That Matthew Barney’s multi-mythological total works of art will go down in art history is probably indisputable at this point. As for me, Barney ended up in my personal artist pantheon twenty years ago, when I wrote a thesis in art history on ‘Monsters in Contemporary Art’, focusing on The Cremaster Cycle (1994–2002). At the time, I was quite obsessed with his ability to balance spectacular theatricality and hermetic inaccessibility with his intricate interweaving of art-historical and contemporary references that seamlessly transform the viewer into a paranoid co-creator of meaning structures that may or may not exist in the works. Not to mention his ability, through a tightly regulated matrix, to reveal the art system as a superficial cult structure based on completely absurd self-mythologising, rituals and masquerades.
I was also fond of how Barney folded his athletic body in and out of all kinds of Houdini-like climbing experiments, his preoccupation with creation myths, sexual non-differentiation, hybrids, the interplay between transgressions and self-discipline, Dionysian overflow and Apollonian severity, his Freemasonry odysseys, and queer-erotic multimedia installations that sizzled with both trashy-baroque excess and melancholic, tightly controlled Art deco-desires.
In the winter of 2007, I got the chance to spend time with the man himself at a party in a dizzyingly high, half-completed skyscraper in Moscow. The intense encounter (which gave rise to gossip that I shall return to later, as it says quite a lot about the mechanisms of the art world) taught me something I had not yet understood at the time: the gap between the myth and the man behind it may be enormous, and near vital when it comes to maintaining one’s mental health. How many of us are interested in the inner lives of artists, their normality, the fragility, and the small worries behind the masks? Yet, if we expect artists to live up to the myths about themselves, we would do well to remember Lacan’s famous statement: “If a man who thinks he is a king is mad, a king who thinks he is a king is no less so.” It is precisely this gap that enables transitions between art and life, backstage and the stage.
Arriving at the Hayward’s Brutalist building in London to see Barney’s extensive solo exhibition Redoubt, which both sums up and opens up new dimensions in his art, fills me with an indescribable euphoria and gratitude, but also with sadness over the passing of time. Barney has aged, as has his art, which still deals with the perpetual return of certain issues, the idea of the cycle, multiple economies of desire, eschatological hubris, and the neo-Romantic pursuit of liberation from the conditions of finitude. But something has happened. His decadent horror vacui aesthetic, video game logic, and tireless empire building around his artistic self, have given way to a more serious and colder world which no longer centres on the artist, but on hunting and environmental violence.
In the first mausoleum-like space, I encounter a phallic, tree-like bronze sculpture that looks like a satellite about to be launched into space. The sculpture is a cast of a real tree harvested from a burned forest in the Sawtooth Mountains in central Idaho, and looks like it’s been lifted from a post-apocalyptic shipwreck. On the walls are electroplated copper reliefs with maps of obscure star constellations and cancer-like nebulae. Further into the room, I am greeted by the absolute highlight of the exhibition: Barney’s two-hour long video odyssey Redoubt (2018).
In the looped film, a camouflage-clad woman climbs up a tree several hundred metres high, rising in a sublime snowy landscape. She stretches out from it, as if she were a branch, and starts howling like a wolf. Dressed in camouflage, a pair of silent women with stern gazes move slowly in a stylised dance through the mountain landscape, while being filmed from an angle reminiscent of the initial bird’s eye view in The Shining (1980). The women are hunting a wolf, which is seen standing high on a cliff looking gently around. One of them fires after catching the animal in her riflescope, and you see it falling in slow motion from the ledge.
A bearded, weathered Barney appears in the frame, dressed as a forest ranger. He steps up to the wolf’s corpse, tears off its fur and hangs the animal by its paws to resemble the Hanged Man tarot card. A similar scene is repeated later in the film, this time with two female hunters, with one of them tearing off the other one’s clothes. The rest of the breathtaking film depicts the tension between the female hunters, who incarnate the hunting goddess Diana and her companions, and the forest ranger, who symbolises the voyeuristic hero Actaeon who sneaks alone through the mountain landscape like a contemporary version of Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic hero. Sometimes, he takes out a copper engraving plate and begins to depict the hunters.
At first, I’m a bit annoyed by this simple dichotomy between violent evil women who shoot wolves and the passive man content with portraying the whole thing. Is this Barney’s attempt at remaking Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) through a tribute to Terrence Malick’s slick National Geographic aesthetics? But suddenly, I see Barney’s ranger figure pull out a rifle and shoot a cougar. After a while, Actaeon is also shot by Diana, but he survives.
The exhibition leaflet assures us that no animals were injured during filming. Yet, bloody animal carcasses, bones, and piles of meat with vultures hovering above them appear again and again in the snow-covered mountain landscape. The film replicates a wolf hunt that took place in the forests of Idaho in the 1980s, and which Barney was deeply affected by. From time to time, the ranger returns to his home, a trailer he shares with a sibylline woman who performs not only strange dances that connect the ground with the sky, but also various kinds of alchemical experiments that expose the ranger’s copperplates to electrochemical transformations. In one scene, he goes to a nearby tavern where a Native American woman performs a hoop dance with a pair of plastic rings, but unlike Barney’s previous metamorphoses, which constantly negate the castration, the woman remains trapped in her own bubble. The film’s characters function as sculptures that shift or are attracted to each other, create or destroy, in an endless loop where restraint, distance, and discipline become the prerequisites for desire.
If Barney’s earlier art was organised around a phallic symbolism that sought libidinal excesses in a desire to become one with everything – while at the same time seemingly suffering from a strong castration complex – he now seems to have finally matured to accept the fictional nature of phallus, castration, the fact that the phallus is always imaginary and thus doomed to disappear. Castration is essential for the nature of desire, and the desire that takes us out of the circles of repetition in particular. Barney now seems more interested in the sublimation of this negativity. A work that underlines this thesis is a sculpture in the upstairs gallery featuring a machine-burnt tree lying on a pair of white baroque marble blocks taken from a Bernini plinth – emblems of a dead phallus. For it is only when everything has died that everything can begin to live again.
In his acclaimed novel Tiens ferme ta couronne (Hold Fast Your Crown, 2019), the French author Yannick Haenel offers a reinterpretation of the myth of Diana and Actaeon, in which Diana’s transformation of Actaeon into a deer who is then tormented and killed by his own dogs, is derived from the fact that Actaeon did not properly look at her in the bath. The gaze is the most phallic thing there is. No wonder Diana neutered it (by first splashing water on Actaeon). Barney’s alter ego also doesn’t seem to look at Diana in the ‘right way’, for the gaze is always violent, always obliterating, if not always accompanied by touch. It is this violent policing of desire and gaze that Barney seems to want to criticise through his art, which constantly keeps the world at a distance, despite its hopes for complete symbiosis. But that’s not all.
The ancient hunting theme and the Romantic artist myth are also intertwined with North American colonial history. It is as if Barney wants to say that all this is connected and that it is through a careful analysis of the geopolitical relations over time and space that it is possible to achieve a certain kind of holism. What is the source of the violence? he seems to wonder. Is the violence born from myths about ourselves, or is violence an inevitable part of our nature? I lean towards the latter and believe, like Freud, that each of us is driven by death and life impulses, that hatred and love stem from the same source. Hence, Hobbes’s famous statement that “man is a wolf to man.” At the end of the film, a pack of wolves rushes into the ranger’s trailer and starts tearing apart everything that gets in their way. ‘Nature’ strikes back. Order has been restored. The only thing left unharmed are the copper engravings, the ability of art to survive death, and the possibility of a gaze that can cleanse away urges.
What will be left of our lives? What will disappear? I’m thinking of the dark winter night in Moscow. Barney and I in the dizzying skyscraper. Our long conversation. His great humility and lack of self-centredness. His interest in my name. Where did it come from? I explained that Sinziana was a Romanian folktale princess whose name comes from Sancta Diana, the holy Diana: a pre-Christianisation of a pagan myth. He fell in love with the story and wanted to “know more.” We left the skyscraper together to move on to another party, but on the way there I suddenly stopped and said goodbye. In the days that followed, all the Swedish partygoers, despite my diligent assurances to the contrary, were firmly convinced that I had spent the night with Barney. This rumour also ended up on blogs and social media. Even the artist Lars Vilks, who was not present, wrote an article about the event, with the now rather eerie-sounding title, ‘Dances With Wolves’.
“A lot of Swedes were in Moscow for the biennial, among others our competent critic Sinziana Ravini,” Vilks wrote. “She went dancing, because that’s what one does at biennials, and was given the options of Matthew Barney (77) and Jonathan Meese (249). She then picks Barney despite Power Ekroth’s perfectly reasonable objections. Did she go for Artfacts instead of trying to sense the trend? Or can it all be explained entirely as a matter of the heart? Either way, we have something to learn from this event. In the situation that has arisen, it is Meese that matters because he is one of the major trendsetters.” Vilks ended the article by pointing out that I should choose my dance partners with greater care. Which I actually did, in my more or less unconscious hunting scenario.
I have never really understood the allure of Artfacts and art trends; only those who try to escape the present are contemporaries, Nietzsche claimed. As for nocturnal extravagances or matters of the heart, I can safely assure those who thought otherwise, that it is possible to have a strong desire for an artist and his work without having to take it further. It is precisely this negation of the impulse given through art’s “look, but don’t touch” imperative, which guarantees the existence of desire over time and space. The wolves are rarely where you think they are, but the best thing you can do when you encounter them is to dance with them.