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“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.
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.
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.