The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Big Dick Energy: On Matthew Barney's Redoubt
John Quin , June 12th, 2021 08:09

John Quin hides for cover at the Hayward Gallery visiting Matthew Barney’s Redoubt

Installation view of Matthew Barney_ Redoubt at Hayward Gallery, 2021 © Matthew Barney, 2021. Photo: Mark Blower

Here’s the poet Don Paterson talking about Rilke’s Orpheus sequence of Sonnets (1922): “For all their occasional obscurity [they] also make a great deal of plain sense.” Paterson goes on to say “this sense has to be placed at the heart of any discussion if the poems are actually to be useful to us”. He notes the “necessary oracularity” of poetry; there’s a similar enigmatic charge to much contemporary art.

And that brings us to the esoteric world of Matthew Barney and his new blockbuster. Is there a great deal of plain sense here? Are the key works useful to us? Is it easy to interpret what’s going on?

That would be a no. Like The Cremaster Cycle (1994–2002) Barney’s previous gesamtkunstwerk or the scatological excess of the six-hour Norman Mailer tribute ‘opera’ River of Fundament (2014) there’s no fear of overreach, no compromise with any risk of incomprehension. The obfuscation at play in much of Barney’s filmmaking can easily tip into a sneering contempt for patience, never mind plain thinking. You can imagine the artist squaring up to you threateningly: if you don’t get it that’s just tough. Man up.

As with Barney’s earlier testotoxic fantasies there’s an immediate phallocentric component. The first work we see is a priapic sculpture called Cosmic Hunt (2020), a gigantic stainless steel cast of a tree trunk. Seven stars are attached by rods and there’s texturing to suggest wolf fur. All this and some military hardware is meant to conjure “connections between Earth and the cosmos” – that and the mythology around the naming of constellations. And if you worked that out without consulting the guide then mister you’re a better man than I. Outside there’s another stawner of a construction called Sawtooth Battery (2019), a ten metre-tall totem made of copper and bronze. This is a cast of a burned lodgepole tree wedged into a base that resembles a WW1 artillery battery – imagine Big Bertha crossed with a Big Willy.

Next up are some pretty copper engravings that please the eye predictably because copper is a beautiful shiny material with a fantastically warm sheen. The actual markings are less impressive. In the accompanying film we see Barney at work on the metallic surface using a burin and drypoint needles. While we might admire the revival of the technique, its fancy and fussy use of tanks of sulphuric acid and electric current, Barney’s skills as a draughtsman are clearly not those of a Rembrandt. Electroplated copper plates with “vinegar patina” such as the sample shown here are not a million miles away from Warhol’s oxidation series. Warhol and Barney: pish and shit merchants.

Installation view of Matthew Barney_ Redoubt at Hayward Gallery, 2021 © Matthew Barney, 2021. Photo: Mark Blower

The central piece, Redoubt (2018), is the aforementioned film. It lasts over two hours. Given Barney’s reputation for perfectionism no one should be surprised that the cinematography (by Peter Strietmann) is exquisite. We are in the Sawtooth mountain region of Idaho, a land of forest and snow, on a wolf hunt. Drone tracking shots recall the opening sequence from Kubrick’s The Shining and other winter rural frontier imagery is not dissimilar to that seen in revisionist Westerns like Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight or Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The exhibition guide tells us the following is referenced: the myth of the American West, Diana and Actaeon, camouflage, wolves, lodgepole pines, metallurgy, contact improvisation in modern dance, and constellations. Oh, not forgetting extremist right wing groups and their guns. Keep up at the back!

The Actaeon figure is played by Barney himself; the Diana by Anette Wachter. Wachter is a serious shooter in real life, a big NRA nut. Wachter can hit bullseyes at 1,000 yards with a .308 caliber. They call her the 30CalGal. The likes of Guns and Lace and NRA Women interview her. She trains kids in the use of firearms making sure they “learn to respect” them. She can’t express how much she loves “being involved in the gun industry and culture”. Wachter is involved in politics and is currently “fighting for our Second Amendment Rights.” Elsewhere in America gun crime and mass shootings are rampant. As of April 30th in 2021 there have been 178 mass shootings in the USA with 206 deaths and 693 injured. Don Paterson’s “plain sense” is somewhat missing here.

Barney’s use of Wachter appears respectful, admiring even, and certainly not overtly critical on the evidence of this film. Her weaponry looks frightful; guns are fetishised here in a manner that would make Travis Bickle blush. If Barney disapproves of such posturing he doesn’t make this obviously apparent. The redoubt of the title points to the American Redoubt movement, a conservative right wing survivalist diaspora centred around Idaho and Montana – American states that favour extreme individualism. One of their leaders, James Wesley, Rawles, asks us to imagine them as “pistol-packing Amish”. That comma (putting a comma in your name!) is an interesting affectation for sure but one you’d be pushed to call ‘plain sense’. Then there’s isolationism and firearms: not a lot of plain sense there either. Remember Hemingway…

There’s no dialogue in the film but there’s “movement practice” – dancers playing dead, a kind of mucking about like the old kids game ‘Best Man Falls’. One of Diana’s accompanying virgins climbs a tree with ropes recalling Barney’s long-standing obsession with restraints and quixotic physical feats. An ominous soundtrack provided by Jonathan Bepler irritates with its portentousness and points gloomily to the denouement. A well-meaning scheme by ecologists to reintroduce wolves to the wilderness goes wrong. Spoiler alert: the wolves take over. There’s a sense that Barney is willing this armageddon on, that he sides with the hunters now pissed off because all their elk have been eaten by the pack.

Trying to interpret Redoubt takes us back to Paterson on Rilke when he says that “by the time we work out what the poem means, no one has any energy left to discuss what the meaning might propose”. Blame the current mass post-viral fatigue but what I got was this: Barney likes guns. And I don’t.

Matthew Barney, Redoubt, is at the Hayward Gallery until 25 July