Matthew Barney premiered his newest work, the 6-hour film River of Fundament on Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For the uninitiated, Barney has been working in a vast array of mediums in the contemporary art scene for the past 20 years, coming up in the early 1990s and establishing himself as one of the most controversial, challenging, and uniquely American artists still working today.
We could totally draw comparisons with Mike Kelley, whose massively popular recent retrospective filled the entire MoMA PS1 site in Queens. Kelly is arguably more interesting in his uncanny accessibility, but he is also more pop; he took as his locus not just the most American of all exports—pop culture—but of ideas, too: targeting that pervasive mythologizing of childhood and innocence, reminding us that birth is essentially a violent conscription into a terrifying world, with its formative years spent mostly covered in shit. And shit, of course, brings us back to Barney.
Barney's latest cinematic fantasia, starring himself, Paul Giamatti, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, among others, is a multi-faceted abstraction of Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings, an exploration of life, death, and reincarnation in Egyptian mythology. Barney frames Mailer's reincarnation around his wake (attended by the likes of Salman Rushdie and Lawrence Weiner) performed in a full-size replica of his Brooklyn home (that eventually floats in a barge around Manhattan). Another narrative follows a 1979 gold Pontiac Trans Am (representing variously Mailer's spirit and the Egyptian God Osiris) being destroyed and remade in L.A., Detroit, and New York.
In a nutshell, there is a river of shit that one must pass through in order to be reincarnated; it runs beneath Mailer's home, and the story surrounds three human and automotive incarnations of Mailer and the petty and incestuous politics of the Egyptian Gods. The production includes some live performances Barney has staged and filmed since 2008, most strikingly a massive sacrificial rite where the automotive body of Osiris is cut into 14 pieces and fed into 5 giant blast furnaces, which accounted for much of the 25 tons of molten steel used in the film.
There really isn't much more to say, in terms of plot. The sprawling film runs nearly 6 hours (with two intermissions) and is in many respects what you would expect: shocking, revolting, challenging, enjoyable, earnest, disturbing, lofty, fun, et cetera ad nauseam. The high-quality production values, famous faces, and conventional pace and tempo of the story arc will be familiar to those unfamiliar with the artist. Jonathan Bepler's operatic score is difficult at times, but in totality it's brilliant and gratifying, filling the crevices with atonal pitches and interspersing the story with some fantastic contemporary moments, like a haunting folk ballad sung by a child or the bizarro R&B interlude that backs at least one moment of uncensored anal sex that is refreshingly contemporary, sounding like it would fit right in on Hot 97's evening mix.
The film is an event, and meant to be seen in a theatrical/museum context, and Barney messes with that traditional divide very effectively. Ultimately though, this film, like much of Barney's work, is inherently polemical; it produces its own critiques, wallows in its own shit, so to speak. This author's feelings can be summarized thus: it is insane that this film exists, it is insane that it was a person's idea, and it is insane to watch. Insane in a good way.
If you can't get anything out of it, it is at least productive to consider the sheer number of choices Barney made while making the film. Whether it means a guy wearing Chicago Blackhawks hockey jersey in the third act of Mailer's increasingly disturbing wake (centered around a rotting pig carcass) or the inclusion of an entire miniature police procedural complete with the textbook "So, what do we got here?" dialogue, thousands of decisions were made, all of them fully considered. For a 6-hour film about Ancient Egypt, American car manufacturing and some fringe Norman Mailer novel, the whole thing was surprisingly coherent. Barney's choices add up to something phenomenal.
Barney is grandiose, esoteric, ambitious, and uncompromising. This makes him the target of both scorn and celebration. But I suppose if you needed to define Art to an alien (at least late 20th century Art) you could certainly present the oeuvre of Matthew Barney; sometimes insufferable, sometimes brilliant, sometimes shocking, thematically rich, excruciatingly researched, formally and materially diverse, and all the time unique.