Matthew Barney - Bildungsroman

Written by Gunnar B. Kvaran

Matthew Barney is arguably the artist of the 1990s who most profoundly changed the language of sculpture. He achieved this through the introduction of new materials, from petroleum jelly to gym equipment, the conflation of media and narrative structures, and his enigmatic biological fictions that are at once hilarious and monstrous. For Barney, sculpture is an emanation of places, performances, films, photos, drawings and ephemera, in which he is typically the story’s protagonist. In this exhibition, Matthew Barney - Bildungsroman, he has created a new layout in a narrative that goes from Transexualis (decline) (1991) through The CREMASTER Cycle (1994–2002) and DRAWING RESTRAINT 9 (2005) to River of Fundament (2014).

Transexualis (decline) (1991), was one of Barney’s first major works, introducing many of the conceptual and structural elements that would be brought together in his later CREMASTER Cycle (1994–2002). The point of departure was a series of performances that were based on themes of resistance as a catalyst for creativity. The spectator enters a refrigerated room containing materials of symbolic value in Barney’s fictive netherworld, such as flight blocks in the ceiling and a petroleum jelly weight-lifting bench. Through these devices, Barney forges a sensorial and existential experience (conditioned by the nature of the materials and the temperature of the room), initiating a narrative that takes the spectator beyond the visible. 

The CREMASTER Cycle (1994–2002), Barney’s baroque, phantasmagorical fresco based around themes of sexual identity, mutant bodies and creative energy, is an open visual process, with no beginning or end, consisting of many individual works, anecdotes and experiences that come to no clear-cut conclusion. This constellation of films, sculptures, drawings and photos together form highly complex narratives. The stories and themes explored in the films often have parallels in the two- and three-dimensional works that continue the process. The sculptures, onto which Barney transfers the action, introduce materials that can be reshaped and changed, like petroleum jelly and wax. These are not limited to a particular function as props, but are independent works that may have been featured in a film, or were inspired by its situations, landscape and architecture, but which retain an independent and meaningful role as original art objects. 

The films tell open and symbolically charged stories, without a linear plot, that force viewers to make their own reading and interpretation. The all-encompassing title CREMASTER is the anatomical word for the muscle that controls the elevation and descent of the testicles. In each film, we find several stories roughly relating to this theme, which present important human topics such as sexuality, gender, destiny, ambition, conflict, resolve, energy, fantasy, time and death. The starting point for the films was certain landscapes or architectures that inspired specific themes and formal solutions. To enrich his innovative language, narrative structure and aesthetic, Barney also draws on those artistic references that lend themselves to the situation in question, such as Land art, Conceptual art, Process art and, not least, Body art. 

In The CREMASTER Cycle, the body is central, both physically and mentally. Often it is the artist’s own body that is the focus of the action, transformed into a biologically challenged body whose acts produce temporary and ephemeral energy. Strong references are made to athletic feats that require effort to overcome physical limits, to produce power, to create a process. Such references are linked to Barney’s own history (such as his time spent as a footballer at college), while building on the performance art that marked the beginning of his career.

The Drawing Restraint series (begun 1987), drawings, sculptures, photographs and video works where Barney applied restraints to his body while drawing, was a precursor of The CREMASTER Cycle. DRAWING RESTRAINT 9 from 2005 consists of several components, including a feature-length film, large-scale sculptures, photographs, drawings and books. The film documents at least two narratives simultaneously: the creative process of the making of a sculpture on the upper deck of a whaling ship, and a love story on the lower deck. Both narratives are based on transformation and metamorphosis, which gives the film a mysterious and enigmatic tone.

River of Fundament is the artist’s latest achievement: a six-hour-long film, drawings, storyboards and eighty-five sculptures, some of them monumental. The story is, as always with Barney’s works, complex and multi-layered, loosely based on the novel Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer, which Barney incorporates into a series of site-specific performances referring to the history of the American automobile industry. The notion of change, a recurrent theme within his art, is here explored through the reincarnation of a human and car in ‘a meditation on the timeless concerns of mortality and regeneration’.

Each of these series or bodies of works is a rare, ambitious and accomplished contribution to contemporary art in which Barney has fundamentally renewed the making of art and especially the notion of sculpture. His polyphonic works unfold as a series of films in which the narrative is then developed through the superposition of apparently discrete stories, as well as a dense and varied network of metaphors, cross-references, and historical and cultural allusions. It is also extended off screen, through installations of sculptures and objects that seem to have been engendered by the films. The frontiers between the present and the past, the real and the imaginary, are thus obliterated.

Beyond the complexity of his narrative structures, Barney has invented a new aesthetic and formal vocabulary, as well as a new sensibility, through his use of surprising materials. In an age dominated by ‘appropriation’ he chose to break new ground, invent new visions, balancing between the sublime and the horrific, seduction and repulsion, which gives his narratives their unique aesthetic presence.

The exhibition, Matthew Barney - Bildungsroman is a selection of works from all the artist’s major periods, a constellation of films, sculptures and photographs, which he has rearranged and recontextualised to create a space for a new kind of reading and existential experience.

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