ALL THE RIVERS RUN
Sculptor and filmmaker Matthew Barney brings an arresting exhibition to Hobart’s MONA. He talks to
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
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.
Artist Matthew Barney, above, and a scene from his epic