Epic and outlandish, Matthew Barney’s new film River of Fundament (2014) is in some ways his most accessible and engaging work. However, it isn’t exactly entertaining in the sense of a typical movie-going experience. Five years in the making, the film clocks in at just over five hours long. Written and directed by Barney with musical composition and direction by his longtime creative partner, Jonathan Bepler, the film is tightly composed in the manner of an opera. Its three acts encompass three basic narrative themes interwoven throughout the film, all heightened by Bepler’s soundtrack, which ranges from atonal electronic sounds to quasi-liturgical choral passages.
One theme centers on ancient Egyptian mythology, with fanciful interpretations of the journey of the soul from life to death, the underworld and rebirth. Some of the sequences, such as several in which characters cross a river of feces in order to be reincarnated, directly correspond to episodes described by Norman Mailer in his 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, set in pharaonic Egypt. An imaginative reenactment of Mailer’s wake, a dinner party of sorts, shot in the writer’s Brooklyn apartment, serves as the second motif. Attending the dinner, a stellar cast—including Salman Rushdie, Fran Lebowitz, Luc Sante, Dick Cavett, Deborah Harry and Elaine Stritch (some of Mailer’s real-life friends and acquaintances), as well as artist Lawrence Weiner and Mailer’s son John Buffalo Mailer—speak and sing about episodes in Mailer’s life, his writing and the mythological and historical figures in Ancient Evenings. Barney himself appears here as Ka—the ancient Egyptian name for the human soul’s vital essence. Elsewhere he plays Osiris (the Egyptian god of the dead) as well as the late artist James Lee Byars.
The wake scenes perhaps come closest to conventional narrative, until Act II, when the dinner party seems to degenerate into debauchery and mayhem. For instance, a nude female guest urinates on the dining room table while doing a back bend, and a couple engages in a rather prolonged demonstration of anilingus. In fact, the apartment itself becomes unmoored. In several of the film’s last scenes, presided over by actress Ellen Burstyn as Hathfertiti from Ancient Evenings, Mailer’s home is re-created on a barge cruising down the East River, with the Manhattan skyline looming in the distance. Why not?
The third motif is the automobile, which Barney has used in the past as a symbolic representation of the soul. Footage from three outdoor performances that Barney filmed over the past several years, in Los Angeles, Detroit and New York, feature cars as ritual objects. A 1967 Chrysler Imperial, a 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am and a 2001 Crown Victoria Police Interceptor are driven and dragged by hand through the streets in rather spirited funeral processions, accompanied by brass bands and hundreds of costumed extras. Battered, dumped in rivers and eventually melted down, the cars also serve as a metaphor for the demise of the Industrial Age. In one of the film’s most spectacular moments, cascades of lava-like molten car metal stream from an enormous furnace down a hillside in the midst of a torrential rainstorm.
As in the past, Barney graphically explores bodily functions and their resultant fluids. He demonstrates a preoccupation here with alchemy, especially the transformation of shit into gold. Near the beginning, Barney renders semen as mercury flowing along cracks in a floor. In its highly stylized, Surrealist-tinged examination of nature, sexuality and the frequent absurdities of life, River of Fundament at times recalls early films by Luis Buñuel and Peter Greenaway; it also corresponds to Barney’s own Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002), although the new film is the artist’s most ambitious foray into cinema.
Anyone can appreciate River of Fundament as a sumptuous and adventurous spectacle; however, the film demands considerable intellectual participation and a surprising emotional commitment to comprehend its depths.
[The exhibition “Matthew Barney: River of Fundament” is on view at Haus der Kunst, Munich, through Aug. 17.]
No need to wait 2,000 years to see how arch-eological relics from our time might appear to ancient history buffs of the future. “DJED,” Matthew Barney’s recent show, featured an imaginative group of three massive, heavy-metal abstract sculptures made of cast iron, bronze, copper and lead, plus a smaller piece in zinc, that suggest what discoveries from a long-forgotten Industrial Age might look like. Among the odd but vaguely familiar interrelated sculptures—DJED, Canopic Chest (both 2009–11) and Secret Name (2008–11)—one can discern fossilized fragments of cars, such as a flattened-out chassis, a broken axle and smashed wheel casings. The smallest and most recent work, Sacrificial Anode (2011), displayed in the second-floor gallery, consists of a row of what appear to be corroded gray metal crowbars leaning on a white plastic beam. In fact, the forms are based on the was, an ancient Egyptian royal staff, a symbol of power, which in antiquity was made of a dried bull’s penis and later was cast in precious metals. The shape reappears in all the sculptures.
Just as the San Francisco-born artist previously showed objects and set pieces culled from his epic five-part film The Cremaster Cycle, the imposing objects in this show have roles in the first three acts of Barney’s still-in-progress seven-part opera, Ancient Evenings. Based on the eponymous 1983 novel by Norman Mailer, and with a score by Jonathan Bepler (a longtime collaborator), Barney’s theatrical production commenced in 2007. The three acts realized so far were performed at different times and locations: Los Angeles, Detroit and Dearborn, Mich. In a nutshell, the story centers on an ancient Egyptian mythological journey of the soul through life, death and rebirth. Principal characters include the deities Osiris, Isis, Set-and the late conceptual artist James Lee Byars. Don’t ask.
In Barney’s extravaganza, a 1967 Chrysler Imperial is the stand-in for the soul, and the Detroit River substitutes for the Nile. (As the birthplace of the Chrysler Imperial and the city where Harry Houdini died, Detroit looms large in Barney’s idiosyncratic cosmology.) With musical accompaniment, the car gets dragged through the streets of Los Angeles in the first act, and in the second it is dumped into the Detroit River. Dredged out of the water in the third act, the car gets melted down and cast in iron in a huge outdoor smelting arena in front of 200 guests Barney invited to Motor City for the performance. The results were on view here.
Weighing more than 25 tons, DJED features the squat iron underside of the Chrysler lying on the floor. Adding to the eerie effect of the piece, Barney left in place the graphite support blocks and rivulets of iron that meander from the car chassis like tentacles. One area of the iron runoff forms a generalized image of the djed, an ancient Egyptian symbol signifying stability, in the shape of a sectioned pillar and associated with Osiris’s spine. Canopic Chest was the most stunning piece in the show. Titled after the vessels used for mummified organs, the evocative work recalls an ancient burial mound of rough-hewn cast bronze topped by a glittering, polished bronze was.
It is not necessary to know the details of Barney’s elaborate Egyptian yarn in order to appreciate his achievement in these new works. Secret Name, for instance, is only remotely related to the narrative. Also displayed in the upper gallery, it is a rather minimalist composition featuring a huge irregular rectangle placed on the floor and a long, winding rope, both cast in lead, with some areas covered in smooth white plastic. On one level, its dense and intense formal rigor appears as an homage to Richard Serra, one of Barney’s heroes. At another glance, the composition has an almost whimsical quality that calls to mind certain pieces by Richard Tuttle, albeit made of more durable materials.
Accompanying these majestic objects, a dozen small drawings by Barney are relatively modest meditations. Contained in simple Venetian-red steel frames and executed on rust-red paper, Barney’s line drawings are surprisingly delicate and florid, evoking morphing figures and landscapes. They appear as talismanic objects with their own distinctive set of attributes, related to the metal pieces only in terms of suggesting the movement and sensuousness involved in the various sculptural processes. One imagines Barney quietly working on them during Ancient Evenings rehearsal breaks.
Photos: (left) Matthew Barney: Canopic Chest, 2009–11, cast bronze, 73 ½ by 165 by 243 inches. (right) River Rouge: Crown Victoria, 2011, ink on paper in painted steel frame, 11 3/8 by 14 3/8 inches. Both at Gladstone.