In his new film Redoubt, the artist hunts wolves and mystic truths.
Matthew Barney: Redoubt, Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, through June 16, 2019
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The last time we saw Matthew Barney, he was merrily leading his audience through a literal world of shit. And so one could be forgiven for thinking of Redoubt (2018)—the latest of his Gesamtkunstwerk epics, built around a loose reimagining of the tale of Diana and Actaeon set in the pristine snow-covered terrain of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, a few hours from where the artist grew up—as a form of atonement for the exhaustively crappy adventure offered up in his previous major work, River of Fundament (2014). Compared to that protracted scatological fever dream, Barney treats us to an enterprise that is by comparison crisp, tidy, almost improbably naturalistic. Is Redoubt better understood as an apology for what’s come before, or as an apologia? Do Barney’s new formal tactics mark a change in conceptual strategy, or is this simply an alternative iteration of the artist’s longstanding approach, namely to entice “one of these archetypal narratives to come forward and align itself with what I’m doing”?
What Barney’s “doing” with Redoubt—whose primary component is a wordless 134-minute film, made with his longtime collaborators, cinematographer Peter Strietmann and composer Jonathan Bepler—is characteristically multivalent. It mashes up wildlife-management politics, survivalist sensibility, (al)chemical transmutation, gender and sexual dynamics, Judson Dance–style movement exercises, gun culture, and questions around artistic constraint with an Arcadian myth about a hunter who, as punishment for spying a goddess at her bath, is transformed into a stag and torn apart by his own dogs. Like some rogue Jodorowsky-helmed NatGeo documentary, Redoubt conjures a magisterial world similarly balanced between the natural and the supernatural—thoroughly red in tooth and claw, it’s also mystically cosmic, its terrestrial and heavenly signs intimately, if opaquely, aligned.
The film opens at dawn in the camp of Diana (played by competitive sharpshooter Anette Wachter). She’s accompanied by her attendants, the Calling Virgin (the film’s choreographer Eleanor Bauer) and the Tracking Virgin (aerialist Laura Stokes), who perform the first of their many elegantly calisthenic pas de deux as they dismount from the sleeping hammock they share. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the mountains, the Engraver (the film’s only male character, a US Forest Service ranger played by Barney sporting a bushy gray beard and glacially stoic backwoods mien) heads to an isolated mobile home. There, amid a Walter White–style array of chemical baths, the Electroplater (dancer K. J. Holmes) presents him with a pair of copper plates, the first raw material for what will become a series of plein air engravings executed in and around Diana’s sacred territory over the course of six “hunts” undertaken by both parties.
Such categorical dramatis personae are classic Barney. Rarely does one find an individual in his work; most everyone is a Type, a stand-in for an Idea—evidence, depending on your perspective, of either an immensely sophisticated totalizing conceptual system or an artist altogether too welcoming of cardboard subjectivities. Kitted out in fractalized camo and packing high-powered sights and weaponry, Diana and her nymphs are symbols of elemental feminine skill and resourcefulness. Barney’s Engraver is a keen observer of the natural world but, unlike the goddess, is inevitably separate from it and so must always mediate it through tools—his pickup truck, the ruler he uses to measure the snowpack, a surveilling infrared camera he installs in the forest, the scribe he uses to etch his boreal scenes. When she’s not helping the Engraver realize his artistic ambitions, the Electroplater is building a model of the constellation Lupus inside her trailer and performing celestial salutations outside of it. Just as her technical specialty marks her as a conduit to earthly secrets of transformation, so too her avocations figure her as a channeler of empyrean mysteries. The last and least narratively integrated of the film’s characters is the Hoop Dancer (dancer and choreographer Sandra Lamouche of the Bigstone Cree Nation), whom the Engraver encounters during the only sequence set in “civilization.” In town for a cup of coffee, he passes an otherwise empty American Legion hall and sees her decorating her hoops for a mesmerizing silent dance she’s about to perform there. But the narrative’s maladroit figuring of her—a mute emblem for the survival of Native culture—achieves little beyond demonstrating the political limits of Barney’s brand of magical realism.
Across the six hunts, Diana and the virgins stalk their prey: the gray wolf. (According to Barney, the animal’s reintroduction into central Idaho as a protected species in the mid-1990s, and the later reinstatement of hunting after the population swelled, was a primary inspiration for the work.) The women move balletically across the pitched terrain through deep snow, a naturally occurring version of the artificial physical constraints typically present in Barney’s work. They scale trees; they call to the animals, which Diana sights down the barrel of her gun. The encounters between the Engraver and the hunting party grow in frequency and intimacy. He spies on them in their nighttime camp; she warns him off by plunking the voyeuristic engraving he’s making with a long-distance shot. In the final hunt, Diana kills her canine quarry and then comes undone. In a sequence suggesting Barney’s more typical procedures, she vomits a slick of syrupy golden goo into the barrel of her gun, which the virgins then clean and cradle through a sequence of positions that take full advantage of the object’s patently sexualized form. The film then closes with the wolf pack retributively destroying the Electroplater’s home beneath the spookily darkened skies of August 2017’s total solar eclipse.
The work’s gallery component includes the series of engravings made during the film’s production and numerous electroplated copper works based on them, as well as four large-scale sculptures made using burned-out trees from the Sawtooth range into which Barney has poured molten brass and copper. The two largest, displayed horizontally on sculpted white polyester structures that evoke aiming platforms and featuring carved stock-like designs, read as baroquely efflorescing weapons that neatly summon both Diana’s primeval domain and her mechanized means of dominating it. As has often been the case with the artist’s program, however, one can’t escape the sense—despite Barney’s avowals that his practice is first and foremost sculptural—that the things in the gallery are inevitably appendages of the films, a most superb mode of monetizing his principally ephemeral practice, but inescapably secondary to the cinematic project.
In the case of Redoubt, that project may appear considerably altered, with Barney transformed from Dionysian alimentary satyr into Apollonian mountain-man philosophe, his spectacularizing eye subsumed into a mode of Planet Earth–style picturesque. And yet when considering the sweep of his career, Redoubt might be better understood less as a detour than a homecoming of sorts for the Idaho jock turned aesethetic athlete turned maestro of grandly immoderate oddities. It embodies many of the central tenets of Barney’s program, going back to its beginnings: an appreciation for bodies working with precision under conditions of constraint; a conviction that ancient myths and symbols are almost infinitely malleable and readily adaptable to the needs of contemporary production; and an unironic sense that the artist is, in fact, a revealer of mystic truths. It may look different, but as the old story tells us, outward appearances can sometimes be deceiving.
Jeffrey Kastner is a New York–based writer and critic, and the senior editor of Cabinet magazine. His books include the edited volumes Land and Environmental Art (Phaidon) and Nature (MIT/Whitechapel), and he is coauthor, with Claire Lehmann, of Artists Who Make Books (Phaidon). A regular contributor to Artforum, his writing has appeared in publications including the Economist, frieze, the New Republic, and the New York Times, and in books and exhibition catalogues on artists such as David Altmejd, Ragnar Kjartansson, Tomas Saraceno, and Sarah Sze.