“If you read Ancient Evenings for the story,” wrote Harold Bloom, in an insightful review of Norman Mailer’s most notorious novel, “you will hang yourself.”
Having ground my way through 150 pages of this flawed magnum opus I can see exactly what he means. Mailer spent ten years on a sprawling story of ancient Egypt published in 1983 to almost universal derision. The book is colossally ambitious but also dense, confusing and self-indulgent in a way only Mailer could be. Ancient Evenings is 700 pages of buggery, scatology, Egyptian mythology and palace intrigues, punctuated by passages of remarkable lyricism.
If any writer could be described as a victim of his own facility and intelligence, it is Mailer. He refused to accept the negative comments and always saw Ancient Evenings as his most important book.
Towards the end of his life, Mailer asked artist, Matthew Barney, to read the first hundred pages of the novel to see what he could do with it. The two had met when Barney was working on his epic five-film, seven-hour project, The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002) in which Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979) provides one of the central storylines. Barney prevailed upon the writer to play the role of Harry Houdini.
Mailer knew that Barney (b.1967) was the only contemporary artist who could be expected to make something suitably grand from this material. Raised in rural Idaho, Barney went to Yale to play football and study medicine, but emerged as an artist. He made his debut at the age of 24 at a leading commercial gallery, and was given solo shows in the same year at museums in San Francisco and Rotterdam. The Cremaster Cycle cemented his reputation, and he is now one of the world’s most celebrated artists. Nevertheless there are many who find his work – which combines sculpture, drawing, film and performance – to be dull, pretentious and offensive. No wonder Norman Mailer felt an affinity.
Barney initially thought he couldn’t do anything with the book, but his long-term collaborator, composer, Jonathan Bepler, was excited by its operatic possibilities. The pair began to plan a series of performances based on Ancient Evenings.
The first installment held in Manchester in 2007, the year of Mailer’s death, now seems like a preface. The project surged forward with Ren, an event staged in South Central Los Angeles in May 2008 that incorporated a cast of workers, musicians, performance artists, actors, and a live audience. The action was centred on a car dealership, but extended over a vast area, both indoors and outdoors.
Two other events would follow: Khu, held in October 2010, in the industrial wasteland of Detroit; and Ba, realised in June 2013, on Brooklyn’s East River and a decommissioned dry dock.
According to Barney, he and Bepler were initially focused on the performances, which were scrupulously documented by cinema-quality camerawork. Yet as the project continued to grow and take on a life of its own – Barney describes it as an “organism” – it became apparent the performances would form the basis of a larger film, River of Fundament.
This meant a narrative had to be extracted from the Mailer book to unify the three events, while exploring all the themes that had been unearthed. The device they settled on was a wake held for Norman Mailer in his Brooklyn apartment where the guests would include luminaries from the worlds of art and letters, and the characters from Ancient Evenings. The world of the living and the dead (or the fictional) would intermingle promiscuously, with Mailer’s soul being the protagonist who undergoes three successive reincarnations.
One of the features of Ren, Khu and Ba was that each left a unique residue in the form of sculpture created by industrial processes that formed part of the action. At the approach of Okwui Enwezor, director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, it was decided that River of Fundament should become a large-scale exhibition as well as an epic movie. The exhibition opened in Munich in March this year, and has now travelled – notwithstanding daunting expense and logistics – to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, which has been involved with the show from day one.
MoNA owes its participation to the enthusiasm of its founder and benign dictator, David Walsh. The shipping alone is exhausting to consider: 143 crates sent from New York and Munich within six 40-foot containers; two 40-foot racks; 24 further crates air-freighted. The heaviest piece, Rouge Battery, weighs in excess of five tonnes.
The final exhibition includes more than 90 items including sculptures, drawings, etchings, photographs and storyboard vitrines. The range of materials goes from iron, wood, brass, gold, zinc and copper to plastics, salt and sulphur. These works are supplemented by 50 pieces drawn from MoNA’s collection of Egyptian antiquities.
What public institution would ever dream of bringing such a gargantuan project to Australia? Not for the first time may we give thanks to MoNA, which goes to those places state galleries fear to tread.
River of Fundament began its Tasmanian season last weekend with a screening of the 5 hour 11 minute film. This was its second time in Australia, following a brief appearance at the Adelaide Festival in March, which was poorly attended but packed with controversy. The movie was scheduled for next year’s Sydney Film Festival but has since been dropped. The excuse – a difficulty with timetabling – is so conspicuously lame one can only suspect Festival organisers suffered from chills in the region below the ankles.
Barney freely admits the film is not for everyone – and not only because of its inordinate length or the many slow passages in which dissonant music takes the place of dialogue. Several characters spend their screen time caked in dried excrement, or crawling in and out of animal carcasses. Others indulge in explicit bouts of sexual game-playing and sodomy. To make matters even more confusing, Barney uses three classic American automobiles as substitutes for the three Normans.
He also refers to the Egyptian belief in the Ka – the vital essence of the deceased that often appears as a double. The car/Ka is portrayed in many different incarnations, including the artist and former disabled athlete, Aimee Mullins, who shadow every stage of the film. The mythical battle between the deities Set and Horus is enacted by two Latin American garage mechanics, and by the lesbian coupling of two pregnant porn actresses.
The most basic description of events in the film would require thousands of words, but to interpret the range of references and meanings would be an infinite process. Barney’s methods are distinguished by an extraordinary verticality, as each motif seems to grow in significance with further reading and reflection.
It’s usually a poor sign when one has to read a text before seeing a film or an exhibition, but Barney’s work is no less ambitious than Modernist classics such as T.S.Eliot’s, The Waste Land (1922), which requires a good deal of scholarship if all its allusions are to be comprehended.
The film may be enjoyed or endured as a phantasmagoria of startling images but it’s much better to have read at least the first 100 pages of Ancient Evenings which acts as a primer for the Egyptian myths of the Gods and the afterlife that provide Barney’s conceptual architecture.
To appreciate the sculptures it’s almost essential to have seen the film, which will be screening at the MoNA for the duration of the show. It was noticeable at the opening that those who hadn’t attended the screening were disappointed by the exhibition, which is presented in bare rooms with primitive fluorescent lighting. It’s a deliberate choice by the artist, who has created an environment as neutral as a car park, perhaps as an antidote to his cinematic excesses.
Ultimately there is no escape from the all-encompassing, open-ended vision this project embodies. River of Fundament is an experience that will keep evolving should the tour continue, with more and more people feeling compelled to read Mailer’s unreadable book, watch Barney’s confronting film, and grapple with his unorthodox approach to sculpture. A very small percentage will spend the rest of their lives trying to figure it all out.
Matthew Barney: River of Fundament
Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart,
until 13 April 2015
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 29th November, 2014