Rouge Battery, 2014. Cast Copper and Cast Iron, work in progress

The Drama of Proportion: A Conversation with Matthew Barney

River of Fundament: Khu, 2014. Production still

Matthew Barney is a prolific sculptor. Known for his Cremaster Cycle and “Drawing Restraint” series, he has been taking materials and processes into unknown territories for more than 25 years. Working with impermanent materials such as petroleum jelly, thermoplastics, and hybrid molding techniques, he has redefined how we look at contemporary art.

The risks that Barney has taken in terms of method and materials have alternately baffled and wowed audiences. His complex narratives often overwhelm viewers who are used to the “quick take” on sculptural objects. Today, his work resonates as both myth and substance for a whole new generation. Even if you haven’t “seen” Barney’s work in its entirety, you have certainly heard of and experienced it through the viral intensity by which it circulates via the Internet and word-of-mouth.

I met with Barney in his Long Island City studio as he was about to finish his most complex work to date, River of Fundament. This highly layered piece uses more traditional methods and materials to tell his stories.

The project involves multiple monumental sculptural works, a five-hour film, drawings, etchings, and one photograph—all of which are on view at Munich’s Haus der Kunst through August 17, 2014

Joshua Reiman: Sculpture deals with the physical, a spatial arena taken up by objects that we have to deal with—real objects in real space, a distinctive kind of viewing experience. Cinematic experiences, on the other hand, take us away from the everyday, and performance is ethereal and of the moment. Considering all of the choices for artistic output, you always seem to gravitate toward the use of sculpture as a physical statement in your work. What is it about the physical object that is so important to you?

Matthew Barney: An object has the ability—in its aloofness, in its presence—to hold a lot of meaning. You can invest meaning into an object willfully, or it can have its own meaning in terms of its materiality. But how that meaning is revealed—slowly, in terms of encountering the object, moving around the object—is a process which is quite cinematic.
I tend not to separate these things so much. The cinematic and the sculptural are quite close, and I am psychologically much more comfortable with that than I am with the pictorial. I am a storyteller by nature, and the types of stories that I am interested in, or the rate at which the narrative is revealed, relate to what we are talking about, to the way an object reveals its meaning.

JR: Do materials have a hierarchy for you?

MB: Yes, and this project is a really good example of that. I’ve never done cast bronze sculpture before. I’ve never worked with foundries in this way. I’ve never worked with so-called “traditional processes” or materials. But the text on which River of Fundament is loosely based, Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, opened the door to this range of materials and processes. It had to do with how the history of metal casting runs through the Ancient Egyptian era. Each one of these pieces addresses a different relationship to elemental metals, to alloys, or to hybridity. Hybridity has been really important to me in terms of my interest in plastics and synthetics.

JR: So you have shifted toward a longer lasting material set—copper, iron, bronze, lapis, and steel, to name a few. I can see how they might come from mythology, but is it just the story? How did these materials arrive in this project?

MB: I am quite opportunistic as an artist, and I am always looking for a door to open up a new set of sculptural problems. For whatever reason, I can only find that through a storytelling process. Each one of these bigger projects has done that for me. It usually starts with a location. In this case, it started with a novel, which is unusual for me. Ancient Evenings has revealed a whole range of material relationships that I haven’t worked with before.

JR: A lot of this still has to do with the body, right? Can you describe the body within River of Fundament through materials?

MB: Yes, in the sense that Mailer describes the beginning and the end as being a kind of excremental state: one is born out of shit and then passes back through shit in order to live again. He describes the body like the landscape, where the bowels of the Earth are producing sulfur and molten iron. This is something that I’ve always been interested in—that, in terms of storytelling and in terms of sculpture, it could be po­ssible to make significant leaps in scale by treating the body and the landscape on equal terms, so that they’re interchangeable. So that the body and the landscape are character and site at the same time. So that you can be inside the body or outside the body; it can be geological in scale, or it can be microscopic in scale, and these different scales can operate simultaneously.

River of Fundament: Khu, 2014. Production sti

JR: In 2010, you cut up the body of a car and melted it down to be reborn in front of a live audience on the banks of the Rouge River in Detroit. You built a temporary foundry of five, 25-foot-tall cupolas and cast DJED, a 25-ton iron sculpture. It was the ritual of sculpture in a spiritual sense. I don’t even know how to describe it, and I was there. How does this piece fit into your thoughts on making sculpture?

 The work in Detroit was definitely a ritual in terms of both my relationship to performance and to filmmaking. My relationship to the audience is more about setting up a situation in which a group of people witness something, as opposed to considering them as an audience in the theatrical sense. I’m interested in the collective experience around something that’s happening. This is how I’ve always set up scenes in the filming, though it’s changed subtly over the years. In the beginning, I was setting up the scenes as if they were being performed. In terms of the economy of filmmaking, it’s ridiculous to build a set completely in the round, so that it functions for the people on set as a reality. On the screen, it doesn’t matter that there is this level of realism. But, you highly invested in a material and has spent years figuring out how to do this process for art. But artists can do it in their backyard with limited resources. I remember showing you a few VHS tapes of iron pours that I had done. I told you that I thought you would be into it, and then you took it and did the biggest thing that anyone has ever done with this process in terms of art. You surround yourself with people who can do anything and everything they put their minds to. How does that affect you? How does the studio work for you like that?

MB: I’d like to believe that all of us who work on these projects are people of like mind, and I think that the spirit of the work attracts people like that. Most of the people who come into the studio want to be involved in that spirit—it’s self-perpetuating in that way. On the other hand, as you know, it’s hard to find great collaborators. It requires reaching out through people whom I already trust to try to find other exceptional collaborators.

JR: Having worked with you on various projects over the years, I have often thought about your process. I see that a veil or a selective membrane of sorts stands between the cinematic experience and the sculptures that you create. I imagine for something to exist as a sculpture it has to go through some sort of transformation as it passes through this imaginary wall. How do you decide what becomes sculpture within your work?

MB: That is a hard question to answer—sometimes it’s knowable and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes after the narrative has passed through the object, it suddenly presents itself as an object that has sculptural presence. Other times, it fails to transform. There’s a lot of mystery in that.

JR: A while back, I asked you the same question, and you said, “Some things frame the sculpture, and some things are the sculpture.” I thought that was interesting: what frames something versus what is something. Everything has gone through some sort of change. We are not standing here next to three car hoods. We are standing next to three car hoods (Imperial Death Mask) cast in three different metals. The whole injection of metallurgy is fascinating on its own. What’s happening? What’s the reaction between these metals?

MB: This is something that has always interested me. I tend not to think of the individual sculptures in an autonomous way. Although they function as autonomous works, it’s hard for me to separate them from everything else in the system. The system includes the narrative and all of the objects, as well as the relationships between the objects. In those relationships, certain sacrifices need to be made. I think this is what you are saying, that there are certain pieces that frame, and there are other pieces that just are. Those pieces that frame, I consider sacrificial in a certain way, because they lack an auto­no­mous presence. But they are effective in other ways.

JR: Maybe they’re the bones that make the steel?

MB: Exactly. There is a good example of this in the plastic casting of the Imperial’s front end with these metal castings of car hoods. It’s the most literal of all the pieces in this family of works. I think it’s a necessary piece, though it’s not as transformed as I would typically want a work to be. I can accept that, because it opens up other opportunities.

JR: If I show my students an image of a hat and ask them to tell me what it means, they would say that it’s a hat, it covers your head, it provides warmth. But, if I tell them that it’s Charlie Chaplin’s hat, then all of a sudden it has a totally different meaning. They now see the object in another light. This idea relates to what we are talking about now.

MB: It’s tricky though, isn’t it? The Chaplin’s hat narrative is powerful, but it can also stand in the way of something having sculptural presence, if the narrative sits in front of it. It’s often hard to locate where something stops being sculpture and starts being a prop or a straight-up relic.

Trans America, 2014. Cast sulfur, epoxy, and wood timbers, 3 view of work in progress

JR: Has your definition of sculpture changed with River of Fundament?

MB: Possibly. DJED, the cast iron piece, stands alone in this body of work. It relates to other things that I have made, but it has definitely opened up new doors for me as a sculptor. The foundry works are a departure for me, but they also relate to the cast plastic pieces I’ve done in the past. There is a relationship. They’re different, but similar.

JR: Like a petroleum jelly piece transformed into plastic.

MB: Perhaps.

JR: Then there’s another layer. It’s not like you’ve found a comfort zone and you’re sticking with it.

MB: One difference has to do with solidity and permanence. It also solidity and permanence. It also has to do with participating in a longstanding tradition.

JR: You have been a great influence on younger artists. Who were your influences?

MB: Seeing Bruce Nauman’s work in the ’80s, when I was first coming to New York, was important. I would never have started using video if I had not seen pieces like Learned Helplessness in Rats and observed how the video related to the object in those works—the relationship was more of a proposition than a one-to-one relationship. Those pieces eluded expectations that something specifically happened with this object and that the video is evidence of that. There was an uncomfortable relationship between the moving image and the object, and that completely inspired me. I would also say Joseph Beuys, but my interest in him was full of misunderstanding, which I think was important. With Beuys, you might see one vague black and white picture of an action involving an object. Then you see the object with a vague idea of what happened, and that leaves you the space to make the rest of it up yourself. That level of mystery became interesting to me. Not knowing influenced me a lot. On the opposite end of the scale, I would say early Chris Burden. The descriptions of his actions were so empirical. His language really functioned as sculpture. Beuys and Burden were like pillars, but at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of how an object could come out of an action.

JR: Is this the end of this project?

MB: I think that there will still be more work to be made from this project. This will be good, because although I believe in working in a project-based way, there’s something about a more traditional studio practice that I want, and I think that can come at a time when there are no deadlines, and things can evolve more slowly and reveal themselves on their terms. I’m looking forward to that.

Joshua Reiman is an artist living and working in Pittsburgh, where he is a visiting professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University.