New Haven, Connecticut
Matthew Barney’s comprehensive and layered “Redoubt” explores themes of hunting, predation, guns, voyeurism, dance, landscape politics, metallurgy, and transformation through a unique take on the myth of Diana and Actaeon. According to the tale told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Diana, the goddess of the hunt, is bathing nude in a spring accompanied by her nymphs, when Actaeon, a mortal man, accidentally stumbles on the scene. As the nymphs attempt to shield Diana, she transforms Actaeon into a deer. Soon after, his own hunting dogs track him down and kill him, essentially giving him the same fate as his prey. Barney uses multiple metaphors within the myth to create a webbing of ideas executed over the course of six hunts. This vast undertaking finds him employing a complex narrative in the exhibition’s eponymous film, and provides multiple entry points into the show’s sculptural works, which are a triumph of metal casting and plating.
Known for innovations in filmmaking, and for his unorthodox drawing and sculpting techniques—which are set up as challenges to the material by the maker—Barney is a master of improvisation who surrounds himself with other makers and producers willing to follow his quest for the unknown. He develops ideas and potentialities, always in flux, allowing for deviations and new methods and processes to unfold. Behind all this is a fascination with the choreography of making. Here, Barney makes explicit the connection to dance as it relates to sculpture; characters in the film (which has no dialogue) communicate through movement. This commitment to dance and making is offered as a process of complicated abstraction within the film. All transformations are physical ones, whether involving actors or the materials used in a sculpture. Both the film and the sculptures function as fusions of an artistic record of time spent observing the natural world.
Barney often works with non-actors who are specialists in their respective fields. In Redoubt, there are not many humans; animals play an important role, as does the landscape. Sharp shooting champion Annette Wachter, who also happens to be an advocate for the National Rifle Association, plays Diana. Her sidekicks, the Calling Virgin and the Tracking Virgin, are portrayed by dancers Eleanor Bauer and Laura Stokes. There is a Hoop Dancer, Sandra Lamouche of the Bigstone Cree Nation, whose dance creates a sculptural constellation on the body. The Electroplater, played by dancer KJ Holmes, transfers the alchemical metallurgy that dances through acid baths and is fused to the surface of copper plates that the Engraver has inscribed from each hunt in the film. The Electroplater also creates a sculpture of the constellation Lupus (the wolf) in her makeshift trailer laboratory.
Barney plays The Engraver, an observer who, like Actaeon, is a voyeur of nature and of animal and human behavior. He is also a United States Forest Service (USFS) patrolman who represents the watchful, bureaucratic eye of the government. The Engraver’s role raises questions of government surveillance, gendered power structures, and the male gaze, which is turned around by Diana and her nymphs, who, like predators, are very aware of everything that surrounds them.
The nymphs, with their animal-like movements, mimic the goals of Diana’s hunt. Their dance in deep snow produces stillness and choreographic movement under restraint. Their bodies are also under the constriction of heavy clothing, branches, trees, and cold weather. One of the film’s most metaphorical scenes comes when a satin-lined red jumpsuit is stripped from one of the virgins. The act symbolizes the skinning of animals and the fate of Actaeon. The dance continues in the galleries with the sculptures, which represent the hunts and characters within the film, and in the light play on the surfaces of the uniquely framed engravings.
A “redoubt” is defined as a military fortification, which allows for what Barney calls “isolated thinking.” The term “American Redoubt” refers to an area of the Northwest that survivalists say would be the best place to live within the U.S. when bracing for an apocalypse, political or otherwise. This American Redoubt includes parts of eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, where much of the film was made. Barney’s choice of title introduces the geographic and geologic ideology of this region, mirroring the colonizing idea of North America as a fortification—an attitude only reinforced by current events.
Within this politicized American landscape, Barney restores, and subverts, a romantic version of a plein air artist rendering the natural world. Views of wild nature, especially of the American West, are lofty—in stark opposition to the reality of the founding of the U.S. and the subsequent pursuit of Manifest Destiny, which contributed to the genocide of millions of Native Americans. In Redoubt, women, wolves, a Native American, and natural phenomena take the lead as if they were part of a new terra incognita.
Barney leaves a lot of room for contrasting interpretations of what this all means. Everything is political, as we all know. Political nature becomes a metaphor here—not in your face, but offering competing views on complicated issues such as guns, hunting, and government. If you look deep enough, a metamorphosis of current issues abounds. Each hunt permeates and guides the physical world through a guest/host relationship, an ever-present Barney signature. The immersive space of landscape and mythology connects the film and the sculptural works. Through looking and listening, the viewer comes to understand the relational connectedness of ground and the sky and what it means to be the hunter and the hunted.
The sense of stalking is palpable in the film; you can feel predation from many angles. Cinematographer Peter Strietmann has crafted a masterful awareness of the view shed of human and animal species (much of the film was shot with a drone and from grounded angles) that brings viewers closer to understanding animal senses. Meanwhile Jonathan Bepler’s score never overwhelms the sounds of nature; instead, it heightens awareness and embodiment. The quietness of the film is intense, every sound and moment emphasized through the act of the hunt. After two hours, viewers have entered a state of hyperawareness, sensitized to the ever-present beauty and death in Barney’s portrait of central Idaho and keenly aware of contradictions. One such contradiction involves the reintroduction of wolves in 1995; now the annual wolf hunt reinforces the ever-present idea of human dominance over the natural world. Redoubt acts as a paradoxical metaphor, embracing different stances on government control, land use, and America’s obsession with guns.
Barney fetishizes guns in the 13 sculptures and 37 copperplate engravings in the show, obsessing over the details of barrels and sight mounts. Each work is carefully constructed and executed. The towering Diana and Virgins are unlike any other cast metal sculptures you have ever seen. Their presence is extreme, the craftsmanship exquisite. In these works, gunstocks and camo transform into the skins of trees and layers of identity that molt from sculpted bodies of cast bronze, copper, lead, and brass. There is an existential quality to these hybrid sculptures—trees cast as objects resembling bodies and gun shafts acting as hosts for the infliction of alloy. By pouring metal (the same alloy of copper, lead, and brass that makes bullets) through the trunks, Barney emulates ammunition moving explosively through a gun. At the same time, he shoots narratives through these host bodies, the trees becoming vessels for a sculptural articulation of violence against the living.
The castings are technically magnificent, fabricated at Walla Walla Foundry under the supervision of Matthew Ryle, Barney’s former production designer of 25 years. This obsession with metal casting picks up from his last project, the epic River of Fundament, in which he cast a 25-ton iron sculpture by tapping five cupola furnaces at the same moment; numerous bronze and copper sculptures appeared in the resulting exhibition. During this time, Barney also began to explore “water casting” into bentonite clay to produce one-of-a-kind, large-scale explosions of metal; these works also feature in “Redoubt,” which is a metal lover’s feast.
Engraving and plating are major activities within the film, and both processes provide sophisticated objects in the exhibition. The Engraver uses copper plates to articulate the landscape and actors in the film. Barney hybridizes the age-old technique of intaglio, not only engraving scenes, but also etching them into copper plates covered in resin ground or acid-resistant wax and electroplating them. (Barney’s longtime assistant Jade Archuleta-Gans built and operated an electroplating shop in Barney’s studio, with production design for the film and exhibition by Kanoa Baysa.)
The act of making prints from engraving is taken to its limits through Barney’s iterative process of making engraved plate editions by hand and then copper plating to various layers of thickness. As with the sculptures, there is more than a hint of alchemy in these works, which seem to pursue some elusive metallurgical goal not unlike the philosopher’s stone—capable of turning lesser metals into gold. Alchemy and metallurgy were also linked to the search for immortality. In China, that quest for the elixir of life also led to the invention of gunpowder.
Much like alchemy and mythology, “Redoubt”transforms disciplines and power structures, providing new perspectives on age-old narratives. (The show’s art historical references find a perfect context within the Yale University Art Gallery’s encyclopedic collection.) Women play the major roles, and these roles are ones of power. However, they are always being watched and tracked by the male character. The act of tracking wolves is subverted through the most common mistake of hunting—moving too much. Predators exist by spotting movement. Here, Barney excels at taking an essential act and turning it on its head. He also distills the violence of guns, a real problem in our world, into an artistic language within the film, the sculptures, and the engravings. Wolves in the American landscape, the term “redoubt,” the American obsession with guns, and the Engraver as the watchful eye of the U.S. government are all allegories for larger societal issues. The grandeur of Barney’s project is akin to that of the American West—it’s complicated; it takes time to realize all the layers at play. “Redoubt” testifies to the complexities of the human condition in contemporary American culture while raising immediate philosophical questions about the natural world.
“Matthew Barney: Redoubt,” curated by Pamela Franks, is on view at Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, through June 16, 2019. It travels to UCCA, Beijing, September 28–December 15, 2019, and Hayward Gallery, London, March 4–May 10, 2020.