News Column

Artist-filmmaker Matthew Barney sees 'so many possibilities' in Detroit

May 31, 2014

By Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press

May 31--It's showtime -- finally.

Nearly four years after artist Matthew Barney was in Detroit to film a key chapter of his latest opus and seven years after he he started the project, the Wagnerian-scaled "River of Fundament" will have its local premiere at the Detroit Institute of Arts on Sunday. At 5 hours and 20 minutes (plus two intermissions), the film, a collaboration with composer Jonathan Bepler, has already been seen in New York, Vienna and elsewhere, but the screening at the DIA closes the circle on an important chapter of local cultural history.

At 47, Barney ranks among the most celebrated artists of his generation, and his decision to set part of his latest epic in Detroit offered an important early imprimatur of the city's rising status as a vibrant center for contemporary art. But Barney was no carpetbagger. Preproduction planning around the city took two years, and the artist employed more than 200 local musicians, actors, designers and craftspeople, among them singer-actor Shara Worden and the late singer Belita Woods.

Primarily a filmmaker and sculptor, Barney remains best known for his five "Cremaster" films, epic and controversial mash-ups of bizarre imagery and inscrutable narrative that meditate on sexual differentiation, mythology and the artist's creative process. "River of Fundament" takes its inspiration from Norman Mailer's 1983 novel "Ancient Evenings," whose metaphysical themes deal with reincarnation among a tale of the pharaohs and a nobleman within Egyptian antiquity.

Barney's film, conceived as a nontraditional opera, unfolds in three acts and multiple layers in which stories, themes and imagery weave together in Bach-like counterpoint. On one level, there's a death-and-rebirth story of three "Normans" reaching for the brass ring of literary immortality that mirrors the myth of Osiris, god of the afterlife and the underworld. Mailer's Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone becomes the scene of a wake for the late author. On another level, there's a mythological story set across America in which a 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial is reincarnated as a 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am and a 2001 Crown Victoria.

As usual with Barney, there's a lot of sexual, violent and scatological imagery along the way: Caveat emptor. The real-life cast includes Ellen Burstyn, Paul Giamatti, John Buffalo Mailer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Elaine Stritch and Aimee Mullins.

The live-action footage shot in Detroit stems from an epic day of filmmaking on a chilly day in October 2010 in which an audience -- including me -- was bused to a River Rouge factory for one scene before boarding a barge for a hallucinogenic trip down the Rouge and Detroit rivers, where we witnessed among other things, a retelling of the myth of Isis and Osiris (represented by the Chrysler) as a contemporary murder-mystery, a weird woman-car insemination scene and a grandiose auto-sacrifice scene of fire and spouting molten iron at a photogenic factory in Trenton.

Barney, who will be in Detroit for the screening, spoke about the film and his art earlier this week from his studio in New York. He's an engaging interview, serious but less foreboding than his work might lead you to think, and willing to reveal a sense of humor about his work.

QUESTION: It has been nearly four years since you filmed in Detroit. What have you been doing all this time?

ANSWER: We've been filming a good portion of it. Following the "Khu" performance in Detroit and the "Ren" performance in Los Angeles, I started editing and realized that what the piece needed as a film was a stronger narration, a stronger relationship to the novel I was working from, "Ancient Evenings." Jonathan and I started developing a more cinematic theme that would run through the film and would become the spine of the story. The performed scenes that we did in Detroit and Los Angeles became adjacent realities.

Q: A stronger narrative suggests a more traditional kind of filmmaking. Would you put it in those terms?

A: Well, what we've ended up with is a hybrid. On some level, that's what I was always after, but I went into this not knowing what it was until we came out of the other end.

Q: On the one hand, you were making a film, but the live action material from Detroit was really part theater and part performance art. On another level, it's an opera. Are you consciously striving for a new form or are you just dealing with elements you find interesting and seeing what happens?

A: I think there are a number of things happening at once. One is that I wanted to rewire my filmmaking. To stage these live events was part of that -- to find another way to tell a story on the same scale as I had done before but without the same level of control.

In the beginning, the conversations Jonathan and I had were about opera. It was about what we had done in the past with "Cremaster," to what extent that relates to opera and to what extent this new project would relate to the tradition of opera. Initially, the idea was that all of the aspects of the story would be told through live performance. The project's success really reinvigorated my interest in making a film through this other doorway. But I did feel like I had to retreat into certain cinematic conventions to pull the thing together.

Q: For someone who doesn't know your work or Mailer's, how should they approach this film?

A: Wow. I don't know if I can answer that question. Hmm (long pause). I'm not being evasive, but I don't have that kind of relationship with an audience.

Q: What is your relationship with an audience?

A: What I do, like any other artist, is a language. I exhibit it publicly, so I do want it to be read. I am a storyteller, but at the same time, I'm interested in sculptural presence. While I think this piece is more linear than the "Cremaster" cycle, there are sections that rely very much on the presence of objects, the emotional tone of a situation rather than the legibility of the narrative.

Q: I often tell people who are baffled by contemporary art not to worry so much about what it means but rather think about how it makes them feel.

A: Sure. But at the same time, what interests me is the displacement of emotion from, say, the character in these projects to the environment, the object or the setting. That's the emotion I'm more concerned about than the emotion of the viewer.

To put it in more simple terms, I think that when you stand in front of a good sculpture, there's a wonderful aloofness about it. It doesn't care about you. That's compelling to me. My concern is with the emotive force of that object. That's what I'm trying to get my head around when I'm trying to figure out what a piece is about.

Q: And you want to create work that has that kind of emotive force about it.

A: Exactly.

Q: What do you consider the major themes of the film?

A: There's a central relationship between the character of Norman and the Pharaoh, a manifestation of Ramesses II. In the novel, the Norman character has a different name, the Menenhetet. He's a nobleman who had worked for the Pharaoh and he's coming back as a spirit. He's already lived multiple lives, and he did this through sorcery. He didn't have the born-right to live again like the Pharaoh, and he wants this privilege. He uses different forms of magic to live again, but the Pharaoh doesn't respect him.

This nobleman can be looked at as autobiographical to Mailer. This is a central theme: Mailer is that character and the character of the Pharaoh is the American literary canon. Hemingway, for example, is referred to again and again in relationship to the Pharaoh as that thing the nobleman desires to be and cannot.

Then you have the Egyptian mythological thread that runs through the film -- which was told largely in Detroit and some in Los Angeles and New York -- in these adjacent scenes that happened in the landscape in front of a live audience. And then you have this domestic interior where you have the character of Norman coming back from the dead, visiting his own wake. That's told in a reconstruction of Mailer's brownstone.

Q: Detroit holds a central place in American mythology. Was that your attraction to the city?

A: For sure, that was one of the initial attractions. But I also came originally to look at the salt mines because I was interested in part of the story being told in a subterranean space. It starts to feel something like Pompeii down there, but eventually we weren't able to work down there. But it revealed to me that there's a kind of prehistoric mineral wealth that's everywhere in Detroit -- the limestone, the coke, the iron ore, the salt. It adds significant layers to the many layers that already exist in Detroit -- wealth, success, failure, grassroots rebirth, everything that you see in Detroit that is so gorgeous.

Q: What did you enjoy about working in Detroit?

A: More than anywhere I've ever worked, I was able to draw on the talent locally, from a very strong production design team, the team that helped construct the furnaces that we built out at the McLouth Steel Mill and then a community largely from the Midwest of iron casters. And the musical talent that Jonathan was able to work with. It was very satisfying to be able to make a piece with the people from that place. Detroit was an ideal situation for me because Detroit is a place of so many possibilities.

Q: Are you happy with the way the film turned out or are there things that nag at you?

A: There's always something (laughs). This piece has a scale -- "Cremaster" was parceled out over five episodes -- but this is one monster thing that I can't get my head around yet. I like that about it. It's calling its own shots.

Q: In the book, Mailer is chasing the ghost of Hemingway. Is there a ghost that you are chasing in this film -- some giant Moby Dick-like whale? It sure seems like it.

A: I know. I've killed enough fathers, right? I think the piece is for me largely about coming to terms with a more traditional mode of art-making. For example, the iron castings we made in Detroit opened up a whole new range of materials and processes for me, which are largely traditional. I've made a whole body of work of cast-metal sculpture that I never would have done before this project.

Q: A lot of people might look at the violence, the sheer grossness, the bizarreness, the bodily functions, the hyper-sexuality in your work and ask: "What the hell is wrong with that guy?" What do you think of that reaction?

A: Well, it's interesting in this piece in that at least I have a text to blame it on. The novel is just as sick as the film.

But at the same time, one of the things that attracted me to the novel is that all of the visceral imagery and iconography in the story belongs just as much to the landscape. It's described both through the body and through the environment. It's something that Mailer does really well, and that attracted me. The landscape is hemorrhaging sulfur just as the body is incontinent. There's a naturalism to this piece that's quite different from the artificiality of the "Cremaster" works, and part of that has to do with exploring the body in a more naturalistic way.

Q: But it's still exploring the body in a way that some people think we're not supposed to talk about.

A: Or look at.

Q: But you do, and Mailer did. He had no shame and no fear, and I don't think you do either.

A: (laughs)

Q: Are you sorry Mailer didn't live to see the film?

A: Yeah, I am. I think it would have both pleased and challenged him in terms of the way he's written into the story. Even in his lifetime -- and I learned this quite recently -- he had thought about writing a sequel to "Ancient Evenings" where he was the central character. I think it was something that was on his mind.

Contact Mark Stryker: 313-222-6459 or


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