03 août 2006

Drawing Restraint 9 (2005/Barney)

DR9 : Drawing Restraint 9 (2005/Matthew Barney/USA/Japan) +++

Opening Sequence
(pre-credit prolog) : Fade from black. Shape of an eye in a melon-sized fossile rock. The rock is shaking, a transparent fluid leaks out to the floor. Frame widens showing the stone stored under layers of papers. This is an abstract symbolic reminder of the subterranean elevating tracking shot through layers of earth in the opening of Cremaster 3.
-- Giftwarpping sequence, to send a prehistoric krill fossile to General MacArthur to thank his decision to end the anti-whaling moratorium, accompanied by the sung letter wrote on 13 july 1946.

(CGI Credits) : a CGI whale is sliced in the sea in a stylized fashion. Flensing knife-shapped letters assemble the words : Drawing Restraint 9.
-- Cut to a flyover shot over Nagasaki waterfront. Then a construction site on the beach where the mold for a petroleum jelly pier (holographic entry point) is built to the image of a land flensing ramp of ancestral whaling tradition.

Avant Garde cinema
Avant Garde cinema is less accessible immediately, but takes us closer to the unspoiled essence of an artist's mind.
AG cinema is less "movies" than Conceptual Arts, channeling a certain reflexion on art, form and metaphisics. Which could be terribly alienating to the casual observer. This level of freedom of expression is never achieved within mainstream cinema, where the artistic vision of the auteur is always encumbered by plot points, continuity, plausibility and commercial interests.
Matthew Barney claims his formative inspiration from Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramovic who influenced the emergence of the Performance Art movement in the 60ies and 70ies.
Body-art developped in the 70ies, the artist and his own motion is the work of art itself, video serving as an objective recording of reality. These happenings are spontaneous events with a physiological mise-en-scene. The body might be pushed to the limit of physical tolerance or subjected to a trivial/repetitive routine.

Drawing Restraint series (1987-2005)
A comprehensive survey of Drawing Restraint projects is currently exhibited at the San Fransisco MoMA. June 23rd - September 17th, 2006. Before it has been exhibited at Kanazawa, Japan (2005) and Seoul, South Korea (2006)

The organizing principle of this Drawing Restraint series comes from Barney's original combination of sport, medicine and art. To build stronger the athlete shall constrain his muscles, they would grow bigger. Thus the athlete is a masochistic alchemist who creates matter with self-imposed discipline and exercise. The cycle of muscular regeneration is compared to the digestive process in a ternary Path :
Situation (mouth) - Condition (stomach) - Production (anus)
The complex process of ingestion-digestion-assimilation becomes allegorical of the creative existence of the artist.
After looking closer at the other (non-filmic) installments of the series, the deeper subtext of DR9 came to light for me, making sense of the visceral and cluless admiration I initially experienced. Barney's aesthetics is definitely the coherent vision of an auteur, it is also founded on an intelligent reflexion which could be analyzed more carefully by an art critic, to sort out his positioning in the history of Contemporean Arts. I'm merely interested here in the elaboration of his universe and its resulting filmic instance.

DR9 : Matthew Barney's Cinema
As odd as it sounds, there is no fundamental difference between the installments he performs alone in his studio, strapped to an elastic band (DR1 to 6), and the making of this grandiloquent movie, only the scale differs. And it's impressive to see an artist develop his one idea through many different ways, indifferently. Here adaptated or transposed to the japanese tradition of whaling, the Drawing Restraint concept develops along the same "Path".
DR9 is the most narrative and explicit piece in the series, yet is hardly a narrative movie by cinema standards. This is mainly the cinematic recording of one of his sophisticated performances. Unlike narrative directors, Barney fully enjoys the multimedia potential of cinema. His use of cinema is free of prejudice and conventions, opening a fresh field of experimentation because he's not beholden to professionalism. Cinema isn't his only medium of expression, so his films aren't formated by distribution necessity or audience expectations.
Dialogue delivery and familiar body language are excluded. Barney's films are usually wordless, because his work develops the expressive physicality of the human body. He's a self-conscious athlete (football, wrestling, climbing) exploring the significance of intense muscular efforts. Therefore his mise-en-scene is mainly focused on choreography, gesture and apprehention of space. Compared to traditional cinema, this posture vis-à-vis acting performance is particularly interesting. Although the magic of cinema special effects and editing allow him to materialize life-threatening Body-Art fantasies like mutilation and amputation, for the audience to see, without the artist's real pain (which used to be determinant in traditional Body-Art).

Like in every experimental work, it's important to understand what is going on, and to pay attention to the forms that convey the directing concept, before flat out rejecting the "megalomaniac superficiality" of it all. Here the form is almost too simple, looking like an overextanded music video with funky production design. From my uneducated opinion, I'd assume Barney doesn't care too much to personalize the cinematic form itself, appropriating a ready-made medium quite naively and humbly, with very conventional use of editing and mise-en-scène, unlike most Avant Garde directors who usually strive to pervert the function and experience of cinema by altering it's traditional perception (eg. Brakhage, Kubelka, Tscherkassky, Martin Arnold, Mekas...). But maybe I'm underestimating this aspect. His true experimental work is in the very performance, and the elaboration of a coherent neological mythology.
There is a great description of the narrative story on Bjork's website
Two parallel events unwind simultaneously on the same ship without direct interaction but symbollical, mirroring allegories in contactless dialogue. The Occidental Guests never take notice of what is happening on the top deck.
The first event, articulating the rhythm of the entire film, is the processing of a Field Emblem sculpture made of petroleum jelly on the aft deck.
The other event is a wedding between two Occidental Guests inspired by Shinto ceremonial protocols. The petrolatum mold is the pulse of this happening, regulating at the slow pace of chemical solidification the protocol of everybody on this ship (and on the shore).
The bookend elements, Holographic Entry Points, that enclose the two events after the prolog, symbolize the Ise Shrine tradition of perpetual life recycling through (identical) reproduction. These flensing decks are ramps used to haul a harpooned whale on the beach in traditional whaling (before the industrial ships age). One is old, made of concrete, the next one is new, made of petroleum jelly, under construction during the duration of the film. Echoing the ancestral ceremony that rebuilds every 20 years the Ise Shrine anew to the side of the old one, which is burnt down in celebration of continuation. The ashes are kept in a box aside the new shrine.
Likewise the brand new ramp is cast out and revealed at the end of the film, and the concrete ramp is destroyed after a metallic box is hauled from the sea. So the fact the events take place during the shrine renewal process imprint this cycle of renovation to the film, which is at the heart of the Drawing Restraint concept of creative regeneration under constraining discipline.

The Occidental Guests seem to come to this peculiar ceremony without knowing eachother, like an arranged marriage. Their first encounter is anti-climactic, as it takes place in a quiet waiting corridor. Meeting wasn't a purpose of theirs apparently, unless their inner emotion is measured by the overwhelming etiquette. Then finaly unite after an erotical anthropophagic ritual.

The linear timeline goes: separation, transfiguration, union, mutation
  • Separation. Barney and Bjork are isolated, they are two dissociated halves (like in Plato's soulmate myth)
  • The petrolatum filling the two halves of the Field Emblem mold allows their reunion (chemical reaction)
  • Transformation with ablution and new costumes
  • The tea ceremony is a social restraint preventing contact
  • A storm breaks out when the cross bar (restraint) of the Field Emblem is removed at night
  • Chaos releases sexual energy drawing Barney and Bjork together
  • This is the opportunity for creativity and production. Like the blubber from the symbolic whale is flensed out and burnt in the boiler, the flesh of humans is mutilated and consumed, to give birth to a new hybrid.

Official Website
(s) ++ (w) +++ (m) +++ (i) ++++ (c) +++

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Following up in the next post(s) :

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This post is a contribution to the Avant Garde blogathon organised by Girish, check out the other participants:

18 commentaires:

HarryTuttle a dit…

Letter to General MacArthur (sung in English in the prolog of DR9 by Will Oldham)

July 13, 1946
Dear General MacArthur,

With your permission
I offer wishes of good health,
During this heat
That burns anything.

The words I slowly put together
Do not flow easily, they only fill my heart

Recently, fulfilling
Your heart’s desire
You removed the whaling
Your gesture brings
A much needed food
To our community
And families,

The words I slowly put together
Do not flow easily, they only fill my heart

A million year old fossil
I send to you.
This comes from my family
And the ancient sea.
A prehistoric impression
Of the modern krill,
She feeds the noble whale,
And offers you longevity

The words I slowly put together
Do not flow easily, they only fill my heart

Finally, please take good care in the heat.

Sincerely yours,

HarryTuttle a dit…

This Avant Garde blogathon was finally the deadline to push me to write up all the notes I've accumulated after watching this puzzling film. It's so difficult to summarize this work that the task to start writing on it, not to mention the time it takes to make sense of random thoughts.
Even though I didn't meet the deadline...

Now that I re-read my first post, I realize I could spend another day to reformulate it better. Maybe an edit when I'm done with the rest.

The enthousiasm to participate to this blogathon by everyone is amazing, who would have thought AG was so popular on the blogosphere? ;)

andyhorbal a dit…

DR9 finally hits Pittsburgh next month, and after reading this I'm ever more excited to finally see it!

Michael Guillen a dit…

The task you have assigned yourself to write about this film is daunting. I caught it at a press screening shortly before the exhibition opened at SFMOMA and have to admit that it didn't do much for me. Nonetheless his stature is indisputable and perhaps somewhere down the line--certainly with your informed deliberations--I might gain an appreciation.

Anonyme a dit…

Your ability to filter such bewildering material brings us closer to understanding a work that some of us may never have a chance to view. Your entry was worth the wait ;-) Bravo.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Hey Andy, I'm looking forward to the feedback of your experience.

Thanks for the encouragements Michael, I wish you had done this interview with Barney. You're so good at interviewing.

Hi Thom, I do hope you get to see it sometime soon. Thanks for the compliment.

Anonyme a dit…

Very interesting analysis so far and I'm genuinely looking forward to your future posts. However, I doubt it will change my mind about the film. (Though if anybody might be capable, it would be you. You're that good.)

Barney's co-opting of Japanese folk culture and imagery is the height of pretentiousness. There's nothing behind it -- he simply goes through the motions without actually having any kind of connection to the source.

As someone who has lived in Japan, and traveled to villages just to see various matsuris, I find it laughable the way he samples different elements to create a work that wouldn't be half as appealing without the element of "the other".

I realize this places me in an unpopular position, but I really can't hold my tongue about this one. I often take umbrage with Western artists who feel the need to dip into the "exotic” Orient in order to give their art the allusion of depth, or merely a bit of pizzazz. It's surface, and nothing more.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks for your trust Filmbrain. :)

I understand your position, and you're not alone. That's why I tried to direct my review on a didactic explanation of his work, which might sound redundant to other more familiar with AG and Barney I guess.
I shall try to address your complaint about "culture appropriation" in the upcoming paragraph "Cultural Transgression & Political subtext". You're absolutely right actually, this type of exotic rip-off is often ignorant and superficial, but I believe it's important to identify the position of the artist toward this alien culture. I will argue Barney doesn't steal pretty-looking elements to lasily incorporate them in his "collage". Barney's film is hardly an educated look at shintoism, but his western perspective of it is nonetheless quite perceptive and respectful.
DR9 is nowhere meaningful to Japanese culture, it is meaningful to the artist's own world.

Anonyme a dit…

this type of exotic rip-off is often ignorant and superficial, but I believe it's important to identify the position of the artist toward this alien culture

Well stated. However, I've seen nothing in either his writing or art that makes me believe this is anything other than a superficial borrowing.

More importantly, I also believe it takes more than a simple "position", especially when we are talking about folk culture/tradition. He may respect it, but I don't feel that's enough to justify his (or any artist's) appropriation of it.

Barney may have read a handful of books on Shintoism, but he's about as close to it as Madonna is to Kabala.

However, I'll save any additional comments until I read your next entry.

Brian Darr a dit…

Harry, I'm not going to read this until after seeing the film and the exhibit at SFMOMA (hopefully in the next couple weeks or so). I just wanted to say that I'm very glad you chose to write on it for the Blog-A-Thon, as Barney, love him or hate him, is the face of current Avant-Garde film for a great many people.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Hi Brian,
I don't think it is possible to "spoil" DR9, it is not storytelling based on suspense or twist ending, but an atmospherical film working on informal impressions. So this first post (I didn't start to share my interpretations yet) could only make a viewer more aware of the details and enjoy the film more. Unless you intend to watch the film many times and visit the exhibition beforehand. Anyway I understand why you'd prefer to come in fresh.

The question of appropriation would need to be expanded, so we'll discuss this later maybe.

girish a dit…

Wonderful post, Harry. I like the way you patiently explain Barney's aesthetic and its connections to extra-cinematic art. I look forward to the sequels of your post.

I should mention here that I'm thankful to Filmbrain for having been able to see this on the big screen. He invited me as his guest on his press pass (and even pointed Armond White out to me!).

HarryTuttle a dit…

Hi Girish,
Thanks for reading and stepping by. And congratulations (again) for making this event possible, it's really good to put people together and AG isn't the most federating topic. You're the man!

Mubarak Ali a dit…

This is an insightful introduction to this grand spectacle of a film. Unlike Cremaster 3 - the only other Matthew Barney film project I'm familiar with - it didn't do much for me beyond existing as an 'event' (and a frequently jaw-dropping one, at that), so I'm especially looking forward to the rest of your writing on this, in case I made an early dismissal. (I just saw the film a couple of weeks ago at a film festival, and only started to process it last week after the festival was over.)

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks Mubarak, please share why the film disappointed you. I saw on your latest post that you caught it at the Auckland Festival and wanted to asked you what you thought. Maybe I should balance my one-sided appreciation of the film, with more critical scrutinity of the low points. I guess I'm on defensive mode because of all the negative reviews. I should mention however I was much more impressed by Cremaster 3 too, more interesting cinematically and more complex thematically.

Mubarak Ali a dit…

I don't have anything substantial to say about it at this stage, Harry - I'm especially a little uncomfortable to do so without having seen any of the other works in the series. I'd feel like I'm unfairly judging only part of a complex project, which I know little about to start off with. (Cremaster 3, on the other hand, felt like an apotheosis, the overwhelming symbolism and haphazard humour complementing its internal masculinist landscape.) I think my disappointment this time may have more to do with the blockbuster externalisation of the parade of hyper-symbolism in a world where Barney-the-filmmaker seems to be genuinely lost (which for the sake of spectacle/experience, is not really a bad thing), but who knows, I'm sure to learn more about it from your future posts.

HarryTuttle a dit…

I didn't see the other works of the series either, but his exhibition of the work consists in photographies and resin cast of some elements used in his performances. So by nature the production he shares with the public (when his performances are private) are only second-hand substitutes, a "self-commentary" on his original work.
My exposition to his non-filmic work of the series comes from the very well-made Drawing Restraint website where you get a glimpse at some pictures of the performances and the gist of his concepts.
Anyway, DR9 could be considered separately and criticized as a (non-conventional) film. That's how I look at it here. Contemporean Art is absconse to me, I don't pretend to understand or evaluate it at all.

I think it would be more interesting to discuss it informally and explore its potential.

What do you mean by "blockbuster externalisation of the parade of hyper-symbolism"?

HarryTuttle a dit…

David Bordwell on Cremaster 2 :
3 notions about CREMASTER 2