Both the physical and psychic definitions of anamnesis operated as characters and as head to head competitors when American artist Matthew Barney’s OTTO trilogy first played out in living galleries and across 4:3 screens in the early 90s. The first definition, from medicine, is the word for a case history as remembered by a patient. The second, from philosophy, refers to an un-forgetting; the rediscovery of an innate or inherited knowledge once held but that has been lost.
Anamnesis, too, is the result of the Gladstone Gallery’s currently ongoing presentation of videos, key sculptures, and drawings from Barney’s star-marking early work. Cast petroleum jelly workout benches, large-pearl tapioca dumbbells, sternal retractor specula, and study sketches in self-lubricating plastic frames are reminders of Barney's prodigiousness, painstakingly re-presented today to mark the artist's continued collaboration with the gallerist Barbara Gladstone. What the show, Facility of DECLINE, isn’t, is a recreation of Facility of INCLINE, Facility of DECLINE, or OTTOshaft, the names for the original individual parts of Barney's first trilogy. Instead, it is the uncovering of the solids that are formed by the acid-base reaction between practice and presentation.
In Barney’s case, what exists in the wake of his grand experiments is always multivalent. If his sculptures are to hold any water, then the cast brass shaduf in 2014’s River of Fundament (the artist’s five-and-a-half-hour epic opera inspired by Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings), must contain at least as much magnetism as the film’s footage of actor Paul Giamatti (in the part of pharaoh Phah-Nem-Hotep) shitting in it. Similarly, in Barney's six-part Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002), we're left asking whether the polyethylene sheep-bagpipe amalgam is the product, whereas the footage of its creation is the documentation, or the reverse?
For those lost in the conceptual spume of contemporary exhibitions, Facility of DECLINE is a gut-punch worthy of Harry Houdini, one that will take you back to the days in which modern giants like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst still had things to prove. Loosely told, the OTTO trilogy depicts a vaudevillain Tom and Jerry struggle, wherein the Oakland Raiders’ fabled center, Jim Otto, tries to squeeze Houdini’s energy out of the magician's sealed bodily orifices. In Barney’s Playbook 91-92, the artist describes Houdini as his Character of Positive Restraint, a “self-enclosed, internal, hermetic being,” who “wants to preserve and store the energy generated during his training regimen,” by avoiding “expending energy in competition.”
“[Jim] Otto is, by contrast, a porous, perforated, external being,” Barney writes. “The double zeros on his jersey suggest the many openings into his body. He seeks to open more orifices in himself and others, as an orifice is a site for the ingestion and release of energy. Otto wants to win at all costs, and is willing to deplete all of his energy to compete.”
What follows throughout the OTTO trilogy’s three parts involves unsimulated penetration with bagpipe drones, Bugs Bunny-esque drag chase sequences, and a sculpture containing human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone used in combination with steroids. His is an extreme sort of self-rediscovery: for Barney, to understand the chemical and physical processes that we come to be defined by is to go through them all over again. This work would establish Barney's ascendancy to the realm of high-high art at only 24. OTTO proved his mastery over his many educations, in life, in school, and in athleticism (Barney was a high school football star, and his seminal body of work, Drawing Restraint, is a series of physical exercises in art making through resistance).
“The OTTO trilogy is an intact and hermetic system, fueled by the tensions between impulse and restraint, between sheer desire and control,” curator Nancy Spector writes in the intro to Gladstone Gallery’s engrossing OTTO Trilogy book, a must for audiences looking for the foundations to Barney’s epic later works. The current show still contains what one critic felt was “the art of the 1990s beckoning” when he first saw the works decades ago. What Saltz adds to the conversation, however, he is now forced to reckon with in a way that Barney, even despite what some might call the dragging-via-studio album of the century, Vulnicura (Björk and Barney were partners for 12 years), will probably never have to: the desiccation of objectified self, undoubtedly due to the passage of time.
Instead, in the field and on-screen, Barney quite literally puts it all out there. From genderfucking to sport-sanctioned physical abuse, what Facility of DECLINE induces us to is not the idea that we can become gods or monsters (a phenomenon of mythologizing Barney that even this writer will admit to having done in the past), but that, from our muscles all the way down to the electrical signals controlling them, in the equal and opposing urges at work inside all of us, we contain the knowledge of how to re-become whole.
Matthew Barney: Facility of DECLINE is on view at Gladstone Gallery in New York through October 22, 2016.