Review of DJED; Matthew Barney
Step into the Gladstone Gallery and over what seems to be a massive oil spill that has condensed into an amorphous mass of solidified wreckage. These forms come in at a weight of up to 47,000 pounds, and overwhelmed me with a sense of heavy breathing. They made me feel nostalgic, as if I had once been in the industrial areas of Detroit covered in smut; walking through mud after an operatic performance by Matthew Barney.
Although I have never been to Detroit, and unfortunately never saw Barney’s opera, the sculptures did come straight from there. Iron, bronze, copper, and lead emanate rays of Detroit filth. The works are reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian myth, which was depicted in a novel by Norman Mailer, then turned into an opera in Detroit by Barney. The Mailer novel documents the stages of a soul as it transcends through life, death, and rebirth according to Egyptian mythology. Barney uses the Chrysler car as a metaphor for the human body, enacting the sacred and mystical act of death and reincarnation in the form of a muddy automobile. The molded heap of melted metals remind us of Barney’s film Cremaster 3, which is centered around the Chrysler Building.
Each sculpture has its own hard and heavy personality. They spill across the floor, and attendees experience the piece differently with each step taken. Strattling the sculpture that took up almost one-third of the Gladstone Gallery, it made me feel as though I stumbled upon the after-math of a natural disaster. I tiptoed around the hardened materials, careful to preserve the beauty of the dirt and grime. Each speck of led contains a sparkling evil, and I almost thought I could hear it bubbling. To orchestrate a show that manifests works of the grotesque is a divine act by Barney. It displays some of the most inspiring sculpture work I have seen, all of which illuminate the spirit of the decayed. The boulders of metal dazzle the audience, and declare the death and decay of the tangible as a birthing (or rebirthing) of the enchanted.
These sculptures, the original Chrysler car and building, and the creation of industries are all man-made. The masculine form that industrial areas take on is undeniable. Juxtaposing this masculine dynamic of the exhibit are the skillful etchings of a woman’s body within an industrial arena. Sexualized naked women swarm around in pools of mud, copper, and Chrysler cars. His red frames hold together works of drawings that depict scenes from the opera, and map the progression of Ancient Evenings, which has been an ongoing work since 2007. The works are overwhelmingly red and the paint spills over onto the frame, breaking the barrier between art and its context. The frame is part of the painting itself, and it is hard to distinguish between bright red borders. I was mesmerized with Barney’s hyper-sexualized etchings of women in the mud, as the bright and luminescent paint stung my eyes. They are just as wonderfully overbearing as the industrial sculptures.
Matthew Barney’s work is very dominant, and can make the viewer feel emasculated. These empowering, larger than life works are molded using parts of a Chrysler. The only way to find control in a gallery of towering and expansive masses of metal is to work your way over the spill. The floor of the gallery are slate grey, and the walls are a bland shade of white, extending high above your head. It gives the sense of being in a factory, and are witnessing the aftermath of a manufacturing or destruction of an automobile. It is important to walk over the sculptures and utilize the large space. From every angle there is a different experience and introduction to the work. By allowing attendees to work their way around the works, and worry about the possibility of directly stepping on the art, we feel as if we are a part of this ancient Egyptian mystery. Rebirth and reincarnation are not acts that can be experienced from afar. The strategic placement of the ancient Egyptian Chrysler mummies allows us to be amerced within the process and the wonder of the series.
Matthew Barney brings light to the dark age of industrial pollution. He makes us see the beauty and art in the dirt and filth that we are surrounded by in urban and industrial areas. Liquid lead seemed to have made a big splash, and stuck onto his red drawings on the walls, allowing all of the works to have a conversation with each other. These drawings force us to explore the relationship between the human body and the industrial constructs that humans have created to live within. Just as we thought that these factories and urban environments we have created are taking over and back firing on us, Matthew reminds us that the decayed is still beautiful. The relationship between birth and death can be seen as ying and yang between the lively red etchings and the outstretched Chrysler molds lying lifelessly on the floor.
The process of the work is as interesting as the work itself. Barney poured twenty-five tons of molten iron into a Chrysler pit along the Detroit River. This is the process used to create his masterpiece of the show, Chrysler Imperial. This sculpture was built in a complex manner, just as the stories he manifests are intricate and seemingly unending. Chrysler Imperial is a prime example of narrative sculpture. It brings together the aspects of Barney and his stories that make his art so addictive. His work is universal and unending, just as the ideas of Egyptian mythology.
The works in the Chelsea gallery are strong enough to stand on their own. It brings up the question- does it matter where they came from? The colossal sculptures we stand amongst not great pieces of art on their own. Each step that has been taken from Cremaster to the Gladstone gallery is a breathtaking piece of art. And though we should be aware of its origin, I do not think we should overlook its being and existence as an individual entity. By no means are the works merely remnants of an opera, but a rebirthing of beauty from a deceased and destructed form.