Matthew Barney at Hayward Gallery

Published in Doris

Art Criticism


At around 2 hours and 15 minutes it’s virtually as long as a modern production of King Lear but without the breaks. At the beginning of the press view a cluster of other socially distanced critics in masks gathered in the Hayward’s dark space to watch Matthew Barney’s new film Redoubt but by the end I was, so to speak, the last person standing, the rest having slowly peeled away. During this marathon I went through a variety of emotions. Struck by the sheer beauty of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain range and the stunning photography I was, at first, captivated by the silence of the snow, the clusters of pristine pines like something from a Freudian dream or a German Romantic painting and the wildlife – wolves, pumas, eagles in their natural habitat – but, as time dragged on, I simply couldn’t decide whether this was a masterwork or a giant exercise in extended hubris. Why did it need to be so long?

The seed for Redoubt (a military term for a form of defensive fortification often improvised in natural areas to which an army can retreat) was first planted in the 1980s. As a teenager Barney grew up in Boise, Idaho and witnessed the debate between re-wilders and local farmers about the reintroduction of wolves into this remote area. The debate ran along political fault lines. Wolves had been hunted to extinction in the United States as early as 1926. In the 1980s and 1990s a federal wolf recovery team began their reintroduction to the anger of local farmers who feared for their livestock. More recently ‘American Redoubt’ has become the term favoured by American survivalists in the north western US, including Idaho, that has among the most relaxed gun laws in the country.

The film opens with drone shots of a snowy wilderness where eagles soar in an empty sky and the mountains are speckled with dark pines like a Peter Doig painting. It’s so beautiful, so ‘pure’ its takes the breath away. The stary night skies and soaring white peaks evoke the American sublime, painters such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church who explored the awe and terror experienced in the untamed American outback and the spiritual quiet found there where a modern soul could come face to face with themselves, as all true Romantics must.

But this is no David Attenborough eco-fest but a film that uses myth, dance and art interwoven with the ‘story’ of six hunts to say something about creativity versus nature, destruction versus regeneration and transformation. Whether you think it succeeds is in the end, I suppose, a matter of taste. Barney draws on cosmology, Greek myth (the three Graces) and American First Nation traditions. At the centre of the film is the (loose) story of the Greek goddess, Diana, deity of hunting and overseer of innocence and purity and Acteon, the hunter who invades her privacy and is punished for his pains. Charting the movements of six characters the film creates a web of overlaps and intersections. Diana, in Barney’s version, is a sexy sharp-shooter dressed in figure hugging camouflage attended by her acolytes the Calling Virgin (often seen making chthonic wolf cries) and the Tracking Virgin. We find them first sleeping in their camp site. The two ‘virgins’ hung high in a hammock amid the trees wearing just white vests and long johns curled in a variety of semi-erotic poses. Interwoven with their actions – preparing ammunition, making fires and tracking the wolves on horseback through the snow – is the role of the Engraver (played by Barney himself) who also appears to be a Ranger, driving around in a US service pickup truck to strap a night vision camera on the trunk of a tree. Later we see him in a remote trailer, the apparent home of the sixth character (and dancer) the Electroplater. Here the two, in a rudimentary laboratory of acid baths, wire pulleys and books on electroplating work together, wordlessly, on a series of copper plate etchings that seem to suggest transformation and alchemy. Copper, used in the making of bullets has been found throughout the Rocky Mountains and was once mined in central Idaho where the film is shot. The theme of cosmology is touched on when the Electroplater builds a model of the Lupus constellation identified by Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD. Her role seems to be to act as a transforming conduit between the constellations and earth.

Over the course of the film we follow the Engraver as he sets up his stand in the snow to etch the copper plates that he takes back to the trailer. Meanwhile Diana and her Virgins continue their antics, at one point the pair bathe erotically in a stream, their white long johns and vests becoming fashion-shoot, nipple-revealingly transparent, while Diana sits on a rock watching. Elsewhere there are sequences of them doing Martha Graham style movements in the snow, falling down mimicking the kill of a hunt and the skinning of prey, rather hammering home the point that ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ often stand in opposition. Dance and movement are the emotionally expressive language, here, that hold this silent film together. The one time it shifts away from the wilderness is when the Engraver goes to a bar in the grim settler town and we see a Hoop Dance performed by Sandra Lamouche (Bigstone Cree Nation) inside the gloomy American Legion building. Flapping her red hoops like an eagle’s broken wings the dance, performed in this soulless civic space, seems to imply something of the sad diminishment of indigenous American culture. But it is the wolf that is the real hero of the work. Towards the end a pack goes on the rampage in the trailer, pulling everything apart. Nature reeking revenge perhaps?

Throughout the rest of the Hayward there are the ‘spin off’ artifacts from the film. Engravings on copper in charred pine frames, the artworks created by the voyeuristic Engraver who we saw engraving his plates on a tripod shooting bench out in the deep snow. Barney made five unique ‘states’ of electroplated copper plates, adjusting the electroplating variables of current, temperature and duration. Elsewhere a huge sculpture based on a charred pine dominates the space. The core of the tree was removed and spiralled channels carved into its surface. Encased in a mould, it was then burned away to create a hollow form in copper and brass. The resulting vast sculpture lies on the floor, its roots like coppery veins, part felled tree, part giant rifle, part in-yer-face phallus.

There’s no doubt that the ambition and reach of this show is immense and at times, it’s certainly beautiful, but the film seems overlong and rather full of its own self-importance, and does the world really need so many huge copper sculptures? The smell of commercialism, it seems, is never far away. As I left, I couldn’t help thinking of William Blake’s famous lines:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity for an hour

Published in Doris


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