Matthew Barney: “Homoerotic? I’ve Always Thought of My Work as Autoerotic”

04/02/2014 11:40 AM |

matthew barney artist norman rosenthal 92y river of fundament
  • Joyce Culver

Norman Mailer once said he met two geniuses in his life: his father, and Matthew Barney. So said Norman Rosenthal, a notable English curator, by way of introducing the artist at the 92Y last night, whose Mailer-influenced film epic River of Fundament has been showing all over the world. (In New York, at BAM six weeks ago.) Many critics were conflicted about Barney’s shit-soaked, six-hour nu-opera—and watching its 15-minute opening scene of self-mutilation, sodomy and sewage-swimming in the 92Y auditorium was slightly awkward—but Rosenthal adores it.

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It’s based on a combination of Mailer’s Egyptian epic Ancient Evenings—excerpts from which the host read—and the author’s life, er, death, as well as Barney’s own almost-inscrutable interests in the mythology, excrement, and the American car industry. Mailer himself suggested his book to Barney as a subject roughly eight months before he died, the artist said, and then by dying became the protagonist of the reuslting piece. “That’s so Norman!” Rosenthal cracked, getting Barney to laugh, one of the few times he did so. Barney had first met Mailer through a mutual friend; he’d admired the writer’s psychological descriptions of the landscape in Executioner’s Song, the protagonist of which, rumor has it, may have been a relative of Harry Houdini’s, so there was something serendipitous about asking Mailer to play the magician in Cremaster 2. The writer was reluctant, though, worrying perhaps he was too old.

“Was he a natural actor?” Rosenthal asked. “No,” Barney said, waiting a beat before adding, “but I’m not a natural director.” Barney didn’t smile at his own joke, and it was hard to tell at first if he’s as humorless as his film or if he was annoyed with his interlocutor. The audience sure was irritated with the host’s name-dropping rambling, audibly so, muttering and chuckling disbelievingly; when Barney explained that he was attracted to Detroit as one of the film’s locations for its salt mine, fitting to the film’s concerns with an underworld, as well as for the city’s “death” and subsequent grassroots rebirth, which also ties into the film’s (many) reincarnations, Rosenthal interrupted and went on a lengthy tangent about the city and its art collection, landing at a peculiar question. “As I was saying,” Barney said, picking up where he left off, to great applause from the audience.

The artist, who has an unexpectedly high-pitched voice and wore plain brown clothes with brown boots, clean-shaven from head-to-chin (in contrast to his character in the “overture” to River of Fundament), did manage to discuss many aspects of the film, though he seemed to struggle often to articulate his ideas. He’s never been to Egypt; though he pursued orthodox avenues of research for the piece—like contacting the guy at the Met—he thought actually visiting the country would cross a line. “It was on my mind not to go until this was finished,” he said. “I’d love to go.” He also discussed the accompanying physical show, presently on display in Munich, and how because of all the heavy and delicate cast-metal it’s difficult to transport. “Metal’s fragile,” he said, not meaning steel. “It’s brittle.”

He discussed how “collaborations take longer,” how the film has no political agenda (though Ancient Evenings could be read as being about the AIDS crisis), that he “would have never made a video if not for Bruce Neuman,” whose work taught him that video could function sculpturally, and that “there’s an erotic tension [to my work], I hope,” but that, homoerotic? “I’ve always thought of it as autoerotic.” (Hahaha.) One of the last audience questions was about whether he believed in reincarnation, and he told a story about Iron Age Scandinavian foundries at which bodies were thrown into the fires to raise their heat, and that sometimes they would put a warrior’s body in if they were making a blade, in order to capture his spirit. “That makes total sense to me,” Barney said. Everybody laughed.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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