Shit Alchemy

Matthew Barney’s rebirth ritual at the Astrup Fearnley Museum makes fertile detours from the cult of his own person.

Matthew Barney, River of Fundament, 2014. Filmstill.
Matthew Barney, River of Fundament, 2014. Film still.

With Bildungsroman the Astrup Fearnley Museum once again offers a major exhibition showcasing one of its golden boys, Matthew Barney. Featuring mainly works from what is said to be the largest Barney collection in Europe, most of the exhibition is taken up by extensive spinoff installations relating to the Cremaster films – as with the last Barney exhibition the museum presented in 2004. Even so, the film River of Fundament (2014), which here gets its first-ever screening in Norway, is undoubtedly the most spectacular element.

Barney’s most recent film piece is an almost six-hour-long techno-carnal orgy. Rumours of literal rivers of shit have preceded the film, but the claims to obscenity are exaggerated. From posing as the abject, the faeces quickly and quite naturally transforms into metaphorical and concrete images of fertility and creation. And the sheer conviction of this portrayal is a relief. Not just because it makes all the hours spent in company with this substance bearable, but also because it makes Barney’s transgressions of generic and cultural boundaries seem less insistent and repetitive than before. Combined with the explosive energy in the series of new sculptures, only one of which is on display at Astrup Fearnley, this development represents a refreshing reinvigoration of the artist’s oeuvre.

Matthew Barney, Water Cast 12: White Dwarf, 2015, detalj.  Foto: Christian Øen.
Matthew Barney, Water Cast 12: White Dwarf, 2015, detail. Photo: Christian Øen.

It is not safe to say whether or not this motif of renewal and rebirth inspired the somewhat insipid exhibition title Bildungsroman, a possible nod to the formation and merciless disciplining of the artist through creative struggle. After all, we are talking about Barney here, a card-carrying post-humanist, so the title might just as well be a wryly ironic comment on Western culture’s faith in moral self-improvement through bland appeal to reason. The erosion of the nature-culture dichotomy is a distinctive trait of Barney’s art, and in this exhibition it is aptly framed by the two works that stand furthest apart chronologically: the new River of Fundament, and the project Transexualis (Decline) from 1991.

Featuring two videos and a workout bench made out of Vaseline, Transexualis (Decline) was a key feature of Barney’s breakthrough exhibition at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in the year of its creation. The videos show Barney climbing the gallery ceiling and walls wearing nothing but a climbing harness. He eventually climbs into the cold storage room, lowers himself down towards the bench, but instead of lying down on it he plugs one of the climbing holds into his anus. While Barney’s performance adds a definite charge to the material properties of the installation, the chilled sculpture in itself also possesses an urgent energy – perhaps due to the precarious nature of its existence, hinted at by the temperature gauge at 7.3 degrees. The work is an important inclusion not least because it exposes Barney’s strong anchorage in the process art of post-minimalism; an ethos of randomness he disciplines in a queer sensibility that seeks to transcend the boundaries of normative (body and media-) practice.

Matthew Barney, Transexualis (Decline), 1991. Foto: Christian Øen.
Matthew Barney, Transexualis (Decline), 1991. Photo: Christian Øen.


If we turn our attention to River of Fundament, its filmic universe is almost as unstable as Barney’s Vaseline sculpture, and the disintegration of inside and outside, the inner and the outer, is more pronounced, not least aurally. Everything is in flux, everything flows, quite literally. Breath and sounds flow. Roles and identities flow between people and between objects. Minerals – of which we are all essentially made up – pass through orifices, cell membranes and our systems in a process of simultaneous creation and decomposition. In circular fashion, the film revolves around a series of incarnations of the late writer Norman Mailer (who was cast as the escape artist Houdini in Barney’s Cremaster 2). We see him at his own wake in a replica of his flat in Brooklyn Heights and follow his three attempts at being reborn by crawling into the bellies of dead animals and crossing a river of faeces. Here, the literary inspiration comes from Mailer’s scatological novel Ancient Evenings, and the rest of the cast of characters are, as in Mailer’s own 700-page epic, from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Attempting to describe Barney’s almost six-hour-long film can easily evolve into a litany of curiosities, genitalia and eccentric details. It is tempting to quote from the New York Times critic Harold Bloom’s review of Mailer’s book: “ I don’t intend to give an elaborate plot summary, since if you read Ancient Evenings for the story, you will hang yourself.” Still, it is worth mentioning that, parallel to the scenes in Mailer’s flat, the author is also reborn in the guise of three generations of American cars. The material for these three spectacular sequences is drawn from performances held in Los Angeles, Detroit and New York. These sequences connect to the wobbly, yet persistent, American religion of consumerism in a much more explicit fashion than in Barney’s earlier work, adding some long-needed resonance to his post-humanist insistence on dissolving the anthropocentric subject. Honest workers, the decadence of civilisation and the metals of the earth are all gobbled up in the furnace of eternal reincarnation, while real-life Detroit melts down scrap metals and sends it to China, or pieces together debris to create new bikes. Bankruptcy is also a promise of rebirth. 

Matthew Barney, River of Fundament, 2014. Filmstill.
Matthew Barney, River of Fundament, 2014. Film still.

Barney has worked closely with the composer Jonathan Bepler, and the sonorous qualities of the setting and the bodies play a far too important role for the film to be credited to Barney alone. If we accept their own description of the project as an “opera”, it is certainly one where the entire filmic universe is animated by the vibrations that connect the human breath with its environment. The film adjusts to the complete nonchalance and indifference to firm distinctions between prosthetics, body and instrument that is characteristic of music. It seems as if Barney’s extensive use of anthropomorphic anatomical metaphors reaches its full fruition through Bepler and the acrobatic modulations of the performers: pipes and trumpets blow into water. Wine, spit and vomit is gargled in the throat. The interior is a drum kit. Through the virtuosity of this symphonic choreography, the work comes across as seductively original.


When viewed from the mezzanine of the Astrup Fearnley Museum, the Cremaster 3: Five Points of Fellowship looks rather like a museum battlefield with its folded gym mats and stacks of ornamented giant prosthetics scattered around the vast hall. There is something about the relationship between Barney’s sculptures and film pieces that make him quite a challenging subject for a museum exhibition: if these film works are to be taken truly seriously, they must (also) be screened in a proper cinema. The museum has taken this into account by collaborating with the Cinemateket. Yet this move also risks reducing the smaller screen video versions that hover above the installations to thumbnails; they become compressed references to the actual work. The sculptures, which are neither props nor paraphernalia, do not always resonate sufficiently in this setting, where their haptic, material presence is disrupted by the notion that their meaning and significance is anchored in the mythologizing films. This is certainly true of the Cremaster series, which obviously centres on Barney as a person, idea, subject and tool; meaning-making is done on the basis of his persona. If the objects become entirely subsumed by such Barney-centrism, there is a risk that this satire on fetishisation will veer into pure fan worship. 

Matthew Barney, verk fra Cremaster 3, 2002.  Installasjonsbilde fra utstillingen Bildungsroman, 2016. Foto: Christian Øen.
Matthew Barney, works from Cremaster 3, 2002. Installation view from the exhibition Bildungsroman, 2016. Photo: Christian Øen.