Film

Invisible Cities: Matthew Barney’s Blindspot

by Chloë Bass on February 20, 2014

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, "River of Fundament: KHU" (2014), production still (photo by Hugo Glendinning, © Matthew Barney)

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “River of Fundament: KHU” (2014), production still (photo by Hugo Glendinning) (© Matthew Barney)

“A lot of people recently suffered for Matthew Barney’s art … KHU, a sprawling, multi-sited, outdoor, all-day performance Barney staged in Detroit at who knows what astronomical cost for a hand-picked audience of around 200. Detroit was the perfect setting for this tale of woe and reincarnation, an economic and spiritual city of the dead and would-be rebirth. It also rained apocalyptically that day, and Barney’s performance included a freezing barge ride down the Detroit River, where the audience witnessed, among other things, a crane dredging up a 1967 Chrysler Imperial.”

—Jerry Saltz, “Imported from Detroit,” New York Magazine, September 23, 2011

Let’s look past the globules, barnacles, and goo. At its heart, Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament is a film about white, male America’s failure to comprehend urbanism. In 2011 I wrote about “KHU,” one of the performances that makes up the structure of River of Fundament. I didn’t see the work live, but based on Jerry Saltz’s and other descriptions, I was struck by its seeming blindness to the city in which it was hosted. My article then stated:

Detroit holds a challenging position in America’s self-image, not to mention in the worldwide imagination. The city is a symbol of our collective failure. We already know this. Like Matthew Barney, we see Detroit as a dredged up ’67 Chrysler Imperial. We want Detroit to be the DJED (the 47,000 pound sculpture that resulted from Barney’s KHU performance): the heavy beauty that results from ruins and car parts, revalued as an untouchable art object.

I was disappointed — although not entirely surprised — by Barney’s colonizing, temporary, and shallow view of Detroit as a site. From all I read about the performance, it seemed that the city served merely as a convenient and heavily charged backdrop.

I’m sorry to say that the complete River of Fundament as a film suffers, almost to an absurdly high degree, from a similar blindness. Its take on Detroit is summed up in one of the many throwaway lines of dialogue: “Detroit is a shithole.” In the context of the film, “shithole” could be seen as a compliment — after all, the sewer is its site of ultimate rebirth — but the aesthetic treatment of the urban environment suggests otherwise.

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, "River of  Fundament: REN" (2014), production still (photo by Ivano Grasso) (© Matthew Barney) (click to enlarge)

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “River of Fundament: REN” (2014), production still (photo by Ivano Grasso) (© Matthew Barney) (click to enlarge)

The action of the film takes place in three cities: New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles. The latter gets a slightly better take; the former both appear as abandoned shells, falsely darkened streets. Meanwhile, Barney layers on endless, empty spectacle, including but not limited to marching bands, pornography, fist fighting, vomiting, and every imaginable kind of gratuitous racial stereotype. (Native American chanting? Check! Step team? Check!) Cities, and particularly Detroit, are rendered as sites of the disgusting. Only nature (generically, and only in the last five minutes of the film, like a breath mint) can be beautiful. This insistence on the purity of nature reads as a perverse kind of manifest destiny: the historic American male claiming and reclaiming of any seemingly pure space, even while leaving behind places of wreckage, chaos, violence, and decay.

Yet when thinking about cities themselves as an epic form, and what we can enact through both urban planning and unplanning, Detroit holds immense power. Once you’ve been there, it’s hard not to see a bit of Detroit everywhere. It’s also hard not to see a bit of everywhere in Detroit. Even Barney captures this, showing the cultivated nature of Belle Isle Park, which calls to mind any number of American historical manors, or waterway images that make the Detroit River and Newtown Creek difficult to distinguish. This, not the ruin, is the incredible power of Detroit.

In realizing the city only through decay, Barney undermines his own film. His attempt to focus on landscape — and the generic nature shots aren’t even the worst of it — becomes an insistence on neutrality, suggesting the irrelevance of urban life to the vast post-industrial environments where much of the film’s action takes place. These landscapes are built with the bones of the cities around them. It’s sad that Barney falls into the same trap as so many other apparent Detroit enthusiasts: seeing the city as simply space, rather than as something to do with people.

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, "River of Fundament: BA" (2014),  production still (photo: Hugo Glendinning) (© Matthew Barney)

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “River of Fundament: BA” (2014),
production still (photo: Hugo Glendinning) (© Matthew Barney)

In tackling so many genres in cinematic format (primarily opera and mythology), Barney attempts to approach Gesamtkunstwerk while completely ignoring the obvious: that the greatest and most totalizing works of all are the cities he’s using as his sets. Perhaps Los Angeles escapes this trivialization because Barney is avowing his respect for Hollywood; perhaps it’s just not post-industrial enough for empty scorn. River of Fundament is a travesty on many levels, but the worst part is that the tragedy of the film is the tragedy of Detroit: we all knew this was happening, and no one said stop.

Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM Harvey Theater, 30 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) from February 12 through 16.

Editor’s note: We asked two writers to review Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament. The other post is here.

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  • Derek Schultz

    I won’t disagree that there aren’t problems with the film, and I’m sure if it were just the performance experience that you had to go on it could come off as simply a backdrop. However, I worked on KHU and can say that across the year and a half or so that he spent researching, shooting, and performing that chapter, he was definitely invested in the community. Jennie Knaggs (Nephthys) and Belita Woods (RIP :( ) are both local Detroit musicians (Belita with a strong history in Detroit Funk/R&B dating back to the 70s), the musicians are primarily local singers and DSO performers, and the crew was almost 100% Detroit artists and production talent (whom he often had conversations with during both production and pre-production). He also set up a studio downtown for the duration of the project. The resurrection scene wasn’t exactly left on an optimistic note visually, but to me there was optimism in the sense that it can resurrect. Plus, with his long history of using vehicles as sets where his characters attain some sort of growth or dramatic change, it completely made sense to me that he’d pull back to the narrative of the industry as a whole. To me he’s an information addict, like a wikirace gone out of control.

    Whether or not Michigan’s film incentives at the time drove the narrative in a specific direction, I can’t speak to, but it’s something I’ve thought about. Personally, I don’t think it made a difference, but…

    Going beyond KHU, I won’t argue that the Native American chanting and step team felt a bit odd.

    And one random piece of trivia: I think Norman’s basement was originally supposed to be shot in the Detroit salt mines, which would have been fascinating, but I guess there were too many safety issues.

    • http://chloebass.com Chloë

      Hi Derek, thanks for this experiential knowledge! Happy to hear both about the links to the D’s historic music scene (super important) and to the use of Detroit artists and production crew. I wonder, though, what you think about the destruction/dredging up of the car. Is that not a visually significant metaphor in the context of the end of the auto industry? Sure, it fits in with Barney’s “world” but I think there’s something to be said for applying metaphors without thinking of them as art only. It’s weird messaging to me — especially in light of the “clean” treatment of nature and the less offensive portraits of LA.

      • Derek Schultz

        I see what you mean, it’s a bit grim, but in reality what the automotive industry left behind isn’t pretty. Even companies like Chrysler (who claim to still have factories operating in Detroit), are really operating out of Auburn Hills. What they left behind looks very similar to that dredged up car. Don’t get me wrong, I love Detroit, and there are so many people still doing great things there (beautiful things too, they’re rebuilding a little bit everyday). That’s the thing though, it’s always been the spirit of it that I love, the drive to resurrect the city in other ways. I don’t love seeing abandoned factories or half the city burning down, but that’s the reality right now, and at least Barney’s telling his story with it (and one that moves to idea of resurrection, which is more than I can say for ruin porn photographers cropping out the optimism). I really believe that he sees a light at the end of the tunnel for Detroit, and I guess I appreciate that, even if the path isn’t pretty.

        • http://chloebass.com Chloë

          Being overly optimistic is as bad as being overly pessimistic, to be sure. I like your thoughts about Detroit. I just don’t see those same thoughts coming through as clearly in River of Fundament. Maybe that’s my own blind spot.

          • Derek Schultz

            You’re right. It’s very possible that I’m forcing River of Fundament into my POV with the hope that he had good intentions too. To be honest, I can’t positively say one way or the other (I’m not in his head, and I don’t think I want to be). I think it’s an important topic that should be brought up with this project though, so thanks for the article and discussion.

  • Superman2010

    Did you really say chanting?

    • http://chloebass.com Chloë

      Hi! Thanks so much for letting me know. This is super informative and I always love new information. I can ask for the line to be changed, and I also hope that people will see these comments and learn from them. I really appreciate your changing the tone of your comment so that I and others can come away better and smarter.

  • http://www.objectcollection.us travis just

    my little experience with this production, FWIW:

    as a curator at a tiny theater in the east village, i was approached by the production team for this to supply extras from the performance community. I replied, asking whether participants would be compensated, as would be expected on even a low-budget film shoot. they said no, but they offered T-shirts, lunches and “a raffle of Barney-related items”. i responded that it was an inappropriate request to expect free labor, and directed them to articles on the situation with Marina Abromovic and MOCA, and some other general literature on labor practices. as someone who also produces his own work on strict and small budgets, I offered to meet with Matthew Barney and the production team to go over their budget and see about structuring their project to treat their workers equitably. never heard back.

  • elgati

    Dammit! Now I want to see it even more! (>_<)
    I was a big fan of Matthew Barney when he did the Cremaster series and we discussed him a lot in graduate school, precisely with Jerry Saltz. Jerry admitted back then that his opinion was biased because he openly loved his work. I guess the love is gone now…
    Both of the reviews in Hyperallergic are funny and witty, and I have to admit that after "No Restraint" I saw it coming. With Cremaster all the disjointed vignettes made sense because he was making up his own folklore and free referencing in an idiosyncratic but still inviting way. Maybe it was that mystery (or "duende") that drew you in. I still think he's a brilliant artist, but maybe he's now getting too esoteric to be appealing anymore? Anyway, I'll probably cave in and watch it since I can't imagine finding it online. :(

    • http://chloebass.com Chloë

      I should add that I wrote this as a Matthew Barney fan, more or less. This film was terrifically disappointing because I’ve loved his other work so much — but I loved that work as film installed alongside gallery shows, never one thing or the other on their own.

  • http://chloebass.com Chloë

    I think the exhibitions for Cremaster and Drawing Restraint actually made the both things warmer . . . more inviting . . . not aloof. A whole world to play in, whether you like it or not.

  • Den Hickey

    Finally Barney stumbles on the perfect title for one of his works… a river of shit.

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