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Matthew Barney is one of the most talked about figures in contemporary art. His primary medium is film. A few decades ago, those sentences together would seem incompatible; the idea of a filmmaker being accepted, let alone celebrated, in the pantheon of modern art is a relatively recent development. So to understand the significance of Barney’s superstar status, a little context is necessary.

Film, as a medium, has long maintained a certain distance from the abiding institution of the “fine art world” that finds its home in the hallowed halls of museums and art galleries. Initially met with the same early skepticism as photography, film’s evolution from a technological curiosity to a sophisticated storytelling tool took several decades to gain acceptance. And as soon as the monolithic force of Hollywood established itself as the central hub of the filmmaking process, an invisible barrier of taste was erected between the realm of mainstream “entertainment” for the masses that movies represented, and the notoriously insular walls of the art world.

Cremaster 1, 1995
Cremaster 1, 1995

From the very beginning, there were artists that bridged this seemingly impossible divide, and early avant-garde experimenters like Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, and Jean Cocteau proved that film could approach the artistic depth of established forms like painting, sculpture, or poetry. Over time, pioneers like Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Nam Jun Paik, and Andy Warhol created works that pushed film further into abstraction and paved the way for the video art and new media movements that crept their way into the world of fine art. Gradually, the old guard of the art world accepted celluloid as a worthy medium, and film earned its place among the white walls of art museums and galleries.

Matthew Barney in Cremaster 4
Matthew Barney in Cremaster 4,

Since the 1960s, the presence of film and video art in museums continued to grow, and by the 1990s the moving image was ubiquitous in the art world. Enter Matthew Barney. From his origins in California and Boise, ID, a young Barney discovered the art world on trips to New York City, and in his time at Yale University, made the switch from being a pre-med football player to an ambitious and prolific artist. Immediately after graduating from Yale, Barney made a splash with his first solo exhibition in 1991, and quickly established himself as one of the most controversial and notorious new artists on the scene.

Barney’s work, which combines sculpture, video, photography, installation and performance work, was immediately striking and divisive. His reputation was solidified in 1994, with the release of the first installment of his 5-part epic, The Cremaster Cycle. Named after the muscle that controls the movement of the testicles, the ultimately 7-hour work is a sprawling distillation of Barney’s fixations as an artist: sex, gender, performance, creation, beauty, ugliness, sports, death, ritual, and spectacle. Told through abstract, gaudy, surrealist imagery and working with budgets in the millions of dollars, its blockbuster scale was a far cry from the usual intimate micro-budget affairs of video art. It’s the kind of ambitious work that demands attention, and it made waves in the art world. Critical reaction was divided, with some hailing it as an artistic masterpiece, and others decrying it as vapid and self-indulgent. Barney himself has said “[his] work is not for everyone,” and a strong, polarized reaction is typical of Barney’s work; he has as many passionate fans as he does fervent detractors. And considering the uncompromising boldness of his work, it seems to come with the territory. Love him or hate him, the undeniable fact is that Barney is one of the most prominent and high-profile artists working today.

Since the conclusion of The Cremaster Cycle in 2002, Barney has remained busy. 2005’s Drawing Restraint 9, the full exhibition of which included sculptures, photographs, drawings and books, was the last film project he completed. The film, starring Barney and his then-wife Björk, is a romance set aboard a Japanese whaling ship, done with typical abstract flourishes of sculpture, symbolism, and surrealism.

River of Fundament, 2014

Barney re-emerged in 2014 with his latest and most ambitious film, the eight-years-in-the-making River of Fundament. Developed with longtime collaborator Jonathan Belper, the project materialized from Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel Anceint Evenings, but is shaped and morphed by Barney’s personal style, filtered through his personal fixations and quirks. Barney uses the book’s themes of Egyptian notions of re-incarnation as a meditation on the notion of death, rebirth, and artistic legacy, particularly of the phallic, hyper-masculine sort. The story is framed around Mailer’s wake, populated by artists and friends of Mailer’s like Jonas Mekas, as well as celebrities like Ellen Burstyn, Paul Giamatti, and Maggy Gyllenhaal, which is visited by multiple re-incarnations of Mailer himself. The film’s reference points are dizzingly diverse, covering everything from Ernest Hemingway to Harry Houdini to ancient Egypt to modern Detroit, with dense layers of symbolism, mythology, and impenetrable style. The film was conceived as an opera, and is driven by the score of Jonathan Bepler, who also had a strong hand in the film’s process. Much of the action centers around filmed live performance art pieces which Barney staged around the country over the course of five years.

As is typical of Barney, the River of Fundament dwells simultaneously in the sublimely beautiful and the repulsively human, indulging in sweeping shots of grand industrial set-pieces as well as intimate, grotesque bodies and bodily fluids (the title is exceedingly literal) which echo Bataille in their explicit detail. Upon its release in 2014, the film drew immediate controversy, not only for its frequently graphic pornographic imagery, but also its extreme length (311 minutes) and abtuse structure.

A Barney film causing a ruckus is nothing new, and is pretty much a given at this point. And any criticism has done little to slow the film down. Since its premiere in 2014, River of Fundament has been making its way around the country in theaters, galleries, festivals, and museums, provoking strong responses wherever it goes. Regardless of what side of the polarized Matthew Barney fandom spectrum you stand on, the fact that a film of such ambition, challenge, density, and length is being given the opportunity to be seen by a wide audience is unprecedented. Through sheer audacity, it demolishes the barriers between high and low art, blockbuster spectacle and avant-garde abstractness, somehow merging everything from the film and art world together into a bizarre, singular, and unforgettable experience. Is it overblown and pretentious? Or profound and monumental? It’s bound to start a conversation either way.

The Northwest Film center is proud offer three chances to see River of Fundament, starting June 3rd. Tickets available here.

Written by Vincent Warne, PR/Marketing Intern

The Northwest Film Center recognizes and honors the Indigenous peoples of this region on whose ancestral lands the museum now stands. These include the Willamette Tumwater, Clackamas, Kathlemet, Molalla, Multnomah and Watlala Chinook Peoples and the Tualatin Kalapuya who today are part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, and many other Native communities who made their homes along the Columbia River. We also want to recognize that Portland today is a community of many diverse Native peoples who continue to live and work here. We respectfully acknowledge and honor all Indigenous communities—past, present, future—and are grateful for their ongoing and vibrant presence.