Review by Henry Little
Matthew Barney’s assemblages of images harvested from the internet, grouped and gathered in wood and glass display cases, present an askance summation of contemporary society which often employs the grotesque, the scatological, the sexual and other brutally abject images of the human (or animal) body. The contents of one such cabinet may provide an insight: images dominated by a dirty, muddy, primordial, bestial sexuality which revels in flesh, faeces, wounds and rupture. One picture shows a severed cow’s head; another, a morbidly obese naked woman in a forest, a third a couple copulating vigorously in a swamp.
This show of new works, which form part of Barney’s ongoing performance in seven acts in collaboration with long-time co-conspirator Jonathan Bepler, is based upon Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings (1983).
The relationship of Barney’s work to its source can be elaborated upon with the citation of several observations from the New York Times’ review of the book, written by Benjamin Demott, then Mellon Professor of Humanities at Amherst College. For Demott, the book is one which was widely vaunted as an epic and a masterpiece before it was published, but which failed to deliver on its promises, despite odd flashes of genius. In many ways, for him, much poignancy was to be found in the burden of this weighty endeavour upon the power of Mailer’s intellect. This is not to say that Barney’s show was not successful, far from it, but rather, the artist’s interest in what many saw as a ‘disaster’ (to quote Demott) is telling. Telling of what exactly, I’m not sure.
Central obsessions arise in Mailer’s book: our refusal to acknowledge our animality, our need to speak through acts of violence and the modern fixation with female sexuality as a wound. Similarly, thematic motifs from the novel appear throughout the exhibition: animal anuses, corpulent sexuality and a fetishistic interest in gaping flesh wounds. Barney clearly intends the viewer to recognise the source of his cabinet images as the internet and, adroitly, they profile this resource as a metaphorical display case for all that is animalistic, grotesque and sexually barbaric about human nature, including websites which peddle photographs of horrific bodily injuries and bestial pornography.
The cabinets also evoke a distorted archaeology of the present. Demott’s review of Ancient Evenings argued that the reductive and hackneyed view of Eastern sensuality, as based upon bisexuality, aphrodisiac obscenity and erectile anxiety, had been absorbed from ‘the pages of Dr Comfort, Henry Miller and Playboy’. This half-arsed historicism, or rather a misinformed and misguided historicism, may also inform Barney’s cabinets. This work encourages the viewer to imagine how our era will look to artists and historians two thousand years hence. It could thus be seen to investigate the contemporary imposition upon the history of the past - the misconceptions and misunderstandings which fill the voids left in the absence of either actual evidence or lived experience of a particular era.
In his second show with Sadie Coles HQ, Matthew Barney is presenting a group of new drawings relating to his project Ancient Evenings, an ongoing performance in seven acts in collaboration with composer Jonathan Bepler. Based on Norman Mailer‘s symbolic and erotically charged novel of 1983 reimagining ancient Egyptian mythology and ritual, the operatic performance piece is structured according to the seven stages the soul passes through after death - Ren, Khu, Sekhem, Ba, Ka, Khaibit and Sekhu. It transposes the central myth of Isis and Osiris into a contemporary industrialised dystopia: the opening instalment in 2008 supplanted the entombed body for the battered Chrysler that also figured prominently in Barney’s film Cremaster 3 (2002).
Encased in self-lubricating plastic frames, Barney’s highly intricate drawings mirror the themes and iconography of all seven acts, and variously allude to masquerade, mythology and the cycle of death and reincarnation. Enigmatic and organic, the drawings are delicately realised in graphite and ink: Osiris is shown sitting on a watery black throne; a blindfolded figure with multiple top hats takes spectral shape against a network of fine lines in a reference to the late performance artist James Lee Byars and his trademark costume. Diagrammatic and textual elements underline the drawings’ allegorical nature, such as the five-cornered polygon labelled ‘Five Points Make a Man’, a Byars title derived from Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Several of the works also contain alchemical ingredients - gold, silver and copper leaf and bright blue Lapis pigment - investing them with an aura of sacred and archaic merit.
The show also features working storyboards for the Ancient Evenings project, installed in seven freestanding cabinets and consisting of photography, clipart, drawing and collage. Like the drawings, these form a conceptual analogue to the performance. In contrast to the narrative sequence of a conventional storyboard, they assemble central motifs in a nonlinear fashion, hinting only elliptically at their interrelationships. The sculptures in the exhibition further exemplify Barney’s forensic strategy of isolating and recombining certain materials to reveal their physical progress - copper, halite, polyethelene, gold plate, magazines and salt - and create totemic objects.
Matthew Barney (b. 1967) studied art at Yale University. He has received numerous awards including the Aperto prize at the 1993 Venice Biennale and the 1996 Hugo Boss Award. He has been included in group exhibitions worldwide such as Documenta IX in Kassel, Germany; the Whitney Biennials of 1993 and 1995; and the groundbreaking Post-Human exhibition in 1992. His solo exhibition The Cremaster Cycle, organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, travelled to the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The large-scale exhibition of the entire Drawing Restraint series was organised by the 21st Century Museum for Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, and travelled to Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Serpentine Gallery, London; and Kunsthalle Vienna. A retrospective of the Cremaster and Drawing Restraint videos was presented by the Fondazione Merz, Torino, in 2008.