A death ritual full of cliches

Times Art Critic

The first mistake Matthew Barney made in his corny two-hour performance, “REN,” at a Santa Fe Springs car lot Sunday night, was in the choice of starring automobile. The 1967 Chrysler Imperial had obvious meanings.

The year is the artist’s birth date. The make is Manhattan’s iconic skyscraper, a star of Barney’s five-part film, “The Cremaster Cycle.” Lastly, the journey from Vietnam to Iraq in America’s imperialist adventures abroad was spelled out on the car’s front grille.

It was that kind of night. Cliches were practically announced via bullhorn to several hundred invitation-only guests. So provincial was the vision of the West that a better headline star would have been a 1967 Chrysler New Yorker.


Presumably “REN” is a logo-like conflation of the Egyptian sun god, Re, and Renaissance; but the art was more “Cleopatra” than Amarna, more Renaissance Pleasure Faire than Florentine masterpiece. An American drum-and-bugle corps, orchestrated by composer Jonathan Bepler, played dirges to escort the automotive soul into the afterlife.

The event took place just off the I-5 in a neighborhood populated by gas stations, trucking warehouses and a mobile home park. An incredible simulation, a defunct car lot had been tricked out with live salesmen, new cars and American flags.

On the lot’s upper deck, three taco trucks pulled away to reveal the smashed-up Imperial, painted scarab green and resting on the back of a flatbed truck. A pair of feet protruded from a shroud-draped lump on the roof, strewn with potatoes, while a huge, dirty black sphere protruding from the car’s crumpled trunk turned the holy Egyptian bug into an industrial-strength dung beetle, feeding on feces.

A car dealer made rambling remarks. Then, in sweltering heat, nearly four dozen dirt-smeared laborers used thick ropes to drag the funeral bier off the flatbed, down a long ramp, across the asphalt and, after dismantling some parts, into the glass-fronted showroom.

This ritual procession was followed by industrial-strength intercourse between a backhoe and the Imperial, which smashed up the showroom interior. Glass and metal went flying and three audience members sustained minor injuries.

When paramedics left, the crowd filed into the tomb -- actually the car-lined former service bay. Lila Downs, the great Oaxacan ranchera singer, wailed at a corpse laid out atop a golden Grand Am. A “menstrual shroud” was extracted from the loins of a masked nude woman. Somebody said that locusts were released in the parking lot, but I didn’t see them.


Then we all drove home.

It had been a long evening of checking off source materials: Richard Prince, Paul McCarthy, Charles Ray, Kiki Smith, “Cleopatra,” Al Gore, etc. The industrial coupling was pure Survival Research Labs, the Northern California heavy-industrial performance troupe that has been artistically disemboweling the military-industrial complex for 30 years.

Still, most interesting was the crypto-performance going on around the crypto-Egypto main event. Plenty of official cameras promised future “REN” shows, while performance shards were carefully collected.

Consider the interminable event over not on the day the troops come home from Baghdad or a replacement for a petroleum-based economy is found, but on the night the Chrysler Imperial’s car hood shows up on the turntable at Christie’s auction house.