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Review: Matthew Barney’s ‘River of Fundament’? Well, it’s certainly big

A scene from "River of Fundament" by Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler.
(Hugo Glendinning / Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels)
Los Angeles Times Art Critic

Sculptor and filmmaker Matthew Barney has a way with ruins.

The exhausting wreckage and smashed residue of modern life, especially as it unfolded in 20th century industrial America, is one key to “River of Fundament,” the gaudy three-act movie and massive installation of related sculptures now at the Geffen Contemporary, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s warehouse space in Little Tokyo.

Reincarnation is central too. Artists perform the magic when their work engages past spirits. The philosophical notion that following death a person’s soul can live on in a new body is alive in art.

Crushed auto parts swallowed in sludge, funeral barges, drawings of decayed factories and decomposed humanity, monuments to rebirth, open sewers flowing with feces — these and more are on display. Eight of 85 works are monumental. The arduous, visually overstuffed film clocks in at a running time of 5 hours, 18 minutes — the length of “Sleep,” Andy Warhol’s nearly blank first movie.

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Barney began work on this epic project in 2007. The country was then just sliding toward cruel economic chaos, while the fierce military surge in Iraq was failing to end the raging sectarian bloodletting among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds unleashed by the American invasion. Standing atop the day’s rubble, his project looks back across ashes and shambles.

If “River of Fundament” — both sculptural and cinematic — finally feels sluggish and inert, it is not for want of trying. The New York-based artist is nothing if not ambitious. His dedication to taking on big themes using a visually inventive gusto is to be admired. (The ensemble took seven years to complete.) This time, though, the project got away from him.

Perhaps the slipperiness of the specific source material is the cause.

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“River of Fundament” was inspired by “Ancient Evenings,” Norman Mailer’s sprawlingly bad 1983 novel — 709 pages of benumbed egocentrism set in pharaonic Egypt. Over a long, dark night, Ramesses IX reminisces about his ancestor, Ramesses II, obsessed with a huge battle that may or may not have been won.

Mailer’s marvelous 1979 novel “The Executioner’s Song” had inspired Barney’s 1999 film “Cremaster 2,” in which the writer had a cameo playing escape artist Harry Houdini. Now Mailer’s son John appears as the first of three Mailer reincarnations that anchor Barney’s new film.

Reviews of Mailer’s extended meditation on the Egyptian book of the dead were mortifying. Literary critic Harold Bloom proposed that the famously combative author was in fact just mythologizing himself.

His career had ricocheted between the splendid heights (“The Naked and the Dead,” “The Executioner’s Song”) and the pitiful depths (“Barbary Shore,” “Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man”). Mailer, looking back from atop his own rubble-strewn empire to civilization’s mysterious origins, strains to make sense of a magic-infused, dust-laden past and his own place in history.

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So does Barney’s project. It’s not pretty.

The first sound we hear in the operatic movie is the crisp crack of gunfire. A collaboration with composer Jonathan Bepler, it opens with pristine but moody rustic scenes of the spectacular mountain West. A lone hunter in the distance walking along a ridge has raised his rifle and pulled the trigger.

A predator? Dinner? Purposeless play? Sustenance entwines with violence, life with death, in an artistic landscape of mythic American dimensions.

Shift to a repulsive New York City sewer, where a bearded, slime-covered man (Barney) slowly rises from brackish water. A modern Osiris, sullen god of the afterlife, climbs up from the dank metropolitan underground.

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He finds himself inside a dim, book-stuffed Brooklyn apartment. Slipping into a bathroom, Osiris reaches down into the toilet bowl and retrieves a sizable turd. He carefully wraps it in gold leaf, then gently returns the amulet to the depths of the porcelain throne.

No one in the movie theater laughed — at least, not out loud.

Just outside the door, a wake for the recently deceased Mailer is getting underway, setting the stage for the first reincarnation. This ancient evening includes an aging roster of uber-New York characters: Elaine Stritch, Liz Smith, Salman Rushdie, Fran Lebowitz, Lawrence Weiner, Dick Cavett, the last a survivor of a notorious 1971 contretemps on his late-night TV chat show with the humorless author.

Trying to follow a cinematic story line isn’t productive, though. Vague impressions matter more. This is an esoteric movie with mostly gnomic aspirations.

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Along with 400 other extras, I happened to watch the 2008 filming of a later Act 1 sequence, shot at a defunct used-car lot in Santa Fe Springs, southeast of L.A. It was a long day. Three onlookers suffered slight injury during the shoot, apparently from flying shards of glass.

Through a violent, extravagantly ritualized blaze of high-industrial mayhem, a 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial was reincarnated as a 1979 Pontiac Firebird. Had Lila Downs, the great Oaxacan ranchera singer, not been present to sanctify the galumphing transformation with a haunting aria, the sweltering day would have been a loss. Bepler’s score is the production’s best feature, though intermittently.

Barney’s reincarnation saga overlays Mailer, an industrial-strength writer, with automobiles, an industrial-strength product of American know-how, all beneath an obscuring shroud of ancient Egyptian ceremony. The artist and his times also sneak into the mix.

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Barney’s birth year is 1967, like the Crown Imperial. Chrysler is the iconic Manhattan skyscraper that starred in his “Cremaster” films. The shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979, a firebird-style mix of blessing and curse that marks a turning point in the cataclysmic history of Western imperialism in the Middle East.

These references find themselves encased in bronze in one of the show’s monumental sculptures. (The largest weighs more than 20 tons.) Nestled in a Chrysler undercarriage are the four Egyptian jars in which pharaonic undertakers would mummify the dead’s viscera. A technical feat of bronze casting, the sludge-laden automobile is a “Canopic Chest.”

As grandiose movie memorabilia, though, the bronze sculpture’s conceptual resonance is on the order of a colossal baby’s shoe. Barney’s work tends to overwhelm through sheer size, extreme production values and layered symbols.

Take the mammoth “Boat of Ra.” A golden metallic straitjacket, which nods to Houdini, is strewn atop a casting of Mailer’s writing desk, where he toiled for a decade on his hapless Nile misadventure. They’re slipped into the upside-down rafters of a full-size attic. Bronze ropes sprawl out on the floor.

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The ensemble evokes a royal funerary barge powered by slave labor. Like “Canopic Chest,” there’s formal vigor but not much more.

By stark contrast, the show’s most enchanting work is visually the slightest.

An irregular, almost unnoticed line of scraped markings runs chest-high along the walls of every gallery, encircling the cumbersome ensemble within an ephemeral record of yearning labor. The site-specific rendering was made by eight female athletes who dragged a 5,000-pound block of carbon around the museum, pressing the mass up against walls as they went.

Called “Drawing Restraint #23,” it’s one of a series that began with a performance at the artist’s 1991 debut exhibition at West Hollywood’s Stuart Regen Gallery. The drawings operate on the basic weightlifting principle that resistance increases strength.

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What works at Gold’s Gym is born out on the Geffen’s walls. Presumably Mailer’s leaden book would provide the same necessary resistance to create a muscular movie, yet that didn’t pan out.

Organized by Munich’s Haus der Kunst, where it opened in the spring, and overseen at MOCA by assistant curator Lanka Tattersall, the show also takes a serious tumble. Half of a brand-new suite of 14 Barney sculptures, a number vaguely related to Osiris’ usurper brother, has been added for L.A.'s version of the show.

Called “Water Castings,” they were made by pouring molten bronze into a watery pit of clay silt. The bronze solidifies into lacy, abstract forms, like fan coral crossed with Queen Anne’s lace.

The suite’s other half is on view across town at Regen Projects. The gallery, along with the artist’s galleries in New York and London, is among the museum show’s underwriters.

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MOCA, by sharing the gallery display, creates a jarring commercial ethos for itself — pay-to-play, plus potential for payback. Had all of Barney’s new work been at the gallery while “Fundament” was at the museum, there would have been no perception problem.

The Wagnerian ambition of “Fundament” recalls German artists such as Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer, while the subjects, methods and motifs reflect Americans as diverse as Paul McCarthy, Charles Ray, Lynda Benglis, Kiki Smith and Mike Kelley. The grand chronicle even evokes Thomas Cole, whose 19th century apocalyptic paintings “The Voyage of Life” and “The Course of Empire” took wild Christian journeys through abundance, ruin, wilderness and rebirth.

Yet scatology doesn’t begin to describe what flows through Barney’s distended art, where Western civilization’s foundation is also humanity’s anus. (On to the excremental orgy!) Like most operas, the movie is divided into three acts, which MOCA screens in its entirety on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays in a comfortable small theater built inside the Geffen. The experience is unique if also unfulfilling.

Twitter: @KnightLAT

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