Bound and Undetermined: Matthew Barney’s Materialism

Written by Andrea Nitsche-Krupp

Matthew Barney’s work contains captivating imagery. It is supplied by vast and wide-ranging iconographic sources: fetal development, Candomblé deities, Shinto wedding ritual, Houdini, Greek mythology, Free Masonry, Celtic legends, bodybuilding, American football, alchemy, salmon spawning cycles, Isis and Osiris, and The Executioner’s Song, to name but a few. Barney’s images are captivating, also eccentric and arcane, and, most importantly (and unintentionally), obfuscating. The work is not about any one of these things. Nor is it about the light each shines on the persona of Matthew Barney—his history as an athlete, his Scotch-Irish ancestry, his childhood in Idaho—which simply tells us how he came to these subjects, not how he employs them. The latter is a much more interesting question.

Images associated with Houdini, for example, reoccur throughout Barney’s work across media. But the Houdini invoked is less man than myth: an allegory of physical control. In Barney’s work, Houdini, like Apollo and Marsyas, like Ancient Evenings, functions as a borrowed narrative structure. To interpret the work as capable of being summarized by iconographic content would be to disregard the methodology of Barney’s practice. Rather, the way Barney employs iconography is best understood as a continuation and extension of a propositional artistic practice, one reliant on a predetermined set of constraints. Chief among these constraints, and the founding principle of Barney’s practice, are propositions concerning basic material operations.

It is through material that Barney establishes the terms of his artistic production: how to deploy a precise framework of constraint to give form to a state of potential. A close consideration of the early development of this operational approach, specifically via the sculpture Transexualis (decline), and the two videos BLIND PERINEUM and RADIAL DRILL, which form part of Facility of DECLINE (1991) and are currently on display at the Astrup Fearnley Museet, reveals how Barney employs this structure on the level of material and lays the groundwork for his later shift to more complex narrative film.

Facility of DECLINE is the title of a body of work Barney produced directly following his undergraduate work at Yale University, which was exhibited at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York in October of 1991. It is a project that should be considered first and foremost a sculptural situation. Seven sculptures occupied the main gallery, each made of materials that do not traditionally belong to the realm of sculpture but rather that of medicine, sports training, and human consumption: polyethylene (or internally lubricated plastic, or prosthetic plastic), petroleum jelly, a wrestling mat, sucrose, and tapioca. Seven drawings lined the walls. Transexualis (decline), a formed and cast petroleum jelly sculpture, was housed in a large walk-in cooler on the gallery’s lower level, outside of which the two videos played on monitors strapped some eight feet above the floor.

Barney shot both BLIND PERINEUM and RADIAL DRILL at Barbara Gladstone in the week preceding the opening of the exhibition: one records the action of the artist as he arduously climbed through the gallery, naked except for a climbing harness and tool belt. The other records Barney and a man in an Oakland Raiders jersey—the character of Jim Otto, a recurring figure in Barney’s work, here played by Bob Wysocki—as they interact with the sculptures. In addition to the recorded video, an implied relationship between the artist’s action and the sculptural works was indicated by the scuff marks left on the walls from the artist’s climb and the haphazard positioning of the sculptures in the gallery, which, as one reviewer noted at the time, remained “strewn about the floor.”1 In this work, Barney uses video to destabilize our experience of sculpture and establish material as the locus of his propositional approach and thus the means by which ambiguity enters the work. The relationship between the sculpture and the videos of Barney’s recorded actions exposes a conflict that lies within the materiality of Barney’s work: we must engage the work in material terms, yet its materiality is the source of its unreliability.

The industrial freezer that housed Transexualis (decline) during its initial exhibition at Barbara Gladstone now sits in a gallery at the Astrup Fearnley Museet. The waiting sculpture, visible through an open doorway, entreats us to enter. When we do, we find the sculpture commanding the space, all at once familiar and strange: it resembles a weightlifter’s decline bench but every inch is coated thickly in glistening petroleum jelly. The viscous substance, characteristically translucent in small amounts, is in this volume rendered bulky and opaque. The temperature of the room—a cool 2-7 degrees Celsius—immediately calls our attention to the properties of the sculptural material: its basic physical terms as a fugitive semi-solid beholden to temperature and container. This is form in a state of suspended animation.

The shape of a weightlifting bench implies function—it is a contact apparatus designed to build bodily mass and strength—but the supple jelly, with its own contingent strength, undercuts that purpose.2 The usefulness of the object is both obvious and, due to the material, frustrated. The conflicting nature of its form and substance is initially jarring. This sensation, however, quickly gives way to the intimate allure of its materiality, which appeals to any number of physical associations. It is evocative as body: suggestive of our insides, our secretions. It evokes personal bodily sensation: it spurs physical memories of its application on our own bodies as lubrication, as healing salve, as ointment on a wound. The material is familiar, yielding and tactile, and as such the sculpture seems receptive to encounter and desire. More, the significance of petroleum jelly is a cultural one. Through its brand name, Vaseline, the medium possesses specific associations, which Barney deliberately exploits.3 Vaseline is a staple in team locker rooms. It is as ubiquitous in bedroom nightstands as it is in doctors’ offices and exam rooms. As such it belongs to the iconographical canon of Barney’s production: it relates back to all of these things.

Yet the sculpture bears signs of another life—a specific function. The object rests upon a large painted shape. To those familiar with Barney’s work, this is recognizable as the artist’s “field” emblem—an oval shape crossed with a rectilinear bar—which reoccurs throughout his oeuvre as a symbol of self-imposed resistance on an organic body. Prior to its appearance here, on the floor of the walk-in freezer, Barney employed this shape in his senior project at Yale, Field Dressing (1989), in the form of an oval bed of Vaseline above which the artist raised and lowered himself with straps. Equipped with this knowledge, we might read the painted emblem under Transexualis (decline) as marking a site of action. Additionally, a metal speculum is embedded in the surface of the Vaseline bench. Its presence refocuses our attention on the lubricating capacity of petroleum jelly and characterizes the bench as an exam table. An amorphous silicone gel packet rests unceremoniously on the ground beside the sculpture.4 Above the sculpture a constellation of white polyethylene climbing blocks dot the ceiling of the freezer, each of which drips with a petroleum jelly stalactite. These additional elements implicate the freezer as a site of a specific action and, in turn, reflect back on the sculpture as a component of that as yet unknown activity. At this interpretive impasse—faced with a sculpture that is associated with use both abstract and now potentially specific, a familiar form made uncanny, a dubious material structure, and a profound materiality—we must acknowledge that Transexualis (decline) is functioning on multiple and conflicting registers at once (material, narrative, formal, and phenomenological).

As documents of action related to the petroleum jelly bench, the videos BLIND PERINEUM and RADIAL DRILL offer hope of a stabilized interpretation of Transexualis (decline). We hope they will show the action we suspect took place in the freezer. After passing through the walk-in, we come to the two monitors, positioned high on opposite walls, on which the videos continuously loop. In both videos, silent tasks unfold at measured pace. BLIND PERINEUM documents the action of the artist as he executes a deliberate and laborious climb along the ceiling of Barbara Gladstone Gallery. In the final minutes of the 89-minute video, we see Barney enter the walk-in freezer. The petroleum jelly bench patiently awaits him. The artist makes his way along the upper area of the freezer, methodically inserting titanium ice screws into the climbing blocks, into which he clips the straps that suspend his naked body. The video concludes with Barney negotiating his bindings above the petroleum jelly bench and making a controlled descent alongside the sculpture. The final frames capture the artist—suspended mid-descent—as he assiduously inserts his last ice screw: rather than into a climbing block, this screw slides into Barney’s rectum, presumably eased by the very same stuff that comprises the sculptural form.

BLIND PERINEUM is shot in real-time. The primary camera angle approximates the vantage of a surveillance camera, which is reiterated in the display height of the monitor. These aspects, in addition to the now familiar setting—the actual space of the walk-in freezer where we stood moments ago—lend credence to the video as an accurate record of a specific history pertaining to the petroleum jelly bench. In this sense, the video footage gives us a new context in which Transexualis (decline) functions. As it relates to the performance shown in the video, the Vaseline bench is almost—but not quite—a prop: it marks and directs the final descent of the artist, but Barney’s movement in the video is not strictly related to the sculpture at all—he doesn’t use it.5 Accordingly, the actual sculptural object bears no material trace of the events recorded in BLIND PERINEUM.

This tie to a specific history is made all the more suspect when we consider Barney’s use of a second camera angle in BLIND PERINEUM. The primary footage is shot from an ostensibly objective (surveillance) perspective and records the action of the artist. It also captures footage of a second cameraman, the character Jim Otto, who we see positioned on his back on a dolly on the gallery floor, likewise tracking Barney’s climb.6 The footage captured from Otto’s perspective appears in BLIND PERINEUM intermittently, cast in blue and marked in the lower right-hand corner of the frame by his signature jersey number, 00. The addition of this subjective footage injects a suspicion of doubt into the real-time video.

The display of BLIND PERINEUM in close proximity to the freezer where the action recorded took place—which is currently the site of our real life experience of the sculpture—leaves us split between the two, experiencing the friction of incompatible realities. This sense of discontinuity is exacerbated by the 20+ years that separate the sculpture in the video and the actual sculpture we encounter. Moreover, the exhibited freezer contains no reliable evidence of the events recorded in the video, only uncertain signs: the ice screws along the ceiling are removed and replaced, the silicone gel pack rests in place of the artist’s body. Further, while the video establishes a connection between the sculpture and activity in the video, the sculpture is not reduced to a prop. Nor can we say that the object has become a memory bank for a specific action. The petroleum jelly bench we encounter remains intrinsically unaffected; its materiality still reverberates with echoes of our bodies, of our physical memories, of various and ranging associations, none of which have been foreclosed by this new context. The recorded interaction in BLIND PERINEUM therefore destabilizes our experience of the sculpture, pointing us back to the material thing. Transexualis (decline) is always potentially both and neither: an autonomous sculpture and an object defined by its relation to a specific event.

In RADIAL DRILL, in contrast to BLIND PERINEUM, it is clear from the outset that we are not witnessing an action in real-time. The video begins with a dreamy fade-in on Barney, clad in white lingerie—an under- (or over-?) dressed defensive back running backwards into a slow-motion turn. The physical language and trappings of football and sports training pervade this video. Barney employs them not so much for particular reference than for a system of movement and an allegorical manifestation of disciplined energy. We might draw comparison to Steve Paxton’s periodic use of poses taken from sports photographs in his choreography in the 1960s and ‘70s.7 In the next frame, Jim Otto lowers methodically into a full squat, suspended in the stance of stored potential energy, and entwined by two flabby manacles extending from the pink wrestling mat behind him (Barney’s REPRESSIA (decline) (1991)).

Throughout RADIAL DRILL, Barney and Otto, often respectively clad in a floor-length gown and home jersey, engage the sculptures that comprise the exhibition Facility of DECLINE in a variety of ways. Barney sashays through the gallery, led by or pushing—it is remarkably hard to tell—a white plastic blocking sled (Anabol(A): PACE CAR FOR THE HUBRIS PILL (Equipe)(1991)). Otto slowly maneuvers a long Teflon pole around his body (part of CONSTIPATOR BLOCK: shim BOLUS). A character, whose face we can’t quite make out, lies pinned under REPRESSIA (decline), defenseless against an assault by a clay skeet, which shatters against his head. REPRESSIA(decline) later restrains Barney—still elegant in a floor-length gown and gloves—by the ankles, occasioning a slow fall.

The video fades in and out of each activity; each interaction commands its own distilled moment. As a whole, the video seems equal parts fantasy and instructional video. Barney’s sculptures feature prominently, more as actors than props. RADIAL DRILL does little to stabilize an interpretive toehold for Transexualis (decline), which is not featured, but the video tells us a great deal about the aesthetic system in which the petroleum jelly sculpture operates: it is a system in which the agency of the material object is on par with the agency of the artist’s body.

Returning to the sculptural object, we find that in relation to Barney’s videos, Transexualis (decline) contains a surplus and insufficiency of information. As a sculptural form it is both found object and molded material. As shape it is provisional and contingent. Its medium occasions ambivalent associations. These material-based qualities, as well as the redoubling of the actual space of the freezer initiated by BLIND PERINEUM, suspend the viewer in a state of logical disjunction. With Transexualis (decline) Barney deploys a precise material framework—the physical properties of the medium, its associative limits, and its narrative history—as an agent of indeterminacy.

Arguably, it follows that this work disavows the value of the autonomous aesthetic object. It is not beholden to an a priori image or predetermined outcome, and as such belongs to the history of so-called Process art of the late 60s and early 70s. Artists we affiliate with Process art (Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Serra, for example) developed production strategies reliant on procedure and task-based action, thus prioritizing chance and the body as a primary tool of art making. Specifically, the ways in which Barney’s work can be seen as result of a set of fixed parameters, suggests a relation to the anti-image making strategies of those artists—particularly their use of raw material, the body, and physical and conceptual constraints.

For Barney, as an undergraduate in the sculpture department at Yale in the late 80s, the legacy of Postminimalism and Process art was pervasive.8 From Barney’s perspective, postminimal practice, above all through the work of Richard Serra, had become the dominant aesthetic doctrine of his education. It was codified by Serra’s Verb List.9 Written in 1967-68 and first published in 1971, Verb List is true to its title: a handwritten list of primarily transitive verbs, and as such, an instruction sheet for art making that directly pits the action of the body against an unspecified medium—to tear, to cut, to spill, to scatter, to heap, etc.10 At the time, Serra’s Verb List articulated a new approach to art making: according to the terms of the list, the action of the artist’s body is the sole means for producing the work—and, in turn, the work’s sole referent.

In this way, Serra’s Verb List functions as a productive constraint: within the parameters of the enumerated activity a work results, unencumbered by the artist’s thought processes and otherwise susceptible only to chance and the physical resistance of any given medium. As such, for Serra, the working method represented by Verb List was liberating.11 How strange it may seem, then, that for Barney, as a young artist trying to establish the terms of his own work, Verb List came to represent an historical burden. Filtered through university art departments, by the late 80s at Yale, the principles of Process art likely reached Barney in a summarized and abridged state. Process as an operating term became academicized and rule-bound, and as such, as a model for Barney’s own production, it ironically boarded on predetermining: the work produced, hinging as it does on an ever more restrictive definition of material and its treatment, approximates a foregone conclusion.

These observations help us frame Barney’s approach, which makes use of a material-driven propositional method founded on a precise set of constraints (physical, material, conceptual). As such it remains deeply engaged with the concerns of Process art, but rejects the conceit that form is primarily a result of process. With Transexualis (decline) the significance of the work—or, more accurately, its fundamental ambiguity—is not encoded by the artist, but methodologically by the material object itself. Barney’s materialism bounds and enables an interpretation of the work that is unresolved and deliberately impossible to grasp. As an artistic strategy, it expands and contracts to suit Barney’s various mediums and scales of production. The work lives in a suspended state of mutual exchange between the confirmable and unconfirmable—always confined by the material boundaries of a propositional framework. As we observe Barney’s practice beyond 1991 spin out to ever more complex narratives, situations, and forms, increasingly thematically extravagant, and with images ever more enigmatic and beguiling, we might bear in mind Nobokov’s reassuring claim: “there is no mirage without a vanishing point, just as there is no lake without a closed circle of reliable land.”12



1 Roberta Smith, “Matthew Barney’s Objects and Actions,” The New York Times, 4 November 1991, p. 18.

2 Transexualis (decline) has a steel armature, which Barney constructed and covered in expanded steel lath to facilitate the adhesion of the jelly. He prepared the jelly by first melting it down and freezing it in five-gallon buckets, from which he cut petroleum jelly blocks using a sharp spatula and applied them in stacks on the armature. The process of melting the material is critical: it removes the air and makes the substance stronger. This added strength of the material and the structural armature are not perceivable in the final sculpture.

3 The brand name has become so pervasive that it has been made a verb. The French word “vaseliner” is a transitive verb meaning to coat or smear with Vaseline.

4 Barney identifies this element as a “pectoral form” in an enumerated list of the work’s components.

5 His task-based physical activity perhaps recalls the studio exercises of Bruce Nauman, repetitive or obsessive actions, which, during the 1960s, the artist recorded on videotape and film.

6 As a character in the Barney universe, Jim Otto is founded on the idea of the indomitable Raiders Center by that name, who almost masochistically employed his body during his 15 years with the Raiders, never missing a game due to injury despite dozens of surgeries, including nine knee surgeries during his playing career alone. For Barney, Jim Otto represents an agent of potential energy.

7 The slow, pedestrian pace of Paxton’s movements also resonate with this work, as does the artist’s use of wrestling mats in his performances, the later of which Barney took note. In conversation with the artist, February 2013.

8 At the time David von Schlegell was head of Yale’s sculpture department and prioritized postminimalism in his curriculum. Barney studied with von Schlegell, worked closely with Alice Aycock, and kept close company with a group of graduate students—most notably Michael Rees and Michael Joaquin Grey—who were negotiating the tactics and materials of postminimalism in their own work at the time.

9 Richard Serra, Verb List, in Richard Serra: Writings/Interviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 3–4. In his commencement speech for the 2014 Yale MFA graduating class, Barney recalled that Verb List “hung over our heads like a moralistic treatise on art making.”

10 The way in which the material implicated in Serra’s Verb List—its basic physical properties—informs the work, indeed mediates the action, very much resonates with Barney’s practice. However, this facet of the work is deemphasized by its iconic status as the “process as product” model, that is to say, the one bearing down on Barney at Yale. Indeed, much more is to be made of the influence of Serra on Barney’s work as a whole, specifically the materiality of Serra’s work, again, implicit in the language of Verb List, as in the example of Serra’s use of lead in its aggregate state (a state of suspension), and the artist’s calculated use of the material for its associations with manufacturing and millwork as a province of industrial labor.

11 Speaking to this point, Serra has said: “The Verb List allowed me to experiment without any perceived idea about what I was going to make and not worry about the history of sculpture. I wasn’t burdened by any prescripted definition of material, process, or end product.” In Kynaston McShine, “A Conversation About Work with Richard Serra,” in Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years, ed. McShine and Lynne Cooke, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 27.

12 Vladamir Nabokov, Transparent Things, New York: Vintage International, 1989 (originally published New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1972), 93.


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