Matthew Barney, the artist once described in the New York Times as; “the most important American artist of his generation,” but just as often derided for being pretentious and indulgent, in person is not what one may expect. A former football player, he is far from physically imposing, indeed he is of slight build. Also a former male model for J. Crew, he is not conventionally handsome. But the real surprise is his voice, a slightly weedy, almost high-pitched tonality which makes it difficult to imagine him giving orders to the host of people who have been involved in his latest, and most daunting film/performance/sculptural/installation project River of Fundament. Yet give orders he does and, in the bowels of David Walsh’s fortress-like MONA in Hobart, he knows exactly what he wants as massive sculptures are shunted by equally massive machines into the positions he wants them. The extra surprise is in talking with him, when that slightly nasally voice does indeed take on a strange authority and confidence.
And, despite the hype, the hubris, the rock-star profile (he was married to Icelandic pop pixie Björk), Barney is easy company, quick to laugh. During artists’ talks – he held a discussion with David Walsh to a packed audience while in Hobart – he is tentative. One on one, surrounded by his behemoth sculptures, he is quick to respond and sharply erudite.
River of Fundament, both the epic film/opera produced in collaboration with musician Jonathan Bepler, which runs to almost six hours, and the massive accompanying exhibition of sculptures and one-dimensional artworks (including 100 items of Egyptian artifacts from Walsh’s collection), is a coup for MONA. While the film had its Australian debut at The Adelaide Festival earlier this year (to decidedly lame reviews, which Barney admits perturbed him), this is only the second time worldwide that the filmic and sculptural elements have shown side by side.
When Barney utilises Walsh’s collection, which he does extensively, he describes the process as an “intervention” which he has clearly delighted in. “I had half expected coming to Tasmania would be a highly parochial and pedestrian exercise,” he admits. “Thankfully it’s the other extreme. It’s hard to imagine another institution in the world being so generous with these interventions.” That said, he also stresses the conservators and curators high degree of professionalism in their care for Walsh’s antiquities.
What exactly does he mean by “intervention”? “For example, one of the things we’re doing is taking sarcophagi from his collection, putting them in a case and casting large zinc plates with holes which are poured into an open sand mold. These will sit on top of the sarcophagus, which will be viewed through holes in the metal.” To this he added cast and maimed crowbars, ‘spines’ for malformed heads cast from zinc which, heated, had been immersed in water to create amorphous blobs.
It is hardly surprising Barney expected a degree of parochialism. The Adelaide Festival showing inspired insipid outrage over the Festival assisting in the funding of “pornography.” Reviews were decidedly mixed, with the Sydney Morning Herald running a derisive review titled ‘River flows deep with gilt-edged crap’ and simplistically attacking Barney’s portrayal of women. In reality, men in the film suffer far worse physical fates than any of the female characters. Men are sodomised, castrated and one loses an eye. A woman is indeed sodomised, but appears to do so for pleasure. The two key female protagonists, played by Maggie Gyllenhall and Aimee Mullens, glide through the proceedings unscathed.
Fundament is a strange blend of Hollywood gloss and contemporary surrealism. Starring Gyllenhall and Paul Giamatti and featuring cameos by Salman Rushdie, Deborah Harry, Fran Lebowitz amongst others it is based loosely on Norman Mailer’s 1983 tome Ancient Evenings. It is a tale of rebirth and reincarnation and arguably a melancholic lament over the death of the ‘American spirit.’ Mailer had appeared in Barney’s Cremaster 2 as Harry Houdini and went on to encourage Barney to read Ancient Evenings, a book described by most critics upon its release as unreadable. Barney himself admits that he was helped along the way by a New York Times review by literary scholar Harold Bloom. “Bloom definitely gave me a vantage point, a way in,” Barney says. “His other writings on Egyptian mythology were also an influence.”
“One of the reasons I was attracted to Mailer’s book is, to be honest, it wasn’t something I loved, I could have some distance from it, unlike, say, certain books by Ballard or DeLillo.”
The English author, J.G. Ballard, is often mentioned in the context of Barney’s work, especially his classic surrealist psych-fi novel Crash which was adapted to film by David Cronenberg. “I was asked by Artforum to review Cronenberg’s Crash,” Barney says. “But there was no way I was going to like Cronenberg’s version, there was no way I was going to like my version. Crash remains one of my favourite books. There were also those wonderful ReSearch books which were definitely an inspiration.” Barney’s referencing of ReSearch, an arcane series of San Francisco publications featuring the likes of Ballard, William S. Burroughs and the industrial performance group Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) shines light on his fascination with the obscure corners of American culture. This leads us into a segue about our both having met SRL’s leader Mark Pauline who infamously had his thumb blown off during a performance. His thumb was replaced with one of his toes and recalling shaking hands with Pauline leads us into a brief silence.
Born in San Francisco in 1967, at the age of six Barney moved to Idaho with his family. After his parents divorced he lived with his father in Idaho, playing football on his high school team and visiting his mother in New York City, where she introduced him to art and museums – an unusual intermingling of sports and culture that clearly informs his work as a sculptor and filmmaker. After graduating from Yale in 1991, Barney entered the art world to almost instant controversy and success. He is best known as the producer and creator of The Cremaster Cycle films, a series of five films with a grueling duration of 403 minutes. The Cremaster Cycle was made over a period of eight years (1994–2002) and culminated in a major museum exhibition organised by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The films generally feature Barney in myriad roles, including characters as diverse as a satyr, a magician, a ram, Harry Houdini, and even the infamous murderer Gary Gilmore. The title of the films refers to the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles according to temperature, external stimulation, or fear. The films themselves are a grand mixture of history, autobiography, and mythology, however the second an third of the CREMASTER films revolve around specifically American themes, as does River of Fundament leading me to suggest to Barney that the three films lead to something of an American trilogy. “Yes, I can see that,” he responds with enthusiasm. “There are the themes of Mormonism, the Masonic and Egyptology…”
Somewhat perversely, Barney has insisted upon lighting the entire sculptural installation with the basic fluorescent lighting system which acts as a back-up to the high-tech floodlights which are traditionally utilised, thus creating an underground car park aesthetic. During the installation MONA’s curators were quietly grumbling about this eccentric choice, which, quite deliberately, does little to enhance the extraordinary detail in the works. But the curators, except for Walsh’s senior curator Jane Clarke, had yet to see the film, sections of which are indeed filmed in just such a setting. (Barney’s last showing of these works, at New York’s Barbara Gladstone Gallery, were set in the traditional white-box context of commercial galleries worldwide.)
One is aware, as with the works of one of his heroes, the modernist Richard Serra, of the sheer weight of these objects. The heaviest, Rouge Battery, weighs more than five tonne. The massive Boat of Ra, it’s Ark-like structure clearly suggestive of that of the Covenant, must be disassembled for shipment. Consisting of 400 items, the reassembly takes an intense two weeks and includes the ladders, or at least crude reconstructions thereof, from Mailer’s library and parts of his writing desk. The tow ropes snaking away from the craft similarly replicate the ropes used to tow the Pontiac Firebird in the Detroit salesroom, all elements featured in the film.
Rot and decay come in numerous forms in both film and sculpture; in one of the vitrines sits a ‘sketch’ for The Case for Saving Detroit, a number of model cars exuding a black fungal-looking growth. Elsewhere a glass case features the rotted remains of the pig from Mailer’s wake in the film, the dried epidermis of dead maggots still visible, its teeth painted blue and gold, the apple from its mouth a dry, blackened shell.
This is not the first time Barney has integrated his own work with that of a museum or library. In 2013. Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney, at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York and the Bibliothque Nationale de France in Paris featured Barney’s earliest drawings from the late 1980s, drawings created in conjunction with the CREMASTER film cycle (1994-2002), and those related to River of Fundament. Barney made his own selections from the two host institutions’ collections to include in the show, underscoring the importance that literature and mythology play in the elaboration of his narratives, including a copy of a more than 2,000-year-old Egyptian Book of the Dead and original drawings by Michelangelo and Francisco de Goya “But the situation here has been unique because we can read all of the media alongside the interventions.” The difference is that Barney has been allowed to present almost every element of the film alongside its actual viewing – presenting his celluloid visions in steel, wax, bronze, rope, copper, timber and sulfur.
Never one for allowing personal restraint in his projects, Barney undertook another intervention by employing the Glenorchy women’s football team to ‘draw’ on the walls with a gigantic 2,268 kilogram hunk of graphite, generating a ragged line linking the wall works, an umbilical cord of sorts metaphorically joining his own one-dimensional metal works to Walsh’s stone reliefs from Egypt.
The overall aesthetic carries a post-apocalyptic sensibility, an almost Mad Max-style scenario, the vehicles dismembered, celebrated archaic documents of a once fossil-fuelled renaissance, reliquaries, objects of theoretical religiosity, relics in a Sci-Fi world of Barney’s own making. There is a brief nod to Blade Runner in the opening scenes of Detroit with gas flames emitting from industrial chimneys and more than a few hints of Cronenberg’s influence; Barney’s puckering arseholes are surely not-so-distant cousins of those of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. And then there are the insects. The larvae and pupae are preempted in the kitchen of Mailer’s brownstone when one of the chefs moves a box clearly labeled LIVE INSECTS PERISHABLE. Maggots and beetles invade every other scene.
Essential apocalyptic in sensibility, Barney’s film finishes on a somewhat lighter note, that of fish spawning in a pristine stream, an ending almost identical to that of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel The Road. “I grew up in Idaho, which is quite close to where Hemmingway’s cabin was and where the fish spawn and you knew how it ended up, it was a local mythology.”
“Yes, there is a sense of the Apocalyptic about it, especially the depiction of the city of Detroit, but there are glimpses of rebirth. But yes, there is the apocalyptic but there’s a strange sense of logic to it, it’s like fires with eucalypt trees, they need the fire for rebirth. Humans are part of nature and need something similar.” Having only visited Tasmania, Barney is curious to revisit Australia. During the after-party he asks me whether much remains of traditional indigenous culture. I tell him that strong remnants can still be found in Central Australia and Arnhem Land and a visit could be arranged. “That would be awesome,” he says. I tell him it’s an arduous trip. He smiles and says; “let’s do it!”