The invocation of the dead

Matthew Barney: River of Fundament
BAM, New York; Adelaide Festival; Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart
12 – 16 February 2014; 2 – 3 March 2014; 22 November 2014 – 13 April 2015

What we know is that Matthew Barney’s latest epic is almost six hours long. That it involved many millions of dollars and a cast of thousands. That it features Hollywood celebrities, porn stars, the upper echelons of the intellectual world. That Barney is not known for his restraint. 

Before the curtain has opened, then, there is a palpable sense of anticipation borne of rumour and controversy. River of Fundament went through a number of incarnations, beginning life as a series of performances and live events which were then woven — albeit very loosely — into the final film. One gets the sense, jumping from the canals of Brooklyn to the suburbs of LA and factories in Detroit, of an encompassing sense of continual movement through landscapes and bodies, cast here as two halves of the same whole. Barney is grappling with the stuff of life, the fact of the body, its ever-present deterioration mimicked by industrial detritus, the flotsam of a city’s slow slide into ruin and its eternal resurrection. 

Based loosely on Norman Mailer’s divisive 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, the film is set in a recreation of Mailer’s Brooklyn home, where his wake is underway for what feels like an age. In a parody of New York intellectual life, the dinner party spirals into the centuries as mouldering crockery piles up and guests come and go. This mise en scène tiptoes near total horror but retains a kernel of humour, for as luminaries and intellectuals endlessly eulogize, food on plates is left to rot, jewel-like peaches and pomegranates laced with spider webs and fat furred centipedes, and the dead — dripping in excrement — come to rejoin the party ignored by the living. John Buffalo Mailer plays one of the incarnations of his dead father, reborn after passing beyond death through a river of faeces. The figure of the novelist and the boxer is ostensibly here, looming over proceedings at his own wake, and every frame is bright with connections between the body and landscape and an infinite return to lives, from lives, with bodies as the vehicles for both.

The utter relentlessness of each scene, more operatic and hugely extravagant than the last, gives the sense of Barney as a small god summoning images and scenes at whim, in turns dripping, scatological and filthy. Despite this, the film does offer moments of transcendent beauty — deeply memorable shard-bright images, as well one should hope when making such a commitment to the cause. 

‘I’m not gonna tell you to enjoy it — that’s not what it’s about. I don’t even know what it is yet!’ So says a man standing nervously at the front of the theatre, who, thanks of course to Barney’s particular talent for physical self-reinvention, will have to remain identified as he is in my scrawled notes: SAD-EYED MAN BROWN CRUMPLED SUIT. 

The soundscape of the film is one of its greatest successes — a cacophony of children chanting, harps and sirens, jazz, screams, speaking in tongues and a powerful vibratory tone that hums through for hours, rising and falling before suddenly cutting out like a dead engine. This is sound wedded to skin, and between the gutteral, ritualistic voices, sung elegies, machinery and the constant presence of water moving through vessels, it goes some distance in linking otherwise disparate set-pieces. It is appropriate, then, that composer Jonathan Bepler is given equal billing with Barney, and the pair share a love for improvisation, each drawing upon an artistic tradition both pop and gothic. 

One of the most memorable recurring images is the children in the next room, watched over by a benign fortune-teller. Through each incarnation they hum, sing, swing from the rafters and bang on cans, resolutely alive while the centuries pass for the adults holding court in the sitting room. Life goes on, things die and are born, and in the second room a sort of limbo occurs where the uncommodified time of the mind is released from the steady disintegration of the body. In this setting, we are not at all surprised to discover that the route to the afterlife is to slide beneath a child’s bunk and cling to the wooden slats.

Barney displays his most elegant touch in the thoughtful oppositions between things — lightness and heaviness, the vast and the minute, the fertile and the decaying. He takes sensuous pleasure in rot and decrepitude set against gloss and shining lushness; hence yellowish LA magic hour versus crumbling Detroit, New York high society versus the festering waterways of Brooklyn. 

If there is a failure it is one of momentum, or lack thereof. Overwhelming as a spectacle, the shifts in scale can be dizzying, from claustrophobic decaying interiors to wide industrial vistas. Fading and funny, infused with life as everything is dying, River of Fundament is an ambitious attempt to capture something of the distinctly American contemporary decay. Barney displays a sculptor’s obsession with the object-ness of things, camera lingering on single objects long enough to grant them a certain power. At this dinner party are performed sacred, profane alchemies with perfect lilies, diamonds, a tiny silver trowel cast at the dinner table, bedside tables, teacups and incantations, great blocks of lard and stone in the uptown sitting room, slowly eroding under a dripping roof to take us through the centuries. The morning after turns into the year after and nobody has moved from their seats.

Part of the difficulty of this film comes from its circular structure. In film, this non-linearity can be frustrating, as the audience eventually wearies of connecting cryptic dots that lead nowhere. An attempt is made to gather ideas central to the American cultural imagination — the American dream, the epic, the fantasy of progress and infinite growth — under the scaffolding of another long-dead civilization.

Like trumpeters clearing their instruments in the kitchen sink, blowing underwater sounds, a halved pomegranate being devoured by a beautiful woman, a man crawling into the bloated womb of a swollen cow, greying flesh turned putrid. The childhood memory of an adult dinner party, being wheeled out in your finest dress, that tiny voice silencing all present. Barney is at his best in those slivers of recognition, images of astonishing beauty and familiarity wrapped in a dreamy, urgent sense of purpose. 

Thanks to his deep commitment to indulgence, each narrative seems on the verge of connection with the next without ever quite weaving to the point of coherence. River of Fundament began life as a series of experimental projects with an uncertain outcome, and it shows. Sense arises like a waterlogged thought before being dragged, helpless, back down into the soggy depths. The current changes direction without warning, and the ludicrous and the spectacularly moving hang on a knife-edge, inseparable. A sense of precarity invades each scene, as though proceedings are on the verge of sliding down a cliff, but never quite do. In Barney’s particular brand of demented grandeur, excess builds upon excess until the entire pretense collapses in exhaustion. 

The fourth hour slides by, narrative forgotten, dredging moments of lucidity the way one sees dreams flee at the moment of waking. Each undercurrent of narrative is left to drain away, building until even the idea of a climax has been forgotten and the audience, stupefied, watches the last hour or so of salmon spawning and wide mountain vistas perplexed, waiting for a resolution that never comes. Rivers and waterways appear repeatedly, white reflective highways mimicking fetid canals and internal processes. In a South Californian car dealership a hazy carnival is taking place amidst the sad late afternoon light of pastel office blocks. Every line uttered seems marked with significance; every lingering frame suggests a particular object as important. 

In a rare moment of intelligible dialogue, one character remarks somberly: ‘We don’t know anything about this deep stuff’. After each intermission, the audience wearies further and the effect is heightened. There is a particular psychic state engendered by a world never washed clean and begun anew; instead, each new birth steps gingerly across the ruins of the last. Each image piled on top of the last creates a sort of fugue state, where everything is significant, or nothing is. 

In the end, River of Fundament is an attempt to engage both the pure and tainted stuff of the earth, salt and flesh and souls turned up towards the light. All that exists is what you see: the ritual for a dead car, organs, sweetmeats, a spiritual death of America, fat blossoming pomegranate buds and dusty moths, mouths. Faced with such a dizzying array of images, it is impossible not to make connections. 


Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, River of Fundament. Performance still. BA, 2013. Courtesy the artists and the Adelaide Festival.  

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, River of Fundament. Performance still. KHU, 2 October 2010. Courtesy the artists and the Adelaide Festival.  

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, River of Fundament. Performance still. KHU, 2 October 2010. Courtesy the artists and the Adelaide Festival.