The underlying concept of this series is that ‘resistance’ is a prerequisite for development and a vehicle for creativity (previous Drawing Restraint works include Barney being strapped onto an elastic band and running up an incline in order to draw). With DR9, Barney has created an ambitious 2 hour film based on traditional Japanese culture that mostly unfolds on a Japanese whaling boat, sailing on an unspecified harbor off the coast of Japan.
The film dapples with themes of whaling, the history of petroleum-based energy, and the condition of the diesel-fueled factory ship. However, DR9 is foremost a love-story of two occidentals, played by Barney and his real-life partner, Icelandic singer Björk, who find themselves consumed (and eventually destruct) in the warped traditional Japanese ‘bubble’ – in the form of a 4 tatami-mat room – that they wander into on the boat.
Those who have seen Barney’s previous 5 part-project Cremaster Cycle (originally exhibited at the Guggenheim museum in New York) will be familiar with his spectacular visual exercises of gothic orchestral scores, fantastical characters and repetitive motifs which is again seen in DR9. This time around, I was especially intrigued by the way in which Barney reformulated various aesthetic and cultural Japanese traditions until they were rendered distinctly Barney-esque – the high-point being the stunning fur kimonos and the (rather long) tea-ceremony sequence. Barney’s recurring signature motif of a horizontally divided field emblem again offered some sort of ‘order’, or at least a sense of an inexplicable superior ‘truth’ that ties the occasionally baffling images together.
There is no doubt that, with DR9, Barney has once again created some of the most potent and unique images in contemporary art. Yet, being Japanese, there were some (albeit minor) aesthetic details that I found a little jarring. For example, the kimonos on the Japanese extras – and even the tea-ceremony master – were quite loose and creased, and looked as if they were carelessly thrown on by an amateur (the necklines tell all). Also, as fascinating as it was, I was a little skeptical about the full tea-ceremony scene; was Barney simply intrigued by the art and beauty of the traditional tea ceremony, driving him to use it as a sequence in his film? If so, it seems as if the whole concept of DR9 is diluted to a mere occidental flirtation with Japanese eccentricity. And while the brief voiceover narrative did offer some indication that there was indeed ‘more’ to it, I found the abrupt human voice jarring rather than informative (the film has no dialogue otherwise).
That said, DR9 is an exceptional visual experience not to be missed. We in Tokyo are actually quite lucky for it to be screened at such an accessible cinema for weeks; overseas, his films are shown only in museums or special one-off screenings in art-house cinemas. And for Björk fans, it is a chance to hear her haunting soundtrack in surround sound – although I must mention that people who see this film solely for the love of Björk may struggle through the 2 hour opus. For those who love mind-bending concepts and epic visual projects, however, DR9 is surely a privilege.