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Monday, February 3, 2014

Matthew Barney—Fluid States

by Susan Yung

Photo: Hugo Glendinning

If you could make real your wildest thoughts and dreams, would you?

Matthew Barney has—on film, the most searing and unforgettable genre in his sui generis oeuvre that also encompasses sculpture, drawing, and performance. The latest cinematic opus is River of Fundament, made with composer Jonathan Bepler, with whom Barney collaborated on the five-part Cremaster Cycle (exploring sexual definition and the artistic process). River of Fundament—nearly six-hours (including two breaks) and in creation since 2007—screens at the Harvey Theater from February 12 to 16.

While its breadth and multiple layers resist summary, the film keys off of Norman Mailer’s sprawling Egyptian novel from 1983, Ancient Evenings—the myth of Osiris and its implications of succession and the afterlife, and the seven states of passage from life to death. Barney doesn’t trace a narrative line, rather seizing on certain images and motifs, tapping Mailer’s book “as a text that I can distill narrative objects from,” as he said in a talk at the New York Public Library.

In one of seven scenes, Osiris—represented by a 1967 Chrysler Imperial—is dredged from a river in Detroit. Isis (Aimee Mullins), an FBI agent, directs the chassis’ recovery and dismantling, supported by a team of wailing agents, brass instrumentalists on passing vessels, and a crowd of witnesses. In an ensuing visceral, gripping scene, pieces of a chopped-up Osiris are melted in five foundry ovens; the magma commingles in a reservoir, and from there flows into molds forming sculptures of the hieroglyph Djed (a symbol of Osiris), forming sculptural relics of the performance.

Photo: Ivano Gasso


To film it, Barney had his eye on the old Ford plant’s River Rouge foundry, but that wasn’t available. His team wound up building a foundry, and out of obvious necessity, filmed the scene in one shoot using 20 cameras. As flames lick from the silos and fiery molten metal chases down the chutes, a team of silver-suited foundry workers supervises at dangerous proximity. It’s a big deal to conceive of such a scenario—and an exponentially big deal to build, produce, film, and edit it.

The scene depicting the power battle between Horus and Seth to succeed Osiris takes place at a working dry dock in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. A boisterous crowd packs the dramatic setting, a steeply raked industrial amphitheater descending to an ominous pool; the atmosphere is vintage Thunderdome. Barney’s fondness for pomp and ritual are seen in the elaborate feathered costumes worn by the pre-battle paraders, who strum banjos and beat drums. An ancient rivalry is brought home—to our back yard, enacted by people we know, or might. We are implicated.

The large cast includes Paul Giamatti, Elaine Stritch, Maggie Gyllenhaal, jazz musician Milford Graves, and Mailer’s son, John Buffalo Mailer. Stritch gives a eulogy for Norman Mailer, shot aboard a detailed replica of the author’s house, floating on a barge on the East River. The “fundament” in the title refers to excrement; lore has it that a person’s knowledge could be acquired by partaking of his waste. Barney tends to focus on states of transformation—solids melting or dissolving, solidifying, flowing, mixing, reforming. As the soul in Egyptian mythology is reincarnated, so materials continually reconstitute in Barney’s world. Boundaries fall and immovable things become fluid. Objects take on characteristics; machinery bleeds mercury. Bodily functions become so much kinetic vocabulary. Nothing is fixed; an end is a beginning; possibilities become limitless. And so on.

It could all collapse at any moment, but the clincher is that it’s all beautifully produced. The sets and props that make Barney’s vision indelible are often awe-inspiring or horrifying. He combines his traditional art studies—his drawings were the recent subject of a show at the Morgan Library—with his experience as a filmmaker to frame drop-dead gorgeous shots. The process of getting to that point, and the fervor that follows the resulting work, is all part of the continuum.

Instead of trying to neatly make sense of it, just watch. Ideas will seep into your brain, stay there for a long time to come, and maybe even percolate into your dreams or nightmares. 

Reprinted from January 2014 BAMbill.

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