Matthew Barney: hypertrophy and vaseline

Andreas Mogensen 1 November 2007

Tomorrow, a film going by the rather peculiar title of Drawing Restraint 9 will open at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. The film itself is far more peculiar than its title. It is a 135 minute fantasy of japonism and obscure organic metaphors, including an enormous Vaseline sculpture, ritualised cannibalism of an Icelandic pop-diva, and the metamorphoses of its protagonists from human to cetacean form. I should perhaps add that it is largely serious.

It is the work of Matthew Barney, a star of contemporary art with the divisive powers of Marmite: infamously laurelled ‘the most important artist of his generation’ by a New York Times art critic, he is also routinely trashed as a vacuous charlatan, too fashionable for his own good. He appears to work in every conceivable medium, bar pottery: his current, apocryphal Drawing Restraint exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery incorporates sculpture, photography, video, drawing, rotting prawns, and monstrous quantities of petroleum jelly. He is, however, most famous for his cinematic ejaculations, especially the five puzzling episodes of his Cremaster Cycle, named after the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles.

In high-school, the story goes, he played quarterback for the school’s championship-winning American football squad; he then became a pre-med at Yale, aiming to become a cosmetic surgeon; to pay his way, he modelled, featuring in advertisements for J Crew and Ralph Lauren. He switched majors to art. Athlete, model, pre-med, and potential plastic surgeon, his core artistic themes of bodily cultivation, discipline, and transformation appear to follow all too readily by virtue of biographical logic.

The crux of these themes is the artist’s fascination with hypertrophy, the process by which weight-lifting builds muscle: imposed stresses tear away muscle tissue, causing the body to overcompensate by producing more than originally existed.

Barney’s earliest performance pieces, Drawing Restraints one to six, sought to apply hypertrophy to artistic creativity, and involved the artist crawling around his studio, attempting to draw things on the wall or ceiling, struggling against weights and other impediments. An intimately related fascination for Barney has been with the build-up and discharge of potential energy via the imposition of constraint and discipline, a process metaphorically associated with digestion.

These clues help somewhat when confronting Drawing Restraint 9. The film does not have much by way of story, its peculiar events being harnessed for symbolic potential rather than narrative impetus. The film is set aboard the Japanese whaling vessel Nisshin Maru, where an enormous mould is inexplicably filled with gradually solidifying liquid Vaseline. Meanwhile, two ‘Occidental guests’, Barney and his partner Björk, arrive separately and enact a bastardized Shinto marriage ritual, culminating in a scene of nauseating cannibalistic beauty, in which they stoically turn one another into sushi. Somehow becoming whales, they leave the ship as it enters the Arctic circle.

It is all deeply fascinating even without cryptographic goggles, but it is also certainly enriched through an awareness of the omnipresent motifs of hypertrophy, digestion, and metamorphosis. Stripping and tearing away of outer layering, for example, occurs constantly, alluding to the destruction of tissue in hypertrophy; the continuous enactment of Japanese rituals, with their comical restraints on behaviour and movement, alludes to the transformative potentials of self-imposed constraint.

Ultimately, of course, the film is not for all; its hypnotic pacing will deter those of the short attention-span, and its mythopoeic pretensions will disperse all who flee at the faint suspicion of highfalutin shenanigans.

If one has the stomach for it, however, this fecund dromenon of speculative symbols should prove seductive and fascinating; most of it may not make sense, but the film is every bit as visually compelling as it is lacking in conventional logic. For the right palate, I should say that Drawing Restraint 9 is quite compulsory.

Andreas Mogensen