Matthew Barney practices or has practiced every artistic discipline you can think of, from photography, to sculpture and performance, drawing, painting, and earning a football scholarship; but he is by far most widely known as the intrepid filmmaker behind a series of durational, aesthetically confrontational cinematic epics like the 5-part Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002). Recently, he helped inspire Bjork to write a breakup anthem. In between, he spent at least seven years developing and making the operatic 6-hour River of Fundament, written by Barney and composer Jonathan Bepler, and based on Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel Ancient Evenings—700 pages of intergenerational reincarnation karma in turn based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead. By all accounts, River of Fundament is a very important and exceptionally unwatchable masterpiece.
The good news is, if you’re in LA anytime before the middle of next January, you don’t really have to watch the movie to fall in love with it. That’s because the newly opened MOCA exhibition dedicated to the film is secretly really a sculpture show (albeit one with drawings and storyboards and specially-constructed movie theater in the back screening the thing weekly). Majestic and alien, seductive and repellent, iconic and ambiguous, it is the assembly of a score of cast works in metals and minerals from zinc, to sulphur, gold, bronze, lapis lazuli, and more which steal the show with their material innovation, visceral, tactile physicality, and sheer tonnage.
Most are cast from the chassis, undercarriages, and skeletal remains of automobiles; for obscure reasons, the new film partly tells its story of nasty, greasy, transcendent rebirth through several generations of American cars. These delicate, hulking, unexpected forms present the equivalents of fossils or mummies, decidedly zoomorphic as they evoke rib cages, entrails, and spinal columns. Certain patinations give them an earthy gravitas; gold leaf gives them alchemical magic. Some resemble excavation sites, with low walls and broken watchtowers. Mufflers and tailpipes repose with the sullen stillness of anthropological artifacts. One major piece is an inverted cast of Norman Mailer’s attic office, its tethers like the stiff long oars of an ark, its ropes cast upon the concrete waters of the museum floor. The one made in sulphur (I had no idea such a thing was even possible) gleams like a dying sun.
Perhaps the most surprising and delightful of the sculptures is the suite of Water Castings, a new group of sculptures on view for the first time. Though undoubtedly due in part to his years-long pondering of the river as a visual allegory in which water is both the stuff of life and of danger, the iconography of water has actually played a large role in most if not all of his work. Then, the Egyptian story of Osiris presented itself: Osiris was a murdered god whose body was chopped into 14 pieces and cast (no pun intended) into the river. (The museum has assembled eight pieces of the 14-part suite, while the other six are on view across town at Regen Projects through October 10.) In these remarkable works, Barney poured molten metal into chilled waters and as it cooled and advanced, the metal congealed into its own coraline contours—the closest to the shape of water one can get in a fixed form.
The newest work in the show is an enormous block of graphite, an artifact from a site-specific drawing executed along the whole interior perimeter of the space by a female football team who pushed and pulled it with great effort. The performance of this event is also the subject of a small video work completed hours before the show was set to open. The uneven streaks left by the graphite on the walls looked a lot like skid marks on freeway guardrails, which seems only right considering the sea of sculpted wreckages that populate the exhibition.
Click here to learn more about Matthew Barney: RIVER OF FUNDAMENT at MOCA.