Artist Matthew Barney’s Latest Film Premières at BAM
River of Fundament, the long-awaited, six-hour film event by artist Matthew Barney and composer Jonathan Bepler debuting February 12 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Harvey Theater, is an epic of reincarnation and rebirth set against the rusting backdrops of American industry. The story is loosely based on Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings (1983), his take on the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It was considered one of Mailer’s most impenetrable books, and the River of Fundament experience isn’t so much one of precise comprehension as it is one of submission and absorption.
Barney, who climbed to fame unintentionally in 1991 when he used two ice hooks to scale the walls of New York’s Barbara Gladstone Gallery wearing nothing but a harness, is one of few true multimedia artists. He’s worked to great acclaim exploring bodies and sexuality through film, sculpture and drawing.
As with the artist’s renowned Cremaster Cycle video series, it is difficult not to see in River elements of the Wagnerian ideal Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art that includes all art forms. Barney and Bepler (longtime collaborators) think of the film as at least part opera. Three of its climactic scenes were live, elaborately staged events in Los Angeles, Detroit and New York, which involved a 1967 Chrysler Imperial, rivers of molten metal (including parts of the car) and a battle between the Egyptian Gods Set and Horus (played by Brennan Hall, pictured above) in a New York dry dock.
The fugue-like narrative winds around an imagined wake for Mailer, who died in 2007. Attendees include characters from Ancient Evenings (two are played by Paul Giamatti and Maggie Gyllenhaal), Mailer’s friends and widow (portrayed by Joan La Barbara) and three incarnations of Mailer himself—one of whom is played by his son, John Buffalo Mailer. The gathering takes place in a replica of Mailer’s New York apartment, which was constructed on a barge complete with the author’s original library and floated down the East River. Portions of the apartment will be reassembled as a sculpture to be shown at Munich’s Haus der Kunst next month (opening March 15; hausderkunst.de).
The film, which has two intermissions, is at once dark and comic, an intrepid exploration of mammalian bodies in various stages of life, death—in its first act, John Buffalo Mailer guts a cow and crawls inside its carcass—and birth that is both fascinating and uncomfortably close to home. We all have bodies, after all, and sometimes we need to be reminded. February 12-16; 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn; bam.org.