2.17 / Review

Drawing Restraint 17

By Tess Thackara May 16, 2011

Watching Matthew Barney’s latest film, Drawing Restraint 17 (2010), at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, I was reminded of the experience of walking past pristine, monumental minimalist works at Dia: Beacon. Located along the Hudson River in New York, the gallery is housed in an enormous warehouse space that was formerly a printing factory and is set amid a lush green (and red, yellow, amber, and pink if you go in fall) forest that populates the surrounding landscape. Michael Heizer’s awe-inspiring North, East, South, West (1967/2002)—vast black geometric shapes cut into the gallery floor—viewed against the greenery that appears through windows behind it, makes the natural world, by comparison, mere decoration. I was left wondering how a structure conceived of and built by humans could appear more ancient, and more mysterious, than nature itself.

A similar juxtaposition is set up in Barney’s Drawing Restraint 17, the seventeenth part (and the third to use film as its medium) in a series, which, to sum it up in one phrase, “proposes resistance as a prerequisite for development and a vehicle for creativity.”1 The series began in 1987 with Drawing Restraint 1, in which Barney straps elastic restraints to his thighs and places inclines at the edges of his studio, thereby imposing on himself a series of physical obstacles to completing a drawing: to reach the blank walls of his studio would be a triumph of athleticism and will—components the artist deems necessary for artistic production. 

The opening shot of Drawing Restraint 17, a film silent throughout and set in Switzerland, reinforces Barney’s preoccupation with production and labor: the scene depicts a set of hives around which worker bees anxiously buzz. The screen is then split for much of the film’s first half. On one side, a young farm girl with blond braids—a quintessential Heidi—pulls a roughly cast spade out of a trough and begins digging, for what we don’t know. On the other side of the screen, Barney, alone in the Schaulager Museum in Basel, puts markings down on the gallery floor and is later joined by a team of installers who carry in large columns of wood and assemble a sculpture—a rhomboid-like shape that they cover with a plastic sheet. Between the bucolic farm scene and the stark museum space, the latter environment is the more productive. Barney’s workers are successfully constructing; the farm girl’s digging is futile. Like Heizer’s installation set against the dense forest, contemporary art and architecture here pose greater challenges, and bear more significant fruit, than a natural environment.

DRAWING RESTRAINT 17, 2010; production still. ©2010 Matthew Barney. Courtesy of the Gladstone Gallery, New York. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

DRAWING RESTRAINT 17, 2010; production still. ©2010 Matthew Barney. Courtesy of the Gladstone Gallery, New York. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Apparently failing to find what she’s looking for, the girl gets on a train and heads to the now deserted Schaulager. She scales a gargantuan gallery wall in what is a notable departure from Barney’s typical role as protagonist. While the girl replaces him as athlete, however, Barney remains as artistic producer. Rather than resulting in a drawing—the usual product of Barney’s epic athletic feats in this series of works—the girl’s climb culminates in a literal and metaphorical fall: into the sculpture below. This seems to be the logical endpoint of a narrative heavily laced with metaphor; the girl’s loss of innocence has been signalled by her stepping out of the pastoral fold, allowing her hair to fall free from her braids while on the train, and removing her trousers at the museum. Furthermore, the farmyard setting in which the girl first appears is, in fact, the grounds of the Goetheanum, a building located near Basel and named after Goethe. The Goetheanum acts as the world center for the anthroposophical movement founded by Rudolf Steiner, which posits the existence of a spiritual world accessible through sensory experience.

As always with Barney, the densely intertextual and symbolic nature of his work establishes many layers in which to locate meaning. Whether the girl undergoes a Faustian fall or gains access to a spiritual world through her interaction with physical space, her final fall is unspeakably beautiful. Shot in slow motion, she breaks through the white sheet, which billows out like ghostly fingers as she tumbles into what appears to be a bottomless black hole or portal. Barney’s workers have created a transformative environment. Like Heizer’s North, East, South, West, which emanates a kind of mystical energy, there is a quality of magnetism surrounding Barney’s sculpture and his treatment of the Schaulager. If this were a sci-fi film, the museum would be the nerve center that presents the heroes with their greatest and final challenge.

Drawing Restraint 17 throws up more questions than many other works in the series (with the exception of Drawing Restraint 9, which is as complex as any of his Cremaster films, and as full of petroleum jelly!), but the central premise is still realized. The girl’s plunge into the sculpture completes the work: following the shoot of the film, Barney’s sculpture remained as part of the Schaulager’s exhibit, its plastic sheet ripped through the middle. The girl’s efforts have then not been in vain, and resistance and release have once again fulfilled their role as agents of the creative process.



Drawing Restraint 17 was screened at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival on April 30, 2011.



1. “Drawing Restraint 9,” Filmmaker, September 5, 2005, http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/news/2005/09/drawing-restraint-9/

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