In June, I attended a sold-out film screening of ‘River of Fundament’ by Matthew Barney and composer Jonathan Bepler at the Holland Festival. It’s an epic five hour and 50 minute (two intermissions) hybrid fusion of narrative cinema, documentary, sculpture, live-performance and opera. Barney started working on the film in 2006 which is loosely based on Norman Mailer’s book ‘Ancient Evenings’.
Some of the scenes were exhilarating visually arresting, such as the creation of the ‘Djed’ sculpture, a work of 25 tons of molten iron that was poured over the chassis of a Chrysler car. Watching that breathtaking scene felt like being in a dream state.
Barney commented in Modern Painters on the casting of ‘Djed’: It’s the largest nonindustrial iron pour that’s ever been attempted. [… ] We took the medieval principle of pouring iron right into a mound in the ground, and combined it with DIY techniques of backyard iron casting. A 25-ton iron pour of this nature is just unheard of: it was hugely ambitious and hugely dangerous”.
Earlier this year Haus der Kunst in Munich displayed an extensive collection of drawings, photographs, storyboards and various sculptures from the film. Sadie Coles in London and the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania currently exhibit this body of work.
I was particularly interested to see ‘Djed’ in the flesh and wondered as to how I will physically relate to it, but unfortunately it’s not included in the London show. There is, however, plenty to wonder and physically to relate to in this beautifully displayed show.
Mailer based his myth-laden story on the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’, and Barney transported the story into an contemporary American setting. The human soul is reincarnated into the body of a car, i.e. three cars: a 1967 Chrysler Imperial, a 1979 Pontiac Firebird, and a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor.
You will relate more to the sculptures if you have seen the film but they are fascinating, autonomous sculptures in their own right.
‘Crown Victoria’, a zinc cast of the undercarriage of Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, is a robust sculpture which is entirely grey making it look like a form in decay. The anatomy of a human can be recognized in the undercarriage such as the skeleton, with the tubes as the ribs, or the carcass of a cow hanging in an abattoir.
Another part of the same car that caught my eye is the grill from the Crown Victoria. It has a high ‘bling bling’ factor as the gold finish is immaculate. One can imagine that rap stars would envision a grill for their car like that.
If the sculptures in the future will become a lot at an auction it’s likely they will be a lot at an art auction rather than a film memorabilia auction, although they have their origins in a film. The sculptures are, though, stamped indelibly on my memory like the “subway dress” – the white dress Marilyn Monroe wore in ‘The Seven Year Itch’.
Written and photographs by Thierry Somers. Production stills ‘River of Fundament’: Hugo Glendinning. Matthew Barney ‘Crown Zinc’ until 13 December 2014 at Sadie Coles London