Further Down the ‘River of Fundament’

Here we are. December 2016, nearly 2017. It’s been almost two-and-a-half years since I saw Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament exhibition at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Ten months have passed since I saw the film at Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In that time, I’ve read and listened to quite a bit on the topic — including finishing Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, and Okwui Enwezor’s Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (Haus der Kunst’s official exhibition catalogue), and devouring what relevant interviews with Mailer and Barney I can find — and have dug farther into Barney specifically, including material on The Cremaster Cycle. Needless to say, I remain under utterly fascinated by River of Fundament. Not only that, but my appreciation continues to grow deeper.

I don’t intend to dive too far deep into the weeds, but I’d like to add some thoughts to the initial review.

It took a while for me to finish Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. Work and parenting leave time for little else, and it’s difficult to find long stretches of time to fit in chunks of substantial reading. Though, I am glad I read it as I did in relation to seeing the film. I read the first portion of the book — until the beginning of the Night of the Pig — before heading to Cleveland, and it helped to have Mailer’s re-telling of the myth of Isis and Osiris (and Set and Nepthys) fresh in my mind in addition to the characters and context of Mailer’s original tale. For the rest of the novel, it was great to have River of Fundament as a reference, as there were many subtleties that stuck out to me that otherwise wouldn’t have. I made notes throughout the book and won’t catalogue them all in this post, but here are a couple of examples:

1. “Some life like none I had known before began to tremble in the metal.”
“The magic is in the metal itself.”
– p. 204 (Mailer, Norman. Ancient Evenings. New York: Random House, 2014.)

These are two quotes of many that reference metallurgy and its surrounding mysticism — a core facet of Barney’s entire cycle (film, sculptures, engravings, and more). Norman and Menenhetet seek higher power through reincarnation, and this is expressed in parallel through Barney’s ritualistic destruction and rebirth of the three automobiles. Along with this, however, is the hierarchy of metals that is referenced by Barney — lead and zinc giving way to copper and brass in an attempt to achieve gold.

rouge battery(Matthew Barney’s “Rouge Battery” at Haus der Kunst; photo by me)

2. “Before our eyes the river began to fester.” – p. 270
“I have made them see Thy Majesty as a crocodile, The Lord of Fear in the water…” – p. 303

These quotes evoke the imagery of Horus’s birth as depicted in River of Fundament. Before the deceased Trans Am crests the water, the river does indeed fester. (Furthermore, Mailer references froth or frothing at various points in the novel, which is also a visual and vocal device employed by both Barney and Bepler.) A dying Isis gives birth to Horus inside the Trans Am whilst a crocodile calmly lies below her feet and newborn.

birth of horus(River of Fundament production still, “Birth of Horus”)

nepthys(River of Fundament production still, Nepthys)

And that’s to say nothing of the myriad references to orchids, pigs, bulls (evoking Barney’s Guardian of the Veil, the cycle’s antecedent), gold leaf, and much more. Thinking back to River of Fundament, a number of other questions arise: Was Mailer’s Honey-Ball portrayed as one of Barney’s Ptah-nem-hotep’s little queens, specifically the one who serenades Norman I? Was Hathfertiti I’s tuneful and catchy “Ballad of the Bullfighter” inspired by Honey-Ball’s “sweet and innocent song” that, in its own way (but different from the film), gives way to “[crying] out”? (p. 476) And many more…

Some instances reference specific imagery; others are more abstract evocations. Nonetheless, I came across many such connections while reading Mailer’s tome. Despite the host of negative reviews, many, but not all, of which were a consequence of uninformed or lazy criticism (I guess program notes are optional these days), I’ve found Barney and Bepler’s work to be a richer experience than I had initially thought. (It was quite positive to begin with.)

Visuals and text aside, memories of the music regularly play in my mind’s ear. There are the few samples hidden throughout the official website, and snippets in the various trailers and interviews, but nothing too complete. After all, it’s operatic, and there are no real neatly-isolated arias. (Even if there were, I don’t think a Greatest Hits would be released, much to my personal chagrin.)

My growing interest feels like a nascent “project” of some sort. I don’t quite know what that may be, but the “work” slowly continues when I have the time. Perhaps I’ll log more here as I go.

More importantly, though, I feel it’s necessary to note some of these “findings” (subjective though they may arguably be in part). The mostly negative reaction to both Ancient Evenings and River of Fundament have led to scant information being available save a few diamonds in that rough. I may not change minds or alter the course of either’s reception, but I can certainly do my part to justify what I consider to be an important artistic achievement by Barney and Bepler.

(All River of Fundament-related posts are here.)

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