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Matthew Barney’s ‘Redoubt’ at Yale University Art Gallery

I was fortunate to attend Saturday’s premiere of Redoubt, Matthew Barney‘s new film and accompanying exhibition, at Yale University Art Gallery, the artist’s alma mater. The intimate new work is smaller in narrative scope and scale than its predecessors River of Fundament (which still has me under its spell), Drawing Restraint 9, and The Cremaster Cycle. But that in no way diminishes it. The multimedia collection is powerful, engaging, and promises to stay with you long after you leave.

Redoubt, the 134-minute film, features only six characters. (There are also four others, a bartender and three bar patrons, who tangentially appear for several minutes.) Its name literally means a defensive fortification, but the word is also used regarding political movements. Specifically, American Redoubt is a survivalist movement in the northwest region of the US, including Idaho, where the work takes place. The entire wordless film is set in and around Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, not far from Barney’s childhood home of Boise. It’s visually and sonically subtle to an effectively unsettling degree. A minimalist but enchanting score by Jonathan Bepler accompanies the mostly stark imagery: snow-covered panoramas, slow pans, careful and deliberate gestures, and extended slow-to-moderately paced physical sequences. Peter Strietmann‘s cinematography captures the essence of the wilderness’s micro and macro elements—from the privacy of a hammock or shared gaze to the vastness of an untamed wilderness in which you can easily be lost and forgotten.

The complete absence of dialogue further emphasizes the work’s physicality. Movements and gestures ordinarily ignored when accompanied by spoken word are exponentially magnified when the primary mode of communication. The that end, four of film’s main cast (2/3 of the six) are portrayed by dancers. Of those four, three of them execute their choreography in challenging external conditions, a nod to Matthew Barney’s trademark Drawing Restraint series. Such conditions include knee- and waist-deep snow, sub-zero temperatures, working within tight spaces (e.g., in a hammock or on a small tarp), and while scaling and descending from trees.

Just as Barney worked with operatic language in River of Fundament, he addresses dance head-on in Redoubt. I should note that much of the choreography is done by cast member Eleanor Bauer, who performed a dance sequence in Act III of River of Fundament as one of the Little Queens in Usermare’s court.

As a brief synopsis, I’ll simply quote the one on the Yale University Art Gallery’s website:

Set in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain range, the film layers classical, cosmological, and American myths about humanity’s place in the natural world, continuing Barney’s long-standing preoccupation with landscape as both a setting and subject. Redoubt loosely adapts the myth of Diana, goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon, a hunter who trespasses on her and is punished… [T]he characters communicate through choreography that echoes and foreshadows their encounters with wildlife.

Yale University Art Gallery

In this abstract adaptation of the myth of Diana, Barney also addresses the reintroduction of wolves into Idaho, hunting, weapons and artillery, survivalism and its relation to regional politics, Native culture and its relation the state, the land management bureaucracy, and more. Continuing his tradition of casting practitioners over actors to fill the roles, the cast includes:
Diana, goddess of the hunt: Anette Wachter, record-holding champion sharpshooter
Calling Virgin, attendant of Diana: Eleanor Bauer, dancer and choreographer
Tracking Virgin, attendant of Diana: Laura Stokes, dancer, aerialist, and contortionist
Electroplater, alchemist and assistant to Engraver: K. J. Holmes, dancer
Engraver, a U.S. Parks ranger: Matthew Barney, artist
Hoop Dancer, Native dancer: Sandra Lamouche, Native performer

The narrative is divided into six hunts (days) plus a prologue, stemming from a conversation Barney had with a hunter who claimed that tracking and hunting a wolf would take at least six days. Over the course of the work, Diana, accompanied by her attendants, tracks and hunts a wolf. Being the goddess of the hunt, Diana’s actions are portrayed as more of a sacred duty—something she must complete—rather than a sport of choice. She portrays arguably no emotion at all in any of her actions. Meanwhile, the Engraver (Actaeon), roams the wilderness, capturing scenes with his engraved drawings, returning each evening to his shared home (a trailer adorned with survivalist trappings) with the Electroplater, a maternal figure of sorts who both transforms his engravings via electrochemical baths as well as ritualistically and cosmologically translates his work and the story at large into part of the Cosmic Hunt mythology. Eventually, the Engraver happens upon Diana’s hunt, at which point he is drawn to capturing her image. As punishment for this, wolves eventually descend upon his trailer and destroy his art.

Reintroduction: State five

In Hunt 5, the Engraver briefly leaves the mountains and drives to a nearby town, where he happens upon the Hoop Dancer while she quietly prepares a private performance of her own. Notably, she is in an empty American Legion hall that is heavily decorated with US military paraphernalia. And when she dances, we, the audience, cannot hear her music, as she is listening to her iPhone with headphones. We can only watch. Some early reviews have remarked on how out of place this seems to be, but to me that’s the point. The one Native character is removed from the land, surrounded by four militaristic walls (and yet leaving the door to the outside open), and must conduct her ritual privately, whereas the five non-Native characters are allowed to carry out their own rites with abandon throughout the land. And the Engraver, who does briefly observe the Hoop Dancer, ultimately chooses not to capture her image.

The use of dance as a narrative device, much of it including contact improvisation, was quite effective, and the choreography and execution was engaging and thought-provoking. The dearth of sudden or quick movements in the film, both conveying the limitations of the harsh conditions in which its performed and illustrating the patience required when tracking and hunting, provided a subtle tension throughout. From the Virgins’ minimally adjusted gait—graceful and intentional, yet contrived to the slightest degree—while they follow Diana through the woods, to the manner in which they move their heads and limbs while looking for Diana’s prey, the smallest gestures often have the most lasting effects.

Additionally, dance is present throughout a vast majority of the film, even if not in the foreground. As an example, there is a scene in Hunt 2 in which Diana sits by a river and slowly cleans her handgun (in a manner later ritualistically emulated by her attendants toward the end of Hunt 6) while her attendants slowly bathe (through dance) in the water. Much of the time the camera focuses on Diana’s deliberate process, while the attendants can be seen slowly moving while partially submerged in the background.

In a directorial move that reminded me of River of Fundament, the Electroplater engages in an extended dance “monologue” in the film’s final scene, which is her first dance of note in the film (save for a cosmic pose struck in the prologue). In River of Fundament, Joan La Barbara, a legendary vocalist and master of extended techniques, portrays Norman Mailer’s widow. As such, she is present in most of the five-and-a-half-hour film, but she doesn’t sing until deep into the third act. When she does, just as with the Electroplater’s dance, it’s both surprising and powerful.

Further emphasizing the economical use of action, Diana herself discharges a firearm only a handful of times over the course of the story: twice to harm the Engraver’s work, and only two or three times directed toward prey (deer, a wolf). Instead, much of what is shown of Diana is her patiently tracking, waiting for, and considering her prey and rituals. It wasn’t just the jaw-dropping accuracy of a sharpshooter that Barney wanted from Wachter, but also to convey just how natural and instinctual Diana is with her tools and methods, and she more than delivered.

Jonathan Bepler’s minimal, mostly consonant score, which he performed himself along with some haunting vocal work by Megan Schubert (also of River of Fundament), provides an engaging, non-diegetic aural layer. While not tonal by any means, moments of heavy dissonance are few and far between, and are mostly saved for the wolves’ destruction of the Engraver’s art at the end. The sparse percussion, keyboards, synthesizers, and voice often imitate or complement the natural sounds captured in the wilderness, such as the crunching of snow, the howl of a wolf or flapping of a bird’s wings, a bubbling brook, and the snapping of branches. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish where the natural sounds end and the artificial ones begin.

[I’d be remiss to not mention a possible operatic allusion from the prologue. In what I believe is the first aerial view of the river flowing through the mountains, Bepler’s score is briefly—a few seconds at most—reminiscent (intentionally or not; I don’t know) of Richard Wagner‘s Rhein leitmotif as used in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung (particularly the latter’s French horn choir in the prelude to Act III). If intentional, it’s a clever nod to the past. If coincidence, this Wagnerian appreciated it nonetheless.]

Accompanying the film is the exhibition of sculptures, engravings, and electroplated works, which also debuted this weekend. The collection’s composition of metals, wood, and chemicals is a continuation of Barney’s processes he began exploring in River of Fundament. The engravings, which are featured in the film, are also show in various states of (d)evolution: with and without patina, and having undergone the electroplating process to varying degrees. The large-scale sculptures include molds made from and/or using burnt, felled trees from the Sawtooth Mountains.

Elk Creek Burn
Elk Creek Burn

I’d recommend both the exhibition as well as the film individually, but they’re best absorbed together if you can plan your visit accordingly. Redoubt will be at Yale University Art Gallery through June 16, and will subsequently show at Beijing’s UCCA at the end of 2019 and at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2020.