Contemporary art Exhibitions Fairs Switzerland

Wagner had a word for it: gesamtkunstwerk

Matthew Barney’s epic film “River of Fundament” makes its Swiss debut at Art Basel

Barney's opera involved casting iron sculptures, since acquired by the Schaulager. Photo: Chris Winget

The epic new film by the American artist Matthew Barney has both delighted and disgusted critics. Seven years in the making and almost six hours long, “River of Fundament” makes its Swiss debut at Art Basel. Following the film’s premiere in February at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, this screening represents something of a homecoming for a film that was co-produced by the Laurenz Foundation, the organisation behind Basel’s Schaulager.

Conceived as an opera, with a score by the composer Jonathan Bepler, the film is loosely based on Norman Mailer’s sprawling, famously abstruse 1983 novel Ancient Evenings. Set between 1290BC and 1100BC, the book charts a violent, sexually charged journey from death to reincarnation, inspired by Ancient Egyptian mythology. Those familiar with Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle of films will not be surprised to find that “River of Fundament” matches Mailer’s novel in its extreme scatological and sexual content. This includes unflinching depictions of animal disembowelling, bizarre sex practices and the protagonist’s journey through a river of shit.

In a new approach for Barney, three acts of the opera document spectacular performances staged over the course of four years: the first in a car dealership in Los Angeles in 2008, the second in Detroit in 2010 and the third in New York in 2012. Each performance, featuring a huge cast and onlookers, enacted the ritual reincarnation of an automobile.

“I felt I needed to significantly change up the situation where the narrative would take place and rely less on the control I had grown used to in previous projects,” Barney says. “The live element opened up the possibility to make sculpture in a more direct way, most significantly with the cast-iron work Djed, which was cast at the end of act two in Detroit.” During the performance, 25 tonnes of molten iron were poured from five custom-built furnaces into an open pit at a derelict steel mill along the Detroit River. The resulting sculpture, alongside other works related to the project, is currently on show as part of the “River of Fundament” exhibition at Munich’s Haus der Kunst (until 17 August). Djed and another piece created during the performances, Canopic Chest, both 2009-11, have been acquired for the Schaulager’s collection.

This fluid combination of live performance, narrative cinema, opera and sculpture has led to the the project being labelled a gesamtkunstwerk—a term closely associated with Wagner’s ambition to unite all the arts within an opera. “I feel it describes something from another time,” Barney says. “I believe that my generation inherited the option to move between mediums without feeling too many restrictions. For me, it was never a strategy or a statement to layer multiple mediums, but rather a natural way to work.”

The seven-year project continues a long association between the artist and the Roche pharmaceutical heiress Maja Oeri. She is also the founder of the Schaulager and a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and has been supporting Barney’s work since the early 1990s. This relationship was reinforced in 2009, when Oeri’s Laurenz Foundation and the New York museum jointly acquired Barney’s “Drawing Restraint Archive” of videos, sculptures and drawings. The archive was exhibited in Barney’s major solo show at the Schaulager in 2010. Oeri is a co-producer of “River of Fundament”, and the Laurenz Foundation provided financial support for the film and the Haus der Kunst exhibition, as well as acquiring works produced throughout the project.

The screening at Art Basel forms part of a worldwide tour of opera houses and theatres. Barney views these venues as the natural home for his work. “In the way that the ‘Cremaster’ cycle had a strong relationship to cinema, ‘River of Fundament’ relates more to the tradition of opera and the performing arts,” he says.

Those attending the screening after a long day in the Messeplatz face a test of stamina, but they are likely to experience a work of Wagnerian ambition quite unlike anything else on show at Art Basel.

“River of Fundament”, Theater Basel, 19 June, 6pm

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