RIVER OF FUNDAMENT – Matthew Barney and Jonathon Bepler

Posted: August 15, 2013 in Chat
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The highlight of 2013 Manchester International Festival was the talk by Matthew Barney and Jonathon Bepler. For the past 7 years they have working on a huge joint project, River of Fundament.

It is, they say, operatic but not opera; musical but not a musical; theatrical, but not theatre. It uses the film medium but is not cinema.

The talk was repeated from 13th on the following day, 14th July, in a huge marquee in Albert Square, outside the Town Hall, Manchester. The slight disadvantage to this was the chiming of the Town Call clock. It was a minor distraction. The main one was the heat; though not the hottest day so far, within the marquee the heat did build considerably. This wasn’t helped by some of the subject matter: see more shortly.

So, what was the project? We were led in gently by an introductory talk from the Matthew Barney and Jonathon Bepler on the work-in-progress.
A little stop and start, a little hesitant and distracted at first, it began to seem they were wary the project would not be understood, or find much of a fair airing with their audience. I attended the last date – could we assume the previous day’s event had not gone off as well as expected? Or were they all talked-out by then?
The talk was followed by a clip from the work in progress. Then another talk, and a longer clip, talk and the last clip. A five-minute Q and A finished it all off. Maybe we could have done without that, but I got the impression it was thrown in either to get some form of feedback and/or to make the audience feel more involved. Who knows. The two did indeed seem wary of the audience reaction to their work; they sat in the audience as the clips showed – to get an idea of audience eye view, and maybe to pick up on the mood of the audience.

So, what was the work? A huge project using film and music media, and based loosely, they stress, on Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings. That is the novel set in ancient Egypt, and dealing with a Nobleman’s attempts to rebirth himself continually. He managed the procedure twice but the third time met with failure.
They were searching for an approach, they said, that would not categorise the project. They wanted the work to be agile, supple; to be transgressive, as well acknowledging the parameter’s of people’s lives. They also wanted to keep to the ancient Egypt concepts and characters of the source book as well as being contemporary and grounded in modern technologies.

Preparing the car – it is the vehicle of the spirit, and it is also the body-machine.


REN-PRESS Matthew Barney and Jonathon Bepler Performance still from REN, 2008
© Matthey Barney Photo: Chris Winger Courtesy Gladstone Gallery New York, Brussels

The source book, Ancient Evenings, is notorious for being unreadable, bombastic, full of ‘Crude thoughts and fierce forces…’ as the opening sentence puts it. It is also notorious for delighting in sodomistic excess and violence, for filling its great length not with storylines and character development, but with exploring the outer margins of the ego.

A reviewer (Harold Bloom, NY Review of Books, 1983) suggested Mailer was trying to out-excess Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland. Those who have not read Mailer’s book can perhaps imagine the raw and crude energy of Celine transmitted through Mailer’s American sensibility and craftsmanship. Encoded here is the Pharaoh as Hemingway, unassailable master, and Mailer the nobleman forever chafing at his status.

The first clip from the work was set in Mailer’s brown-stone apartment. It consisted of a gathering of his friends and peers as they commemorated his death. Elaine Stritch was MC; there was also a collection of musicians: sax, organ, cello, double bass. What was so interesting about this piece was that both musicians and actor were specially chosen because they shared the same tonal timbre: Elaine Stritch’s voice was so in tune with the instruments it was almost uncanny. As she fumbled and erred in her opening address the musicians tuned-up and tried-out bits and pieces. They both came together in the reading she gave from his work, so much so she could sing along with the music – each flowed into each. The effect was sensory, magical, flowing and rhythmically quite exquisite.

Whilst this was going on visual hooks were in motion: a man set up a tiny kiln, separated out its ingredients and fired it up at the table they sat around. At the opposite end of the table Paul Giamatti as very look-a-like Mailer was having his head and neck massaged. Beneath the table someone else removed his shoe then sock and began to massage his right foot with oil.

As the piece built the tiny kiln ran its molten metal into a mould; behind this operation two of the dead had entered the room and stood behind the man watching; they were grey, covered in ashes and ‘detritus’. The Mailer substitute collapsed as the metal ran – it was a highly sexual image. What was the small but intricate object that was tapped out of the mould?

The second clip was entitled the Rebirth/Resurrection of the Body of Osiris. It took place around Henry Ford’s redundant Detroit motor plant. There were a number of enormously high cylinder tanks, each topped by a figure in silver, and before them workmen prepared five smelters. It was in the open air, the scale stupendous. Crowds gathered, and as the light faded the smelters came to life, the music building up from metallic bangs, played stanchion wires. Rain came on but the activity and music built and built until the smelters were ready for metal. An old car had been prepared and was shared out between them. Eventually they spewed huge plumes of sparks into the night sky.
What is the message spelt out by the furnaces? What is encoded in the whole sequence?


HG1-9063 Matthew Barney and Jonathon Bepler KHU, October 2nd, 2010
Performance Still Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Courtesy Gladstone Gallery New York, Brussels ©Copyright Matthew Barney

The car itself was a hang-over from a previous work, The Guardian of the Veil. The car had been honoured by being transported down river to this destination, like a body on a barque to the land of the dead.
As the clip climaxed the smelters let out their molten metal, it ran down prepared slopes to pool. Each smelter was opened when ready; the pool of metal was eventually let through and filled an enormous mould. The liquid metal, silver and glowing, filled this huge mould – was it an Egyptian hieroglyph? The shape was certainly highly significant. Was it related to that first mould of clip one? It was to be the risen body of Osiris. Isis was expectant, waiting.

The night scenes disturb our sense of perspective continuously. We see from different angles of the performance area and mesh together a scene of huge extent. The onset of full night is lit up by the furnaces and arc lights; we see tiny silver particles atop the tanks – they are people, and yet they are presiding spirits. Jonathon Beplers’ sound structures build the scenes for us almost subliminally.

You can certainly travel with the intent and images. You didn’t need to believe – a piece of well-constructed work does that for you.
The last clip I will pass over quickly, it was too complex and intimate – Maggie Gyllenhaal, the daughter, was to receive her father’s spirit for his next birth. As the spirits entered the room they prepared their ceremonies of the receiving womb: different forms of expression, we were informed, of the body relating to the world, issuing its inner content. As the daughter considered her role in this ceremony her aria turned against him. Was it that life was not really worth all the sacrifices and hurt, in the last resort? Why should she continue to be part of his ridiculous and sham performance? Free-will and pre-destination brush their lustre onto us in passing as we watch the intricate and interlaced activities of the participants.

The enclosed and encoded referencing of the piece does impart the atmosphere of a rite, one that is as mired in bodily reality as in any more meta-physical intent.

At the present time Matthew Barney and Jonathon Bepler envisage a 6 hour performance piece. In small pieces it works extremely well – by using readings from the novel, that is crafted prose, the substance of the piece holds together. The richness of text and concept images match richness of visual and audial mediums. One does not over-ride another – this is the fine skill and eye of Matthew Barney. Without any one of these it could so easily become ridiculous.

That it does not is very much due to the eye and ear of Matthew Barney and Jonathon Bepler. The project is due for completion and release in 2014.

  1. Sounds so very interesting!

    • It was the scale of the images really caught me; there is also an intimacy in the smaller scenes that is quite rewarding too. At 6 hours though – I dunno.
      Thanks for your interest, you interesting person yourself!

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