Matthew Barney's Research

Matthew Barney: River of Fundament
Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart
22 November 2014 – 13 April 2015

It is all too easy to be seduced by the sheer gloss of Matthew Barney’s career. He makes epic videos via massive budgets. He seduces ‘big’ names to be involved, from Ursula Andress to Deborah Harry to Norman Mailer. He shows at the Guggenheim and was married to a rock star. At times it is nigh impossible not to be blinded by the glittering surface sheen, regardless of the faeces and the gore.

But the grunge at the core of this glitter has been there consistently. This became apparent during an all-too-brief discussion I had with the artist in Hobart as he was installing his massive sculptures in the bowels of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in late 2014. The conversation had begun by discussing the author J.G. Ballard, whom Barney has long acknowledged as his favourite writer. Ballard’s fascination with psychopathology, with the bodily, with automobiles (crashed) and the apocalyptic has bled through Barney’s oeuvre since its inception, however there was a parallel, rarely discussed, interest which came to light when Barney uttered a few words: ‘There were also those wonderful RE/Search books which were definitely an inspiration.’

The influence of RE/Search opens a Pandora’s Box into how to (re)consider Barney’s modus operandi. Based in San Francisco and founded in 1980 by publishers Andrea Juno and V. Vale, RE/Search grew out of Vale’s seminal punk fanzine Search & Destroy from the late ’70s and continued to wear its punk/industrial/hardcore credentials with pride, covering such acts as Cabaret Voltaire, SPK and Throbbing Gristle (Barney’s own interest in hard-hitting rock is abundantly clear via his inclusion of such bands as Morbid Angel, Agnostic Front, Murphy’s Law and Slayer in his works, and in conversation he also cites The Butthole Surfers and Swans.)

But RE/Search never intended to be yet another rock magazine. In some ways it was Semiotext(e)’s evil brother. While Semiotext(e) was the quintessential New York publication, introducing its audience to French theoreticians, RE/Search was archetypal San Fran and it rapidly segued into a semi-literary journal. Its fourth issue saw William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Genesis P-Orridge discussing notions of the ‘Control Process’, cut-ups, violent crime and revolution. However, always restless and relentless, its next issue was dubbed ‘Industrial Culture Handbook’ (1983) and carried a theme of ‘deviant’ performance artists and musicians including Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, Non, Monte Cazazza, Johanna Went and Z’ev. 

Of these, is it abundantly clear that the work of SRL left a lasting impression on Barney. Founded in 1978 by machine-artist Mark Pauline, the group rapidly gained a reputation for its monstrous robotic battles and life-threatening (to the audience as well as the performers) antics. One can see the resonance in Barney’s oeuvre in such works as Hoist (2004) and in the cinematic aspect of River of Fundament in which a backhoe eviscerates a 1967 Chrysler Imperial in an almost sexualised mechanical orgy. (It transpired that both Barney and I had met Pauline and uncomfortably agreed that his handshake was decidedly memorable: in 1982 Pauline was working with a rocket motor that exploded in front of him, severing most of his fingers. He was rushed to hospital where his hand was ‘remade’ by attaching some toes and skin from his back.)

Yet another edition of RE/Search was dubbed ‘Modern Primitives’ and considered the phenomena of multiple piercings, tattooing and ritual scarification in contemporary times. The issue, published in 1989 and featuring such extremists as Fakir Musafar, Anton LaVey, Monte Cazazza and Genesis P-Orridge clearly preempts many similar elements running through Barney’s work, such as the flensing scene in Drawing Restraint 9 (2005), and Aimee Mullins self-mutilation in River of Fundament as well as the solid emphasis on tattooing in that film.

But perhaps of most significance, both in terms of written and visual content, would be several books revolving around J.G. Ballard that RE/Search published. The first of these, simply titled J.G. Ballard, appeared in 1984 and is lavishly illustrated with grainy photographs of crashed cars and ruined buildings, as in the kind Barney captures when he portrays Detroit in Fundament — a form of Ruin Porn. Along with interviews, non-fiction and Ballard’s own montages, the RE/Search book contains an excerpt from Ballard’s infamous novel Crash. ‘I was asked by Artforum to review Cronenberg’s Crash’, Barney said in Hobart. ‘But there was no way I was going to like Cronenberg’s version, there was no way I was going to like my version. Crash remains one of my favourite books.’

In 1990 RE/Search also reprinted Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, which was first published in 1970 and promptly shredded for its supposedly offensive content. Perhaps most significantly for Barney was the fact that RE/Search commissioned gruesomely sexualised illustrations by artist Phoebe Gloeckner and decidedly dystopian photos by Ana Barrado. The illustrations clearly parallel Barney’s fascination with biological aesthetics. The Cremaster muscle is not illustrated but the Urogenital groove, Cloacal-urethal fold and the Nasolacrimal groove are, as is a severed penis, one of which features in Fundament. There is also a malformed or unformed phallus a lá Gary Gilmore’s in Cremaster 2. The RE/Search edition also features a preface by William S. Burroughs who is quoted in Fundament.

But one must remember that, like RE/Search, many of Barney’s original inspirations came from the rock world. During the same period that Barney was ingesting RE/Search he was also consuming the bizarre hardcore punk visuals of The Butthole Surfers: ‘Some of the first shows I saw when I moved to New York were the Butthole Surfers’, Barney told the New York Magazine in 2006. ‘They were using found medical films, projecting them behind the band — things that were really difficult to watch, like a vasectomy. The way they mixed media I found really compelling.’

In August, 2008 Barney held a house party and pig roast which he dubbed Black Metal Pig, featuring live performances by such bands as Copremeis, Inquisition, Dagon, Krallice, and S.M.E.S. Barney, wielding sharpened knives, kept his guests satiated by roasting and carving up several suckling pigs, something of a rehearsal for at least one scene in River of Fundament. The Black Metal pigs were consumed, the one in his film left to rot and crawl with maggots, its skeletal remains on display at MONA. Very Death Metal.

Matthew Barney, River of Fundament storyboards, 2007-14. Detail, mixed media in eight oak and glass vitrines. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. Photograph Rémi Chauvin/MONA. Image courtesy Gladstone Gallery and Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart. 

Matthew Barney, River of Fundament storyboards, 2007-14. Detail, mixed media in eight oak and glass vitrines. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. Photograph Rémi Chauvin/MONA. Image courtesy Gladstone Gallery and Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart. 


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