Posts Tagged ‘River of Fundament’

Mini-review – River of Fundament – Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler at London Coliseum

June 30, 2014

English National Opera billed River of Fundament as the closing “new work” of its 2014 series, which I think set certain expectations: we were going to see an opera, a sung story, only since Matthew Barney was running the show, we were going to be getting our big music with some utterly wild visuals. Picture me getting all woo about some gesamtkunstwerk about to happen: really, it was crazy to think I would do this when I won’t actually go for the Ring Cycle because I don’t want to sit for that long (and don’t like Wagner). But I like film and I like experimental music and I am all about freaky art and this was an event, and event I tell you, even if I had some niggling fears that I had actually just popped $25 in the art wank piggie bank of doom; in essence, funding Matthew Barney’s fine production of style over substance in the grand tradition of Warhol and Hirst, proving that fame is the actual highest commodity of the art world, because it’s what you need to make your art make you money.

It is, certainly, what you need to get other famous people to work with you (perhaps people who think what you do is “interesting” and maybe want to be more involved with “art” to make themselves feel more like “artists”); or, perhaps, Matthew Barney does just get to rub elbows with the elite of the New York scene, like Elaine Stritch, Salman Rushdie, Maggie Gyllenhal, Fran Lebowitz, et cetera. But their presence or absence is unimportant other than in trying to decide just how, exactly, to see this opus. I believe that with the kind of background I have I ought to be able to enjoy/digest/get meaning out of a thing like this without the medium of artist’s notes; and I think we are given a big clue on how to see this at the very beginning, when a man reaches into a toilet, pulls out what looks to be a piece of poop, and wraps it in gold leaf. Now, you can choose to see this as the gilding of Osiris’ disembodied penis, or you can see it as I did: as a billboard from Matthew Barney to the intelligent viewer saying I AM ABOUT TO SERVE UP A BUNCH OF SHIT BUT I MADE IT LOOK ALL PRETTY because that is what you learn to do when you study art at Yale.

And, well, what follows is lots and lots and lots of poo; rivers of poo, and some real rivers, in both LA and Detroit and New York; appearances by Barney’s fetishistic art materials, such as sulfur, salt, and mercury (no Vaseline this time); implied (and real) human fluids both reproductive, purely sexual, nutritive, and simply expelled (I just get the feeling Barney gets a giggle out of trying to be gross, and I refuse to play along; John Waters beat him to the punch three decades ago); really badly acted scenes that attempted to be mythological (but were utterly destroyed by even a chapter of American Gods); tumescing penii and leaking anii; and a huge variety of music that made me feel homesick for the leviathan that is the American music scene. We had an all-female mariachi band; a bit of flamenco; some marching bands; experimental music ensembles (doing laughs and screams and going “Boop Bip”); freestyle jazz … it was all over the place.

And then there was the car obsession. I stand by what I said earlier, that this entire thing is an homage to the death of the American industrial machine (not to Mailer), as epitomized by the muscle car and embodied by the hood decor of the Trans Am (so as to fit into the whole Egyptian journey of the dead hoo hah) – a subject which I do actually consider well worth exploring as art – but I also stand by my assertion that this lushly filmed and richly visualized movie is, in essence, a giant piece of art wank. The individual performances this movie documents might have been interesting to watch as they happened (although I doubt it as the participants looked bored), but I feel like Barney just got really excited about smashing cars and running a giant metal melting apparatus and making a pristine Trans Am be driven off of a bridge into a river (tragedy, I tell you, way more than that of the pregnant Holstein in act one). The point does not need six hours to be made.

The link/poorly executed parallels to a wanky indulgent failure of writing by a great (and importantly FAMOUS) American writer is another symptom of the whole “golden turd” syndrome of “River of Fundament:” it’s a movie that wants to ennoble itself. And here’s the kicker: IT’S A BAD OPERA. But that is too kind, because it’s not an opera, it is an art film. There is an atmospheric soundtrack, done in the style of modern opera, but it’s just background music. Making a movie is what this was about. Barney has put making a spectacle first and, well, shat on the opera. I think he just wanted to say “River of Fundament” is an opera so he could show his movie in really, really cool places: as if being in a place where art is created would confer on him the status he wants this movie so badly to have. He needs us to gild his poo. And, if we agree to this, he will, as in the movie, shove it in without the benefit of lube.

Ah well, it was only 25 quid, it was entertaining to see ENO jammed full of hipsters of all ages, and it was a rainy June Sunday so I didn’t miss much else. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know what was coming. Anyone for a roast pork sandwich?

(This review is for the screening of “River of Fundament” that took place on Sunday, June 29th, 2014.)

Preview/Review – River of Fundament – Matthew Barney at Haus der Kunst/London Coliseum

June 19, 2014

A few years a go, in a reality far far away…

MATTHEW BARNEY, in his Brooklyn studio. He has been struggling to get his new project up and running and is pacing around a table covered with scraps of paper.

MB: Norman Mailer, Norman Mailer! You gave me that “I’m connected with gen-u-wine real art” cachet that I love, then you died! I loved Ancient Evenings‘s delicious blend of cheesy porn and esoteric Egyptian shit, both of us can ride the Book of the Dead to the top of the pile, baby! But I needed more, I needed you to be in my performances … I need something more! I gotta capture the Zeitgeist, man, and your geist is gone! Aw fuck, I need some coffee.

BARNEY goes to the coffee machine and pours himself a cup, then sits down at the paper and grabs the morning newspaper and puts his feet on the table.

MB: Aw, Jesus, the US economy is going to shit. Not good for the art scene, that’s for sure. Fuck, and now Chrysler! It’s pathetic! I remember the good old days, growing up in Idaho, man, the Trans Am was the car to have. The cops loved Ford, but that was about body, not speed. But the Trans Am, it was so cool, with that big old bird on the hood …


Holy shit, I’ve got it! This whole thing can be about the death and transformation of the American muscle car! With all sorts of Egyptian shit on top of it! It’s, like, a parallel for the death of America as an industrial power! And fuck rebirth, it’s just dead, that phoenix isn’t rising. But, oh man, I can do some great stuff with this … I can use cars for each of three segments … fuck, I can do it in Detroit, the fucking beating heart of the American industrial machine, the dead industrial machine, like Osiris, but no golden phallus … I bet I can even get some of those smelters up and running and actually melt down shit! Fuck, this is going to be amazing! I can probably give it some other local ties, to some Motor City artist … and, shit, the Chrysler logo even looks like a religious icon! I’ll stick with the Norman Mailer thing … but I’ll big it up even more and make it an OPERA! Survival Research Laboratories, eat your heart out! I’m riding this baby ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK!

(starts scribbling furiously and picks up his cell phone)

Jenna? You got some opera composers on the short list? I’ve got an idea ….


So two weekends ago I went to Munich, where Matthew Barney has the relics of his latest work, River of Fundament, on display at the Haus der Kunst. In essence, it’s leftovers from the performances that made up River of Fundament, as well as some scraps from the creative process. The various bits didn’t really ring my bell as art, more as items you might find on display at an artistic version of the Hard Rock Cafe. You get his obsession with base metals, with vaseline, with the grottier elements of human anatomy (he just had to love the Osiris/Isis story), but at the same time you could see the underlying thought process tying it together. I’d just seen the excellent Egyptian museum in Munich – all shiny fresh and new – and the elements of the culture and the mythos were all right there in my head, and I couldn’t help but think that both Barney and Mailer were flailing when they tried to incorporate it into their respective works. I suspect both of them were just fascinated like many people are when they learn more about ancient Egypt – but Barney’s nods are very clever and really quite fun (I got a real laugh out of the Boat of Ra).

I can’t imagine, really, why he wanted to do this as an opera, other than to just “jump the shark,” but, you know, if he is able to convince all of these people that he’s doing cool shit and they want to get involved, well, more power to him. It’s a refreshing change from the apologetic patheticness of Tracey Emin and the shallow “I’m really just making shinies for money” of Damien Hirst. Let’s make it big, let’s make it awesome, let’s melt down some cars, roast a pig, and call it an opera. And film it. Because, you know, Matthew Barney, why not. It’s going to be showing at ENO at the end of June and, well, I’ve gone ahead and bought tickets because, you know, even if it isn’t good art, it’s still going to be something worth talking about and, truly, his other movies have created image memories that have stuck with me for years. So I’m giving this a go, and, well, even if its six wasted hours, I’ll be able to say I went.

(This review is for an exhibition at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, and for a film presentation taking place on Sunday, June 29th, and Monday, June 30th. The Sunday show is pretty much sold out but there have been some returns.)