Saturday, October 9, 2010

Matthew Barney's Heart of Darkness

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler; KHU, October 2nd, 2010; performance still (Photo: Hugo Glendinning, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York)

Back when I was a suit guy I was the client of a local ad agency that toward the end of our relationship sold out to Omnicom, the global holding company that is parent to BBDO, DDB Needham, and a host of other Madison Avenue powerhouses. As typically happens with a change in control, the new management brought in its own team, in this case from Chicago, to manage the creative department. We were given the requisite dog-and-pony show to demonstrate the new regime's creative chops. The two-man team had worked on a number of big brands, including Budweiser, Pepsi, and GE. As I watched a set of spots shilling beer, shot in Jamaica and featuring a bevy of bikini-clad women getting soaked in a waterfall, I remember thinking that what made it big-time advertising wasn't the creative direction so much as the size of the production budget. I couldn't help thinking about that as I watched Matthew Barney's all-day endurance test, "Khu," act two of his work in progress Ancient Evenings, based on Norman Mailer's 1983 novel of the same title.

Of course, it feels premature to be called upon to render an opinion on a work that isn't finished. What's more, what we witnessed this past Saturday was only a small aspect of the piece, three segments of what will become a feature-length film in a larger series of productions. As opposed to conventional commercial filmmaking, the Barney performance, created in collaboration with composer Jonathan Bepler, was high risk: there was no opportunity for retakes no matter what disaster might befall it on location. But even in its admittedly fragmented state, "Khu" was a testament in some measure to the aesthetic power of money and along with it celebrity.

It's been rumored that the budget for "Khu" was $5 million, raised from private sources, and certainly a good portion of it was on display last Saturday. Dozens of people came from across the country and from Europe, though the majority were denizens of the New York artworld. The day started at 11 am with brunch for 200 in the DIA Great Hall after a bit of schmoozing in the Rivera Court. We then moved on to the Auditorium where we saw a rough cut of the first part of the film, which deals with the passage, taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, of the deceased into the underworld as part of the journey over to the afterlife. It also riffs on two of Barney's thematic characters, artist James Lee Byars who was born in Detroit and Harry Houdini who died here. The film features some breathtaking images of postindustrial Motown in winter. And I found myself thinking of Scott Hocking's photographs of the same subject and wondering what wonders he could perform if blessed with a Barney-type budget. (What he does with stuff he finds just lying around is amazing enough.)

We were herded into charter buses to make our own journey to the Western Lands, if in much-less jazzier digs than the classic gold 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Barney had driven off the Belle Isle Bridge in the film in homage to one of Houdini's most famous escape tricks, to arrive at an abandoned factory downriver. We took a serpentine route to get there, winding around the central business district and then on through Southwest Detroit. I sat next to Whitney Museum curator Chrissie Iles and was able to give her a bit of history of the city and its place in the rise and fall of the Fordist capitalist system. A Brit, she took pause at the idea that a culture could and did consider a major metropolis, and all its inhabitants and infrastructure, a disposable commodity. (Wasn't it the Motor City that came up with the idea of planned obsolescence?) We also touched on what I've been calling the art of the commons, the work being done these days by Detroit artists who are appropriating the city's abandoned space and materials and refashioning them into the constructs of an aesthetic community based on the pure will to art and a lot of sweat equity.

Belitta Woods in KHU by Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, October 2nd, 2010; performance still (Photo: Hugo Glendinning, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York)
The factory was the site of a performance that heralded good things to come. As we walked in, a group of workers were stationed at a bench constructing stringed instruments out of sheet metal, which were handed over to musicians as they were finished. A soloist became part of a duet, then a trio, then a quartet, quintet, and so on up to a chamber orchestra of 15, all the time droning over an arythmic background of percussion emanating from the hammering of the assembly of more instruments. I thought of my FKF (fellow Kresge Fellow) Frank Pahl, whose compositions use similar bootstrapping techniques. (Part of the local musical contingent Barney and Bepler contracted with to help with the project, Pahl at least got a check out of it.) The factory itself was spectacular: moldering gray brick and steel girders, sooty cracked windows covered with years of grime, a boiler in the back corner oozing who knows what toxic effluent, and a large pulley suspended above us with its metal hook dangling down from the two-story high ceiling like the Sword of Damocles. With the wind and rain that were starting to well up, the chilly atmosphere was the perfect foil for a soulful aria performed by P-Funk vocalist Belita Woods that lit up the room.

The next leg required us to cross a muddy brownfield and go down a riverbank to board a concrete barge for what turned out to be a kind of Conradesque journey into hell. The weather reports predicting clearing skies later in the day were wrong, and there's nothing like sitting on a makeshift wet steel-girder bleacher for a few hours while slowly coursing down a river in the bone-chilling rain. The real-life boat workers piloting us along must have thought we were nuts, especially when the barge made its stop in the middle of the channel near the Ford Rouge complex for the second performance segment where we were surrounded by water rescue craft commandeered from Homeland Security upon which stood sections of sax players honking away while a large crane pulled the wreckage of a 1967 Chrysler Imperial out of the water and placed it on deck to be pulled apart by a keening female chorus dressed as FBI agents, one of whom straddled the engine block with her trousers down after having inserted snakes into the cylinder holes and rubbed slimy water on her inner thighs. (And we wonder why the average person balks at public financing for the arts.)

Seriously though, this is where the narrative action actually began to unfold, with the Chrysler representing Osiris, God of the Afterlife, who is also associated with the cycles of nature, especially the annual flooding of the Nile, the lifeblood of ancient Egyptian civilization. The FBI agent, played by Aimee Mullins, represented Isis, who according to later mythology retrieved Osiris's dead body from the Nile, revived it, fitted it out with a magic phallus, and conceived Horus, a deity with many associations in the Egyptian pantheon. Certainly one might interpret this segment as referring to the creative process, where the shamanistic figure known as an "Artist" conjures dead matter and transforms it into sometimes baffling sacred objects (Barney's primary among them) to be worshiped by the adepts of modern secular-humanist society. The music in this segment evoked none other than legendary Detroit jazz saxophonist Faruq Z. Bey, who was listed in the credits for "Khu" as simply "himself" (and who if there's any justice in this world will be among the 2012 Kresge Fellows for the performing arts).

Eugene Perry and Herbert Perry as Set in KHU by Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, October 2nd, 2010; performance still (Photo: Hugo Glendinning, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York)
The final segment took the longest to get to both in terms of travel time and the wait once we arrived on site, a decommissioned steel mill on the river in Trenton across from Grosse Ile. By then the temperature had dropped and the wind coming off the water had picked up as had the rain. We left the Chrysler in a heap on the landing behind us when we debarked. A group of workers set to cutting it up with blowtorches as we followed a 2001 Crown Victoria up a graded-earth incline to a viewing area. We had been issued disposable ponchos as part of our tour bags, as the invitation email said "in case of light rain." Basically oversized Baggies, they weren't much help out on the Detroit River or standing atop the platforms that overlooked the scene of musicians, singers, foundry workers, and various extras inhabiting a postindustrial inferno that might be described as a mashup of Heronymus Bosch, Cecil B. De Mille, and Sun Ra.

Before us stood a large pit that had been fashioned into an open-air mold for a bas-relief sculpture. Trenches led from the mold up a hill to connect with five furnaces, spewing fire and sending glowing embers into the air, being stoked top and bottom by attendants either clad in silver suits or more conventional foundry wear. The intention obviously appeared to be to feed the Chrysler bit by bit into the furnaces and recycle its material for use in creating a new sculpture, another instance of creative transmutation, turning base metal into artistic gold. Somewhere down there was another FKF and my colleague at College for Creative Studies, the sculptor Chido Johnson, though I couldn't pick him out among those scurrying about. Towering behind and above it all were five 10-story steel silos on top of which stood individual figures dressed in gold lame', another reference to Byars who used gold leaf in his installation and performance work. Stationary sentinels over the scene, how they survived up there, I don't know.

Attached to each silo was a cable that ran down to 55-gallon-drum anchors at the foot of the hill. The entire apparatus was wired for sound into a kind of enormous Aeolian harp. It emitted a vibrating drone, augmented by performers who bowed and plucked the cables or battered the drums into a relentless demonic cacophony. FKF Joel Peterson was listed in the credits but again couldn't be picked out among players.

After what seemed an eternity, though I'm told it was about an hour and 15 minutes or so, the furnaces reached a temperature that allowed the pieces of cut-up Chrysler that had been fed into them to finally melt and the molten metal to be released in a flash of smoke and fire into the trenches, sending yellow hot streams down toward the mold. As the molten metal flowed into the mold, the guy next to me remarked, "That sculpture is going to pay for this whole day." The rush of heat from below was a blessed relief against the elements but the rain meeting hot metal caused flare ups that were considered dangerous, and so we were quickly escorted away back down the slippery slope, in total darkness now, to wait for the buses that would take us to the gigantic factory shed that loomed in the background where tables had been set up and dinner and drinks were being served.

Another CCS colleague who was present, Michael Stone Richards, recently formed a critical theory study group at the school whose first order of business has been to discuss Herbert Marcuse's last book The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. I felt the imperative to get this blog entry out (sorry for the delay, BTW!) so I missed this week's meeting. But it seems to me that Marcuse's ideas have some relevance in thinking about Barney and the performance.

For Marcuse, art is authentic and revolutionary not based on its content, as early orthodox Marxists like Georg Lukacs believed, or "pure" form, as later formalists like Clement Greenberg held. Instead it is tied to the way content is given form through what Marcuse terms "the redeeming character of catharsis." Art is radical where it transcends social determination and frees itself from established reality, where it then can be recognized as embodying truth that has otherwise been suppressed. An example he uses midway through the book is the soup can of Andy Warhol (who strikes me as more and more important with every passing day).

Warhol's soup can, especially in its serial iteration, announces art as the commodity it has always been in modern Western culture. But more than that it reveals the heart of a reality deracinated by capitalist relations at every level, from the most prosaic practices of everyday life such as family food preparation to the most rarified experiences of high culture like individual aesthetic contemplation. It also supplants the "natural genius" at the center of Romantic ideology and replaces it with the artist as a kind of commodity-sign, an effect of a productive semiotic system, the "artworld" as longtime Warhol interpreter Arthur Danto would have it. ("Andy Warhol" is a registered trademark, USPTO Reg. No. 3707078.)

Similarly, Barney's work, arguably more than that of any other, reveals contemporary art as the potlatch of what Leslie Sklair of the London School of Economics calls "the transnational capitalist class." And like the often ruinous ritual gift-giving among tribal chieftains of the Pacific Northwest, Barney's art grows in stature the more conspicuous its waste. It challenges all comers to a epic game of liar's poker with ever-increasing stakes. (It's no accident that many of today's biggest art collectors are hedge fund managers and other financial speculators.) The guiding light to understanding this is apostate surrealist, armchair ethnographer, and philosophical pornographer Georges Bataille. In the introduction to volume I of The Accursed Share he writes:
The living organism...ordinarily receives more energy than necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.
The international regime of neoliberal economics, politics, and culture has driven more and more concentrations of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, the excess accumulations of which Barney's art then gives vent. It's an amazing spectacle all in all, and whether it's glorious or catastrophic depends on your point of view. In any event, "Khu" has come and gone and the big chiefs have folded up their tents and moved on to the next festival. It'll be interesting to see what ritual of expenditure Barney can come up with to top this one.


Two other takes on the event are worth checking out: Mark Stryker of The Detroit Free Press was first out the gate, publishing his piece on Monday, October 4. New York-based writer Linda Yablonsky posted her story on Thursday, October 7, on Artforum's website. A bunch of people kvetched about Stryker's piece as it circulated around Facebook at the beginning of the week. Quite frankly, I thought a lot of that criticism was misguided. Given the deadline and word count he was given, he gave a pretty accurate reading of the experience and folks are tripping if they think we're ever going to get "big think" criticism published in either of the Detroit dailies. Stryker is certainly capable, but the editors just don't think that the average reader is interested, and looking at it from their perspective I can kind of see their point (which doesn't make it any less loathsome). It was on the front page for chrissakes, so get over it. On the other hand, folks seemed more forgiving of Yablonsky and I thought her piece was a classic example of the we-don't-get-out-much-west-of-the-Hudson-River myopia which characterizes that most provincial of people, your average Manhattanite. One of the more amusing things she said was to identify the small cadre of Detroiters on the scene as being present to provide "local color" for the visiting cosmopolitans. What's especially funny about that is that all three of the people mentioned in that very sentence, Michelle Perron, John Corbin, and Rick Rogers, had been Manhattanites at different points in their lives before settling down in the D. (And you can count me in that bunch, too, for that matter, though a couple of my years were spent in God's country AKA Brooklyn.)

1 comment:

  1. 1. thank you for the introduction to the fantabulous James Lee Byars and his work.
    2. if a pile of cash landed on Hocking I suppose he would scour the world for spent items to repurpose. Maybe even purchase a few worn carbon life forms, he could -- and put to useful pursuit of inspired tomfoolery.

    ~ Eno Laget