Like loving the New England Patriots, championing the work of Matthew Barney over the past year or two has become, outside a circle of die-hard fans, a minority concern.
And yet Barney, I believe, is worth championing. Loathsome as his work can be, there remains no artist in America working with greater ambition; none capable of producing such mesmerizing, queasy-making imagery; and none who bores so deeply into the discordance between the extravagant evolution of our brains, bodies, myths, cultures, economies, and art — all the things that define us as human — and the stunning fact of our mortality.
Mortality is a form of failure. It’s also the source of our humor. And so it’s no accident that humor and the absurd are central to Barney’s achievement. People forget this, perhaps because, like the widely detested Bill Belichick, he wears a poker face and appears to take himself so very seriously.
Barney was just 32 in 1999, when New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman hailed him as “the most important artist of his generation.” Barney-mania peaked three years later, when his five “Cremaster” films were released and exhibitions devoted to the “Cremaster” extravaganza — films, sculptures, photographs, and drawings, as well as music by his long-term collaborator Jonathan Bepler — opened in Paris, Cologne, and New York.
Now, more than a year on from the release of “River of Fundament,” a 5½-hour film that Barney and Bepler describe as a “non-traditional opera,” a sense of Barney-fatigue is palpable. It will be put to the test by nine screenings of “River of Fundament” at the Museum of Fine Arts, beginning on Wednesday.
Explanations for the Barney backlash abound. The artist’s breakup with Björk, much publicized at the time of the release of the singer’s bruised 2015 album, “Vulcinura,” created a popular perception that Barney’s masculine, square-jawed intensity was no match for her globe-girdling, cosmic emotionality. Cue the boos.
More to the point, there has been a shift in the zeitgeist. We are impatient right now with over-elaboration. Our nostrils quiver at any whiff of pretension. We wish to effect a return to simplicity.
I feel this wish myself. And then along comes “River of Fundament.” You cannot imagine a work of art so soggy with symbol, allusion, and arcane, malodorous reference.
And my God, it’s punishingly long. Upon returning from a full day watching it at the MFA, I was asked how I’d liked it and could only blurt out, “The first four hours were amazing!”
They were. Astonishing. But the final 90 minutes were nothing short of appalling. I’m baffled as to why. It was almost as if, somewhere around the four--hour mark, I had awoken from a shameful, sexually aberrant dream and needed to get up, shake it off, and splash my face with water, but found that I couldn’t, that I was stuck, covered in slime, and forced by some foul trick of the subconscious to replay the dream’s most shameful episodes for another hour and a half.
Is this what aesthetic failure on a grand scale feels like?
The problem wasn’t the subject matter, although it includes masturbation, anal sex, characters covered in sewage, urination, and a pregnant woman giving birth to something weirdly non-human.
All that I’m fine with — and in any case, there was no shortage of similar material in the first four hours. No. What I succumbed to instead was an onrushing sense of boredom, funk, and acedia.
“River of Fundament,” like the “Cremaster Cycle,” is an onion-peel epic. It draws on some of the same fascinations as the earlier project, although it was originally conceived by Bepler and Barney as a series of live performances in locations across America. The film was secondary.
Bepler’s music is riveting. Much of it was performed live, and extends from relatively conventional singing and instrumentation to wailing, yelping, beat-boxing, gurgling, drumming, and much more.
The visuals, too, are unforgettable: stools and penises wrapped in gold leaf, liquid mercury dripping off the genitals of a man being sodomized in a bathroom, close-ups of maggots, fleas, and scarabs, California car yards, abandoned buildings in Detroit, oil fields, highways, sewage plants, auto shops, a drawn-out nighttime ritual involving rivers of molten metal, men crawling out of disemboweled carcasses, dazzling Native American and Mexican costumes, songs, dances, chants, and so on.
It is all quite extraordinary, and for a long time the pacing, the mystery, the beauty, and the humor all seem perfectly balanced. You feel something — something unlike anything you have previously seen — slowly gathering to a greatness.
But in its final third, “River of Fundament” simply loses its life force. It is the aesthetic equivalent of a balloon farting out air as it careens around the room, all in interminable slow motion.
The film’s central focus is the Osiris myth at the heart of Egyptian mythology: The body of the primeval king Osiris, murdered by his brother Set, is restored by Osiris’s wife, Isis, who posthumously conceives a son by him.
All this, and the elaborate mythology it spawns, is filtered through Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel, “Ancient Evenings,” which was set in Ancient Egypt. (Barney was friends with Mailer before the writer died, and used his brilliant 1979 novel, “The Executioner’s Song,” as the basis for much of the “Cremaster Cycle,” in which Mailer himself also appeared.)
The critic Harold Bloom described “Ancient Evenings” as Mailer’s “weirdest text, a book that defies usual aesthetic standards, even as it is beyond any conventional idea of good and evil.” Barney and Bepler seem to have taken this commentary, as well as Bloom’s suggestion that “Ancient Evenings” was “a thinly disguised allegory for Mailer’s literary ambition,” as both inspiration and challenge.
Their own vision could hardly be weirder. It centers on a literary gathering in Mailer’s Brooklyn Heights apartment to memorialize the author after his death. The gathering, hosted by his widow, is attended by literary, sporting, and artistic luminaries, including Salman Rushdie, Jeffrey Eugenides, Larry Holmes, and Lawrence Weiner, and by various actors, including Paul Giamatti, playing Egyptian pharaohs and gods.
Characters playing Mailer himself emerge intermittently, covered in excrement, from a river of sewage running beneath the apartment as his soul passes through various incarnations, and is sung on its way in a series of recitatives performed by singers and musicians at the wake.
Meanwhile, a parallel narrative uses three American car models from different eras as stand-ins for Mailer’s soul. We watch as they are crushed, driven off bridges, salvaged, stripped, and cut into pieces in a series of bizarre rituals.
Of course, all this doesn’t merely teeter on the cliff-edge of the preposterous; it gleefully throw itself off. A synopsis of “River of Fundament” on the film’s website triggers the sense that you are reading a grand parody.
But, just as Barney likes to describe the “Cremaster Cycle” as being about “the life cycle of an idea, from the point of conception to the point of decay,” his “River of Fundament” enacts this process, and seems almost to embrace the idea of a spectacular unraveling, an artistic crash-and-burn, a descent into woefulness.
But perhaps I am over-interpreting. In any case, it is instructive, I believe, to think of Barney as a recidivist. When I once asked a friend to explain that word, he said it described a person who is “like a dog that goes back to its own vomit.” A similar circularity, merging fascination with disgust, purity with poison, creation with failure, is at the heart everything Barney does.
River of Fundament
At Museum of Fine Arts,
Feb. 3-14. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.