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Writer, director and artist Matthew Barney (The Cremaster Cycle) and longtime partner Björk offer their first creative collaboration, a love story in which they star as two occidental guests who board a Japanese whaling ship in Nagasaki Bay. The film has almost no dialogue but is marked by the fantastic theatricality that fans of these two artists expect. It includes a tanker truck filled with liquid petroleum jelly; a parade of animals; a tea ceremony in which Barney and Björk wear costumes inspired by Shinto marriage rites; Japanese pearl-diving girls; and a climax of alarming transformations. Original music by Björk. 

 Drawing Restraint 9

Drawing Restraint 9 grew out of a group of sculptures I made from 2002 to 2004, following the completion of the Cremaster Cycle. These pieces were all large, temporal castings of petroleum jelly, varying in form and volume, and weighing between five and ten tons each.

The casting process begins with the arrival of a tanker truck, which delivers the petroleum jelly heated and under pressure. The hot jelly is pumped from the truck into a very strong mold. The material cools for days, or even weeks, depending on the temperature of the material, the ambient temperature, and the shape and size of the mold. Once cooled, the mold walls are removed, and the mass of jelly behaves in wildly unpredictable ways, as it collapses under its own weight. The movement of the collapsed jelly resembles that of a glacier, its parts very slowly shearing, sliding and fissuring.


Once the jelly is liberated from its container, the working environment becomes hostile. Everything becomes coated with and saturated by the jelly. It’s nearly impossible to move the material with conventional tools at that scale, so one is reduced to scooping it up into their arms to move from place to place. The group of us working on these sculptures imagined a similar, hellish working condition on a whaling boat, and I began to imagine making one of these sculptures out at sea.

The Nisshin Maru is the only operating factory whaling ship in the world. I had seen images of her as I started researching Japanese whaling, but at that point I had no concept of her iconic resonance within the international debate on whaling. Japan had become my location for Drawing Restraint 9, and The Museum for the 21st Century in Kanazawa had become the host for an eventual exhibition of the project. I felt that the Nisshin Maru was a natural choice to be the main character of Drawing Restraint 9, and an ideal environment to execute the casting of a 25-ton petroleum jelly sculpture.

The Japanese Whaling Fleet is owned by a private company called Kyodo Senpaku, and operated by the Japanese Fisheries Agency, in conjunction with the Japanese Whaling Association. I first approached members of the Japanese Whaling Association in the U.S., who were very discouraging. They warned me of the negative experience they had with previous approaches from western documentaries and photographers, who had veiled their political agendas behind their art. I started looking at the video and images that Greenpeace had released from their anti-whaling missions in Antarctica and learned more about the war which was under way in the Southern Ocean between the Nisshin Maru, and the ships and aircraft of the environmental activists.

I proceeded to Japan to meet with the Fisheries Agency, armed with letters of support from the museum, and still feeling hopeful. The public relations officer explained to me that the Japanese Whaling Association couldn’t begin to consider my request to make my project on the Nisshin Maru. In fact, they couldn’t even allow me to tour the vessel, as its mooring locations remained undisclosed.


Over the next months, I continued to develop the script. I became fixated on the traditions of Japanese coastal whaling, which were centuries old. I learned as much as I could about the relationship between Shinto and whaling, and discovered a number of festivals and rituals which are still performed in coastal communities. Some of these traditions started to influence scenes in the Drawing Restraint 9 script. I felt quite certain that no meant no with the Japanese Whaling Association, but I continued to send updated scripts as I would finish them.

I spent the next six months combing the globe through online brokerage firms for a ship similar to the Nisshin Maru. Commercial fishing vessels of that size, called super trawlers, were the closest fit. Super trawlers are literally floating food processing plants, which is not an environment that welcomes 25 tons of petroleum jelly. They burn upwards of $25,000 in diesel per day. The costs of shutting down a factory and using it for my sculpture project were becoming prohibitive. On top of that, the fishing companies who had any interest in the project became very nervous once they heard the word whale.

Eventually I found an old Japanese-built factory ship in Seattle that had been sitting in a shipyard for years in line for the scrap heap. The engines were dead, but she was seaworthy. I discussed a plan with her owner to tow the vessel up into the Bering Sea in the middle of winter. He told me I was crazy, that the Bering Sea had some of the worst seas on the planet. At the same time, the challenge peaked his interest, and we started discussing how we would do it.

At the studio, we started preparing to work out of Seattle. Though the script had become quite narrative, the project would now take a turn toward a more documentary approach. We started to wonder if we could even keep the petroleum jelly contained in the open mold in such unstable conditions. The film would be a record of this experiment.

Just as the plan in the Bering Sea was beginning to gain momentum, I received a call from the Japanese Whaling Association. The scripts I had been sending were landing on the desk of the historian within the organization. He had become interested in the project and wanted to meet in Japan immediately.

In Japan I met with the senior officers of the Japan Whaling Association. They were compelled by the script, and to my shock, wanted to see the project happen on the Nisshin Maru. The filming would have to occur between the dry-docking of the ship and its departure for Antarctica for the winter hunting season. This was a ten-day window, and this window would be open four weeks from that day. To be ready in four weeks, and to shoot out the entire story in ten days sounded impossible, but I agreed to the conditions and Drawing Restraint 9 went into production.