Sculp­tor and film­maker Matthew Barney brings an ar­rest­ing ex­hi­bi­tion to Ho­bart’s MONA. He talks to

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FEATURE -

AT the gates to a bleak in­dus­trial es­tate on the banks of the Hud­son River, look­ing across at Man­hat­tan, stands a terrifying guard dog that can be pla­cated only by re­peated use of its name. This fact is just one of a de­tailed set of in­struc­tions with which I’ve been is­sued to find this place, a sprawl­ing stu­dio/ ware­house be­long­ing to one of New York City’s most enig­matic and in­trigu­ing per­son­al­i­ties: artist Matthew Barney.

The me­dia ar­chives on Barney, one of the world’s most in­flu­en­tial artists, make for in­tim­i­dat­ing read­ing. He speaks only to jour­nal­ists who know his work in­ti­mately, and he doesn’t suf­fer fools. One par­tic­u­lar in­ter­view had made me want to throw my­self into the Hud­son rather than cross it in a taxi to speak to him my­self.

Barney is best known in the US for his six­hour epic film project River of Fun­da­ment. In my ca­pac­ity as artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val, I was re­spon­si­ble for com­mis­sion­ing and host­ing this year the Aus­tralian premiere of the work. De­scribed by Barney as an opera in three acts, and made in close part­ner­ship with long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor com­poser Jonathan Be­pler, the film is based on Nor­man Mailer’s An­cient Evenings, it­self an epic, if in­tractable, novel about Egyp­tian rites of pas­sage; a book of­ten ref­er­enced, sel­dom read.

Yet de­spite the process of se­cur­ing the film and many years fol­low­ing his work, we have never met. And I ad­mit to a slight case of nerves.

So it is a pleas­ant sur­prise, as I am ush­ered into his huge stu­dio — it bet­ter re­sem­bles a trac­tor fac­tory than an art stu­dio (and I’ve seen a few) — to be greeted by a wel­com­ing and ap­proach­able Barney, 47, who on this win­try New York Sun­day sits down to talk about his lat­est work, and why it is be­ing shipped to, of all places, Tas­ma­nia.

The an­swer to that ques­tion, Barney re­veals, is sim­ple: David Walsh.

Walsh’s Mu­seum of Old and New Art in Ho­bart will from this week­end host River of Fun­da­ment, one of the big­gest in­ter­na­tional exhibitions in its short his­tory. A huge ret­ro­spec­tive of Barney’s sculp­tural and cin­e­matic work, the show will also in­clude the epony­mous film on which the ex­hi­bi­tion is based.

River of Fun­da­ment, which in­cludes more than 100 pieces, has been seen only at Mu­nich’s Haus Der Kunst, and will be pre­sented in a way that only Walsh’s self-de­scribed “sub­ver­sive Dis­ney­land” could pull off.

Walsh vis­ited the Ger­man ex­hi­bi­tion last year and thought it was a per­fect fit for his mu­seum.

“I had en­coun­tered Barney’s work only six years be­fore, my aes­thetic mi­gra­tion from an­tiq­ui­ties to con­tem­po­rary art hav­ing be­gun in my early 40s,’’ Walsh says.

“I’d at­tended the 2007 Venice Bi­en­nale and hav­ing left Venice en route to the Basel art fair, we found our con­nect­ing flight can­celled in Mu­nich. So Olivier, one of MONA’s cu­ra­tors, de­cided we would drive to Basel via Bre­genz, where he knew there was a stun­ning mu­seum.

“At the time, the Kunsthaus Bre­genz had four works of art on dis­play — one per floor — in an ex­hi­bi­tion called Mythos, and one of the works, Ce­tacea, was by Barney. It led me here.’’

Barney him­self em­pha­sises that the re­la­tion­ship is one of shared in­ter­ests.

“I did a two-day visit to MONA when (Amer­i­can drone metal band) Sunn 0))) played,” says Barney, who is also a pro­fi­cient mu­si­cian. “I’m def­i­nitely in­ter­ested in the op­por­tu­nity to work with the Egyp­tian ma­te­rial (at MONA), and David Walsh is will­ing and in­ter­ested for there to be an ‘ in­ter­ven­tion’ with the work in the gallery — things I could never get away with in a more con­ser­va­tive in­sti­tu­tion. There’s an ad­ven­tur­ous­ness with David which is re­ally help­ful for this kind of ex­hi­bi­tion.”

What ex­actly ven­tion”?

“For ex­am­ple, one of the things we’re do­ing is tak­ing a sar­coph­a­gus from his col­lec­tion, putting it in a case and cast­ing large zinc plates with holes which are poured into an open sand mould. Th­ese will sit on top of the sar­coph­a­gus, which will be viewed through holes in the metal.

“And there are heads, so to speak, which were made by tak­ing hot zinc and dump­ing it


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Novem­ber 22-23, 2014


“in­ter- into wa­ter. When the hot metal hits the wa­ter it blows the metal apart, so you have th­ese metal ex­plo­sions at the scale of a hu­man head rest­ing on top of the zinc plates.

“It is not that we’re putting the sar­coph­a­gus in any dan­ger but I think it would be an in­ter­ven­tion that would be dif­fi­cult to pro­pose in any other in­sti­tu­tion.”

The MONA show is a big move into Aus­tralian art space for Barney. Aside per­haps from a one-off film with Ice­landic pop pixie and now ex-wife Bjork set en­tirely on an Ice­landic whal­ing ship (Draw­ing Re­straint 9), River of Fun­da­ment is his most am­bi­tious work.

So given his crit­i­cal ac­claim in film cir­cles, does he de­scribe him­self as a film­maker who makes art, or an artist who makes films? He is un­equiv­o­cal.

“I’m a sculp­tor,” he says. “The video orig­i­nally came from an in­ter­est in mak­ing in­stal­la­tions that in­cluded video and ob­ject. I think in dif­fer­ent ways it’s al­ways been about mak­ing nar­ra­tive sculp­ture and us­ing the sto­ry­telling as a way to give rise to the ob­jects. And the sto­ry­telling has taken dif­fer­ent forms — with River of Fun­da­ment there’s an as­pect of live per­for­mance, an as­pect of cin­ema and it ended up be­ing more of a hy­brid.” MATTHEW Barney rose to promi­nence in the New York art scene of the 1990s, mov­ing rapidly from semi-ab­stract gallery work that en­com­passed per­for­mance, sculp­ture and video to be­com­ing the au­teur of the am­bi­tious The Cre­mas­ter Cy­cle, the tril­ogy of films that ce­mented his rep­u­ta­tion.

He be­came known for rit­ual, per­for­mance, mu­sic and an un­com­pro­mis­ing at­ti­tude to phys­i­cal and vis­ceral art-mak­ing. The cul­mi­na­tion of his early work was a huge ex­hi­bi­tion at the Guggen­heim based on the Cre­mas­ter Cy­cle. The show es­tab­lished Barney as one of the art world’s most orig­i­nal voices.

The re­ac­tions to Barney’s work can of­ten be as ex­treme as the work it­self but it’s clear there is noth­ing lurid, gra­tu­itous or porno­graphic in what he does. Startling? Def­i­nitely. Con­fronta­tional? Of­ten. Shock­ing? Oc­ca­sion­ally. In­ten­tion­ally hi­lar­i­ous? More of­ten than one might think.

The MONA ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tures a range of his work, and up to 70 ad­di­tional pieces of MONA’s own col­lec­tion have been in­cor­po­rated into it. Eight of the largest works in the show were cre­ated in the mak­ing of the film.

Barney’s work is dra­matic in size — a tes­ta­ment to the di­men­sions of this cav­ernous stu­dio — and the lo­gis­tics in trans­port­ing some of his work to the banks of the Der­went are mind­bog­gling. Some 143 crates have been shipped from Mu­nich and New York within six 13m con­tain­ers. There are also 24 air­freighted crates of smaller ob­jects and works on pa­per.

The largest work is Rouge Bat­tery (2014). Made of cast cop­per and iron, it weighs six tonnes. The small­est is Phal­lus (2014), which tips the scales at 350g.

The ex­hi­bi­tion also fea­tures The Boat of Ra, a replica of the at­tic of Mailer’s Brook­lyn home, which com­prises 400 items and took gallery staff a fort­night to as­sem­ble.


River of

Artist Matthew Barney, above, and a scene from his epic


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