text > Matthew Barney’s Exhibition DJED in Chelsea

To be frank, I have always felt a certain indifference towards the art of Matthew Barney. He is not my type, so to speak, and at some point I even considered the possibility of turning down the editor’s request that I write about his recent show. But then I decided to give it a try – not in order to add my two cents to the large body of texts produced by his corporate and academic sponsors, but to try instead to figure out what has held me back for so long from his art. So in a way, this text is not only about Matthew Barney but also about my experience of his art; it is a short self-psychoanalysis of my subconscious resistance to some of his work, and a reflection on one of his most recent exhibitions in New York.

The first time I came across his work was in the mid-1990s, at a time when American curators were touring Eastern Europe seeking new possibilities and introducing the local artists to contemporary art. These men and women in black wore genuine Prada sandals and Gucci sunglasses, and they walked around the bare and undeveloped post-socialist landscape carrying a catalog or video tape that bore on its cover the mysterious word Cremaster. We soon learned that the word stood for the name of a muscle that covers the testicles, a muscle that protects the male's reproductive system through suspension and retraction, that is: in cold temperatures the cremaster draws the testicles back into the warmth of the body and in warm temperatures it let them hang loose in the scrotum, cooling the sperm. To us – used to serious discussions about artistic form and content, about composition and color – talking about art in such biological detail came as a big surprise. Though we were intrigued by Barney’s method, his approach seemed at that time far too radical. Using petroleum jelly and bodily cavities in order to seek new limits of performativity and to extend the possibilities of the human body seemed, back then, interesting but at the same time challenging for us who were trained in the humanistic tradition of the fine arts. But we accepted it – there was not much choice if we wanted to be contemporary like the rest of the world; and even if we could not figure everything out, we decided that it had something to do with freedom. So in a way, I could once again blame a part of this resistance of mine to his art on the economic backwardness and cultural conservatism of my primordial cultural milieu.

Later, when I would come accidentally across his work, I could never get rid of the impression that the Cremaster which critics described in terms of an onanistic self-enclosed universe, a mythical world that self-recreates through parthenogenesis – was somewhat self-procreating in a bubble insulated from the immediate social context. As the post-socialist realist undergoing contemporary art therapy that I was, I could not help but seek artists in whose work I could sense, on some formal, abstract or other imperceptible level, certain universal social concerns. In Barney’s case I always had the impression that his art spoke to a restrained group of well-to-do people. The latter seemed to have found in this artist a perfect magician who could symbolically express their major concerns: how to match human desire with strength and performativity, how to discover new resources of energy, how to bypass the stage of production, how to get something from overcoming various forms of resistance. His onanistic and parthenogenetic universe has reminded me on so many occasions of contemporary head-fudge managers who seek to find new ways of making money out of money, like those unisex lizards that figured out a way to reproduce themselves in perpetual clonal lineages. And to be totally frank – my ignorance of and lack of interest in this artist’s work was also partially a result of his “court artist” status, which he has enjoyed from a very early stage in his artistic career, a status so well felt even on the formal level of his work, in the Baroque or even Mannerist abundance of media, genres, myths, symbols, and expensive materials. After all, I do still trust certain Western Marxists who have claimed that a truly authentic or socially relevant art is that which has not yet fallen into the clutches of the art world (I am not even sure that Barney ever enjoyed such a state in his artistic career), or that art is socially relevant only when it stands in clear opposition to society. In Barney’s case, I could never get rid of the feeling that his work has been always located right at the golden gates of the “culture industry,” or that it can be used as a perfect example of “affirmative culture” – that is, a cultural phenomenon that claims for itself a privileged spot outside everyday experience, isolating itself beyond the factual world and remaining totally inaccessible to ordinary people.

My visit last week to the Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea was the first time I had ever been specifically to see a Matthew Barney exhibition. In the show, which is called DJED and which consists of a few large sculptures and drawings, I instantly sensed a certain discordance between what I was expecting to see and what I saw. The surprise was due first of all to a new choice of materials and textures, as if the artist were announcing his intention to break with previous onanistic habits and turn towards more social forms of intimacy. I found references to some of these changes in some of his critics’ writings, where they announced that after the artist had finished with the Cremaster series (which was made during Clinton’s relatively prosperous 1990s and early 2000s) he took a certain interest in social and political issues. Of course, I had not come across hard-core activism or some sort of realism in the style of the New Deal art of the 1930s – this would have been sadly disappointing – but it did seem to me that this artist was also affected by the “social turn” in contemporary art, a turn that began to flood global art networks from the turning of this millennium on.

The objects displayed in Chelsea are part of a larger endeavor entitled “Ancient Evenings.” This large-scale project, an opera as a matter of fact, consisted of a series of performances that engaged many agents, places, and decorations. Let me quote from the press release which I picked up at the entrance in the gallery

“Ancient Evenings” is a multi-part project structured as a site-specific opera in collaboration with Jonathan Bepler, loosely based on Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel of the same title. Set in ancient Egypt, Mailer’s novel chronicles the seven stages of the soul’s progression through death and rebirth… While Mailer’s narrative focuses on the transformation of the human body, Barney enacts the recurring cycles of reincarnation through the use of an automobile, creating a contemporary allegory of death and rebirth within the American industrial landscape…

…the American industrial landscape – indeed, unlike his previous work (the Cremaster) in which the artist also deals with transmutations and metamorphoses but which he expresses on a more individual or biological level, “Ancient Evenings” seems to turn towards the social or the group. This is sensed first of all in the choice of materials for his new sculptures. On my way to the gallery I was expecting to find various lubricants dripping stickily down the walls of the gallery, or some unusual human chorionic gonadotropin extracted from the urine of pregnant women (these being among his “signature” materials) – instead, I came across what was almost an industrial site with art objects made of iron, bronze, lead and copper. This shift from soft or shiny substances to rough textures made me ask myself whether the artist had not been himself caught within some alchemical transmutation – whether he was not also part of the return to order and to the hard reality of everyday life that has caught so many in the global contemporary art circuits?

From a booklet (available for free at the entrance) I’ve learned that these objects were traces or documents of the opera “Ancient Evenings” – a series of performances that took place in California and Michigan from 2008 to 2010. So, the visitor who comes to see DJED at Gladstone Gallery will not be witness to any transfiguration per se (this has been available only to those who followed the artist during three years across the United States) but only what may be regarded as proofs of a series of ephemeral processes. From the booklet I also learned that during this opera’s three stages various blue collar professional groups were involved in the performances: day laborers, assembly line workers, iron or construction workers. In Los Angeles, Chrysler automotive salesmen sang in the chorus:

All is lost. His bowels quake oceanic disruption, ready to jettison whole fats, sweet meats and gravies of the old pleasure-soaked flesh…1

Even though “Ancient Evenings” is inspired by ancient Egyptian mythology (the myth of Osiris and Isis) the artist has sublimated his fantasies by working with concrete economic and political realities. He enacts a symbolic transmutation of the soul by taking as material this country’s former pride: its automotive industry. The transmutation of the American soul is re-enacted with the help of three iconic American cars. The soul begins its journey in a luxury 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial during a performance set up in Los Angeles (2008); then it finds itself in the muscular body of a 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am during the second performance in Dearborn MI (2009); finally it completes the metamorphosis in Detroit (2010) in a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria – the iconic American police interceptor.

The sculptures on the floors of Gladstone Gallery attest to the successful symbolic transformation of the American soul that took place in 2010 in the bankrupt city of Detroit. When I left the gallery I thought for a moment that even such a devoted aesthete as Matthew Barney had been somehow touched by hard social reality, which may indeed suggest that something is not quite right in the state of Denmark. One of the most influential texts written about Barney’s Cremaster cycle is called “Only the Perverse Fantasy Can Still Save Us” (by Nancy Spector). When I first came across this text I could not figure out who was the “us” in this phrase: us – the social body or the people; us – the elites of the financial and art world; or “US” – as in “the United States”


Octavian Esanu, 2011
Published in Art Experience NYC Vol. I, No. 4


1. “Mathew Barney: DJED” September 17-Ocotber 22, 2011 (New York; Gladstone Gallery, 2011), p. 6.