Matthew Barney’s most recent exhibition Djed opened at Gladstone Gallery on September 17. Like everything the artist tends to do, the sculptures on view are of epic proportion. The objects themselves are extremely minimal steel and graphite molded constructions that are half early Richard Serra and half alien crash site. Despite the simplicity and stark visual effect of the gallery space there is a conceptual undertone to these sculptures that would make a baroque palace feel Quaker in comparison. Again, like most of Barney’s work the work installed in the gallery the product of a ritualized daylong event last year in Detroit. Khu was merely one act of Barney’s site specific opera Ancient Evenings, based on Norman Mailer’s novel of the same name. New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz recently published this review of the show. He missed the performance but recounts hearing “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. There was also actress-athlete Aimee Mullins as Egyptian goddess Isis seated semi-naked on an engine block filled with live, writhing snakes.”
AWESOME. Who doesn’t love that description? Though the whole thing sounds like a weird Nine Inch Nails video its rather par for the course when it comes to Barney. His body of work is largely comprised of bizarre films, full of weirdo surreal sculptures, made of bizarre materials. We are also used to seeing the artist’s hybrid installations full of video screens, ephemeral sculptures/drawings with frames of the same material. While this tradition continues to a point there are some noticeable differences. Though Djed is a result of the grand finale of the Khu performance these steel sculptures also function as no nonsense sculptures. Its easy to imagine the artist rolling up his sleeves, flying to Detroit, once a home of American industry, and stripping down his process. “Stripped down” in this case did involve a daylong opera, but the result is much more direct and immediate than his previous Cremaster Cycle works. With this piece Barney has asserted his role as a maker of things. Though there is a complexity strengthened by the ritual performance and myth of his practice his sculptures are, at the end of the day just that … sculptures.
I’m not sure I originally would have agreed with this. I had the pleasure of recently visiting an exhibition of work by Nick Cave at Jack Shainman gallery. While Cave also makes performance, video and object s in a way that stress their interdependency, the end feeling is different. What I realized in the presence of his costume sculptures is that part of their power is their ephemeral nature. Barney by contrast is more concrete. His mythical performances exist in their own right, but also to activate and empower his objects. Though he is a performer and video artist, its perhaps easiest to think of him as a sculptor obsessed with controlling and inventing his own context. In a world where the socio-political and cultural context of a work is of utmost importance, this kind of gargantuan effort is both madcap and awe inspiring.
Matthew Barney’s Djed continues at the Gladstone Gallery (530 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until October 22.