KHU, Act 2 of Ancient Evenings, by Matthew Barney and Jonathan BeplerOctober 8, 2010
There is no way to avoid the fact that size matters for Matthew Barney’s work. With each new project, he bumps up the volume and epic nature of its scale—and we as an audience are left to wonder about the appropriateness of making such grand gestures in a contemporary context. This doesn’t seem a concern for the artist, who operates within geological time frames and dares to make sweeping multimedia works of a physical and financial magnitude few artists match. But why do we go along for the spectacular, bumpy ride? Perhaps because he takes us on circuitous roads to places we never dreamed of going, literally and figuratively.
His current work in progress is bigger than the last. Like the Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002), Ancient Evenings (2008–ongoing) comprises a series; in this case, seven live performances in collaboration with composer Jonathan Bepler, to be staged in various locations over a period of years. The Ancient Evenings performances find unlikely inspiration in a minor, though lengthy and scatological, 1983 Norman Mailer novel of the same title, in which pharaohs and queens fuck their souls into the afterlife, and sealed tombs are engulfed by the stench of mummified feces. Barney’s adaptation is typically loose and fantastical, customized with references to the American auto industry, Harry Houdini, and the CSI series of television dramas. Guest appearances include Detroit-rooted icon Belita Woods, a singer from Brainstorm and the P-Funk All Stars, and late conceptual artist James Lee Byars, whose use of gold leaf forms an aesthetic bridge to ornamented mummy cases.
Barney staged the first performance, titled Ren, for an audience of six hundred in 2008 at a vacant RV dealership in east Los Angeles; the second, KHU, on a recent October Saturday in Detroit, for two hundred invited spectators. Both works were essentially ornate, dramatized funeral processions. In the first, action and audience moved from the sun-baked asphalt exterior of a building to its darkened bowels. In the latter, we watched a video prologue—filmed in a vein more familiar to Barney’s audiences—in the Art Deco auditorium of the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) before migrating to an abandoned glue factory, where we boarded an industrial barge that sailed on the Detroit and Rouge Rivers to a fiery finale at a steel-casting pit. Where the Los Angeles performance was billed at two hours, KHU’s far exceeded its approximated duration of six and a half, seemingly a clear bid to challenge Wagner’s Ring Cycle in a battle for durational artwork domination.
Fittingly, KHU is an operatic rust-belt spectacle of law enforcement, union labor, classic car fetishes, and hoary Egyptian funerary texts—with an entire city as backdrop. While the Midwestern setting crackles with grit and blatant emblems of American collapse, the single performance was extravagant in scope, and, apparently, funding. As a work of theater, it was both irresistible and politically suspect, as this artist’s work tends to be. Barney seems to honor labor forces—and the production clearly pumped sizable funds into the local economy—but this work is more arcane than socially relevant. Paul Chan’s scrappy staging of Waiting For Godot in devastated New Orleans this was not.
What it was, perhaps due to its uncontainable scale, is harder to parse. Barney’s art is huge in the manner of American dreams and just-folks ambitions. His heroes are powerful, yet working class in spirit: Mailer, Richard Serra, country singers, and mass murderers. They’re honored as archetypes in his work. In Cremaster 1, 1995, Barney’s use of Busby Berkeley–style choreography echoes a glittery mainstream film trope from the Great Depression that remains a visually vast distraction from reality. On the other hand, KHU’s production veneer more closely resembles the stuff of prestige TV dramas, its subject manicured corrosion and the sleek authority of late-model police vehicles.
Throughout his career, Barney has merged mediums with athletic force. His early works provoked tensions between sports and endurance-based performance; his films fused a new relationship between performance art, sculpture, and film. The Ancient Evenings performances to date have introduced theatrical conventions into the mix. In KHU, Barney roughly and sometimes innovatively breaks the fourth wall to let in grand, decrepit industrial Michigan riverfront factories and noxious fumes steaming from smokestacks. He confidently experiments with aesthetic synthesis with a hubristic eye toward gesamtkunstwerk.
He moves closer to his Wagnerian ambitions by emulating opera. Most of the script—an unfortunate mash-up of Mailer’s floridly macho prose and the musty incantations of the Egyptian Book of the Dead—is sung by soloists and a chorus. The program resembled those distributed at opera houses and included a libretto.
The seats, however, were hardly cushy. After occupying folding chairs in the drafty glue factory, the audience alighted the deck of a barge, where long steel I beams served as cold, hard, and wet benches. The boat first provided a distant view of the action—a crime scene, with an automobile as victim and a female team of FBI investigators led by Barney regular Aimee Mullins, she of prosthetic lower legs. These investigators entered our boat and began to command and control us, keeping us clear of the "evidence"—a corroded
car wreck. Later, we were taken hostage by twin opera singer actors portraying Set, the Ancient Egyptian god of chaos.
A blur between reality and fiction was frequently conjured, most often by emblems of authority. The piece was prefaced—though perhaps actually began—at a catered lunch in the DIA, with remarks from an actual Detroit homicide detective who sternly told us to follow his instructions in order to remain safe, fanning the flames of the city’s high crime reputation. Fit young men and women in police blues then herded the audience to the video screening.
Believable as professionals, they could easily have been actors. Was that an actual sheriff’s boat that ushered Mullins and her team of vocalists to the barge? The helicopters that hovered above the proceedings, grazing us North By Northwest style, had an official vibe, but did double duty as props and means for multi-angled videotaping. The most sublimely uncanny moment closed a perversely silly climactic scene—involving Mullins, as Isis, mating with live snakes in a mucky car engine—when a huge industrial ship silently glided by as if on cue.
In the hands of another artist, the use of official vehicles and police officers up for hire in a bankrupt, crime-ridden city might point to troublesome notions of privatization coursing through the American political scene and the notorious financial state of this particular municipality. But Barney’s cultural position, like Wagner’s, has consistently, perhaps problematically, been more aligned with classic mythologies than with class struggle.
It’s perhaps more satisfying to reconcile the theatrical ambitions in relation to Barney’s artistic history, specifically his repeated theme of physical and conceptual restraint, resistance, and release. His early works, many of which were included in SFMOMA’s 2006 Drawing Restraint exhibition, involved the artist struggling with objects in simple, if rigorous, gestures performed for the camera. The first two Ancient Evenings performances were far more elaborate, but each flirted with a sense of risk and the anxieties inherent in large-scale productions, where things can fail. In Ren, there was broken glass, injury, and a fizzled ending, with few centralized vantage points. In the more successful KHU, the stakes were higher, the locations more disparate and outdoors.
The most remote and complexly staged setting was in the last act, which took place at a casting pit constructed below five huge silos. The site was effectively modified to suggest both an immense mineral excavation—Barney was inspired by the fact that much of Detroit is built on a salt mine—and the Valley of the Kings. Men in shimmering gold suits lorded from the silos like gods, while teams of musicians performed, interspersed among manual laborers on slopes of earth. The scene, however, fell victim to dropping temperatures and rain, which apparently made the molten metal unleashed from five huge smelting furnaces an even more difficult thing to control (introducing water into this equation is apparently explosive). When the material was finally released from the furnaces, we were urgently told to leave the area. The real sense of danger distracted from a truly stunning image of golden glitter bleeding from the massive silos.
Rampant rumors about what was meant to happen—a vulture was mentioned— added to the piece’s mythological air. Unlike filming the Cremasters, where complicated scenes certainly were captured in more than one take, here it was easy to wonder how the artist interpreted the inability to realize scenes as conceived. The audience truly could not avoid the experience of the elements, contemplating the onset of hypothermia while waiting for what was clearly intended to be the climax. That this audience was a hand-picked group of collectors, dealers, curators, critics, friends, and family poses elitist implications, though the sense of limitation and exclusivity adds to the work’s notoriety through blog rumor mills. Were we were being made to suffer for art and to bear with the artist no matter what? Or were we somehow mocked, as when Maurizio Cattelan carted collectors to a remote Sicilian landfill to see his Hollywood sign during the 2001 Venice Biennale?
Snarky, however, is one thing Barney has never appeared to be. Still, the viewer’s role in these performances remains unresolved. The first two scenes—the video screening and the glue factory—involved clear distinction between actor and audience. On the barge, the situation shifted, although our roles in the narrative were never quite articulated. It was, clear, however, that the proceedings were being scrupulously documented, with cameras ingeniously lashed to cranes and all manner of industrial tools, as well as the aforementioned helicopters. Barney has not revealed the final form—only a few related photographs, drawings, and sculptures from the Ren performance and a few press images of KHU have emerged, which diverge from our firsthand perceptions of the performances. One imagines the video will be edited and presented, in high def, in the familiar form of museum and gallery installations.
But that might not be giving the artist enough credit. Despite the narrative and political shortcomings, the uneasy fusion of media just might result in something thrilling. When Cremaster 4 was released in 1994, the idea of seeing aerial and underwater photography, motion graphics, and something attempting the scale of an epic movie was exciting and novel in an art context. That there are grander goals for Ancient Evenings, which, like most Barney projects, intermittently includes breathtaking tableaux, and offers hope for surprising, innovative new possibilities. Or else its effectiveness might just ultimately reside in the power of myth.