“Crude thoughts and fierce forces are my state.” ——Norman Mailer, Ancient Evenings (1983)

In Matthew Barney’s epic, durational film, the American artist plays a mythical character, Ka, who passes silently between the living and the dead. Heavily bearded and drenched in feces, Barney appears in an opening scene staged in a bathroom; he opens the lid of the toilet and pulls out a piece of human excrement, wraps it in a piece of gold foil, and returns it to the bowl. Then he removes his trousers, stands astride, and is sodomized. “Fundament” refers to the buttocks or anus, and the film is fittingly depraved. Characters wade through sewers and slice open the belly of a pregnant cow, removing a stillborn calf to enter the stomach cavity in a nauseating scene of ritual and disgust. At times abstruse, the film casts New York celebrities assembled in a recreation of Norman Mailer’s Brooklyn Heights brownstone apartment for the author’s wake: Salman Rushdie, Debbie Harry, Dick Cavett, Paul Giamatti, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Presented in a theater replete with proscenium arch and dazzling surround sound in Hobart, Jonathan Bepler’s brilliant operatic score of cheering crowds, vitriolic curses, and atonal renditions heightens Barney’s evocation of pilgrimage and ritual.

Shaduf(detail), 2014, cast brass Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. PHOTO: Rémi Chauvin Courtesy Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart
Shaduf(detail), 2014, cast brass Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. PHOTO: Rémi Chauvin Courtesy Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart

After making a cameo appearance in Matthew Barney’s epic Cremaster cycle as Harry Houdini not long before his death, American novelist Norman Mailer asked Barney to read the first 100 pages of Ancient Evenings in an attempt to redeem his most critically reviled and loquacious novel, which narrates the story of a mischievous sorcerer who uses magic and skullduggery in his quest for eternal life. As the novel progresses, he is reincarnated three times in the womb of his wife through various mystical and grotesquely scatological acts, crossing a river of feces with each attempt. Barney’s interpretation of Mailer has resulted in an eight-year project that comprises two interdependent components: an operatic film and a complex sculptural exhibition swarming with post-industrial mayhem, ritual pageantry, and Egyptian myth. The resultant film is a three-act opera in seven parts with live performances in Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles, with the main protagonist of Ancient Evenings replaced by a desecrated car that subsequently becomes a mangled car-corpse in the exhibition..

Invoking disgust and awe, discomfort and enlightenment, the exhibition and film riff on one another. The exhibition comprises over 90 large-scale sculptures, drawings, photographs, and storyboard vitrines, including works selected by Barney from MONA’s Egyptian antiquities collection alongside objects from the film. Four of Barney’s sculptural coffins cast in zinc are conflated with Egyptian mummies and hieroglyphs in a memorial tomb room; the most successful elements of the exhibition hauntingly integrate ancient items such as amulets with Barney’s sculptural interventions. Boat of Ra (2014) is a gigantic relic referencing Norman Mailer’s attic and a shipwreck suggestive of journey, detour, and loss. Another alchemical marvel is Shaduf (2014), a reincarnation of a pharoah’s throne room cast in brass, with molten details comprising Egyptian irrigation tools that render it a cryptic marvel. With its cavernous subterranean galleries, MONA is the perfect location for River of Fundament—not to mention a private founder prepared to fund the shipping of 143 crates, two 12-meter racks, and 24 air freight parcels, some objects weighing more than five tons.

River of Fundament premiered at Okwui Enwezor’s Haus der Kunst in Munich, accompanied by a publication with the opera’s libretto, extracts from Bepler’s musical scores, and an eccentric living eulogy for Matthew Barney by David Walsh via Lou Reed: “Barney’s work is an iceberg, massing below the surface, waiting to cut me open, waiting to show me the sea of opportunity.” If the sentiment is melodramatic, Barney certainly excavates our transgressive impulses alongside a spectacle of putrefaction; the result is pathologically compelling.