is an elemental part of the total work of art. It had been made on an authentic Japanese whaling boat Nisshin Maru on Nagasaki Bay. The still-images of the film offer a back round to the mysterious installation scene. The film features the producing of a huge petroleum jelly sculpture, weighing 45,000 pounds (30,000 kilograms) on the deck of the ship. The weight is the same as that of one sperm whale.

Barney stars the film together with singer Björk. They participate in a tea ceremony on the ship at the same time when the workers of Nisshin Maru are producing the sculpture. The Japanese people pose proudly and calmly in the still-images of the film.

The Japanese workers nonchalantly carry on in this strange and menacing surrounding. They display an efficient disciplined aesthetic irrespective whether they are in their working over-alls or festive dresses. Also Barney and Björk, the two occidental guests on the ship, are aesthetic in a ceremonial way, in spite of the many odd and disturbing things going on aboard the ship.

The crew cuts away blocks of the solid petroleum jelly feeding them into the ship’s furnace in a ritual that harks back to the centuries-old use of whale blubber as fuel for heat and light. A storm will be rising and it will destroy the petroleum jelly sculpture, which is going to drown the whole ship. The main protagonists rescue themselves by a violent transformation: they are changing into whales.

Barney’s drawings, which repeat the threatening fantasy of transformation, represent hybrids of a whale and both sexes of human being. These small drawings are very delicate, the touch of the pencil is extremely sensitive, which astonishes, when one takes in account the exhibition’s force and physical strength. A series of erotic drawings were placed in elegant glass cabinets. The cabinets did not, however, protect them from destruction. Moisture and mold seemed to be creeping inside the cabinets.

This makes one question another meaning of the term ‘restraint’; does Drawing Restraint mean also a restraint of art? In this exhibition the spectator could not get absorbed in looking at the drawings. The drawings and photographs did not open the familiar world of art, which usually allures one to forget the real world. The uneasiness caused by the theme of destruction, which is unveiled in every piece, prevented it.

And yet, there is a lot of virtual beauty in the photographs and video films. The whaling ship sailing the Pacific Ocean is a handsome sight. Also the images of the shore and archipelago of Japan, where Björk is sailing in a smaller boat, offer a pleasant view for a spectator familiar with the Baltic Sea Archipelago.

These beautiful impressions are, however, disturbed which images, which bring in mind smelting ice. (In reality the floating mass above the water is gray amber, the origin of which is again in the sperm whales.) The soundtrack of the film, which is made by Björk, contains music, which creates the sound of smelting ice. This reminds one of the “singing” of the whales. Both these sounds bring to mind the question of the ending of the history.

The end of the history

In the end of 1980’s, when Barney begin his career as an artist, an American-Japanese historian Francis Fukuyama publishes a well-known book about the End of the History. Socialism had recently collapsed and because the struggle between socialism and capitalism ended, so had modern history, and Fukuyama launched an optimistic image of the era of peace and prosperity, when the fighting stopped.

20 years after Fukuyama the subtle but inevitable scene of catastrophe addressed in Drawing Restraint anticipates the end of history in an opposite way. It seems evident, that “the Japanese” have overcome, that their culture, based on ancient rituals is triumphant. They provide materials for the luxury products to the people of Occident, who voraciously consume them. Björk and Barney, dressed in furs, embrace each other in the moment of catastrophe.

Matthew Barney’s art is political. Unlike political art of the earlier decades, it does not openly oppose or demand. If whaling were the only the issue at stake there, there would have been simple ways to express it. In Drawing Restraint it is not only question about environmentalism. It is more a question about realizing certain relationships between things in everyday life and also in a conceptual level. The keywords Barney uses are destruction and renewal, transformation, consumption, circulation of energy and rituals.

Barney’s art does not touch the audience easily, at least emotionally. The ideas of the ocean and whales are something that go beyond one’s imagination. The themes he is speaking, complex and subtle, lead the spectator through a kind of painful learning process. One obvious lesson is, that the raw oil or petrol which is ruthlessly consumed as a fuel in the same way as whale blubber was used earlier is basically precious material, which could be used in more sophisticated ways.

But eventually, there are some straight and simple ways in which the themes of the exhibition touch. In the closing section of the exhibition the museum offered a complimentary mini massage. Two young Asian-American women offered to massage guests using perfumed lotion. The guests were even given little bags containing cosmetic products as a gift.

Later in the same evening I realized that I had forgotten my gift bag in a bar nearby, but I was not sorry about it. A couple of days later in a philanthropy sale I found some nice botanical body butter made of plant oils, which I am now learning to use.