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▶ The exhibition Matthew Barney: Redoubt, featuring the film Redoubt plus sculptures and engravings, runs at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank, London, until 25 July.
Redoubt the film also streams on Mubi.
The work of American artist Matthew Barney has always existed on a unique mythological plain.
In 2003, Nancy Spector, chief curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, described his series of films The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002) – for which he is probably best known to cinephiles – as “a self-enclosed aesthetic system”. It’s a reasonable way to consider each of Barney’s projects, which fuse a range of influences, modes of visual language and materials into output as intricately arcane as it is enthralling. Subjects as diverse as muscular hypertrophy, the decline of auto manufacturing in Detroit, physical sexual development and the Japanese whaling industry have all been immersed in Barney’s ambitious blend of petroleum jelly and manifold lore.
From the sequence of Drawing Restraints (1987), consisting of physical actions undertaken by the artist and their multimedia representations, through to The Cremaster Cycle, described by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian as “one of the most imaginative and brilliant achievements in the history of avant-garde cinema”, Barney has become a blockbuster draw. Audiences approach a new Barney film expecting bombast, brimming with bizarre imagery, bodily function and grotesquerie.
Perhaps that is why critics raised eyebrows at the unexpected conventionality of his newest film, Redoubt (2019). Though that’s maybe a misleading judgement to make of this almost wordless 134-minute film in which three hunters, representing the Roman goddess Diana and her retinue, track wolves across the Sawtooth Mountains via the medium of dance, while a local forest ranger, played by Barney, makes copper engravings of the landscape and the hunters.
Entwined in this skeletal narrative are multifarious strands exploring metallurgy, cosmology, somatic philosophy, hunting, the role of the artist, the role of conservation, and the reintroduction of wolves into Idaho during the 1980s.
“In part,” explains Barney from his studio in New York, “it was a connection to that particular region. But the narrative surrounding the wolf – which kind of played out in my teen years, growing up in Idaho – was one of the foundations for this work. Idaho is one of these states in the US that’s politically divided and has been for quite a long time. I think that the way that the wolf debate played out in the 80s and 90s really had to do with the political complexity in that state as much as it had anything to do with wolves or land management. So, I think it did feel like an opportune time to explore that, both that experience that I had and the condition that we’re living through right now.”
Though ambiguity can obscure the more satirical elements of his films, Barney is not averse to overtly political statements – from 2017 a 25-foot-wide neon clock on the side of his studio counted down the days and hours until the end of Donald Trump’s presidency – but here, the incorporation of the myth of Diana and Actaeon acted as a useful abstraction.
“The subject is so politically loaded, and therefore the landscape is so invested with politics, I felt like I needed to find ways to make the narrative more universal,” he says. “But it was also to do with certain questions, or even riddles, that I’ve been preoccupied with in terms of Diana, and the way land and wildlife management works in a contemporary context. Diana protects the forest and she holds the deer sacred, yet she kills deer as part of her job – in a similar way to how wildlife management agencies in the United States cull the wild animal population – to try to keep things in balance.
“Having grown up in an area where there’s a lot of wildlife, I think it was always a little bit confusing exactly how that plays out, and at what point it becomes politicised, and at what point it’s purely functional. It was something, with this piece, I wanted to explore. So, the engraver became a Forest Service worker and Diana a hunter in a contemporary setting. I think that the Diana and Actaeon story became a way of dealing with that in a less direct way.”
The landscape is so invested with politics, I felt like I needed to find ways to make the narrative more universal.
The dynamic between the characters in the original myth – in which Diana transforms Actaeon into a stag after he spies on her bathing nude – also provided a way for Barney to explore his interest in the artistic onlooker. “The story for me was really about what it means for an artist to capture their subject-matter, and to possess it in some way – not just in terms of the language of hunting but also in terms of the story of Actaeon and his transgression, his looking-on of Diana,” he explains.
In taking on the role of the Engraver/Actaeon himself, Barney once again takes on a primary performative role in his work, and throughout the film creates the plein air engravings that will make up much of the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London.
Although it is being shown in this context in London, in the US it was released by Grasshopper Film as a standalone theatrical presentation. “I definitely feel that there’s a completeness to the project when all of the elements can be present in an exhibition like this, so it is a special opportunity for me,” he explains. The film “functions as a kind of storyline which all of the other work grows out of.
“With the pieces I made in the early 90s, it worked in reverse – the objects gave rise to a narrative and the videos were staged around these objects,” he adds. “More recently, with River of Fundament  and Redoubt especially, the object doesn’t really play a role as much in the film, it’s more about taking the film as a text and then making a body of work from that.”
Redoubt might have been quite different. It was originally conceived as one of Barney’s ongoing series of Drawing Restraints, which deal less than some of his other films in a language of symbolically charged objects. “It almost felt like it was belonging to that language because of its objectiveness and the kind of proposal of going into that landscape, in the winter, tracking wolves,” he says. “You know, we worked with a hunting outfitter to try to bring wolves into the picture. That was difficult; we had to go back a second time, with a different production strategy, and so the film became more of a film – became more cinematic – and so I stopped thinking about it as a Drawing Restraint and started thinking about it as a film.”
Still, the original conception has lingering effects in terms of the film’s relatively restrained aesthetic. “I was approaching this in a more objective way, which I think is also to do with the spirit of that place and the people who live there. I think there is an objectiveness in the thinking there. I wanted Redoubt to be, on some level, a portrait of that place, so I think somewhere between the objective nature of the Drawing Restraints and the spirit of the Sawtooth Valley, I kind of ended up approaching it in that way.”
After what he described as a frustrating experience making Drawing Restraint 9 (2005), Barney felt he had reached the “end of the experiment” with a certain way of filmmaking.
“I think what felt transitional for me after Drawing Restraint 9 was the way in which the work was pushing up against cinematic tradition and cinematic convention,” he says. “So, River of Fundament was made, in part, as a ‘performed work’ and, from the standpoint of writing, editing and even filming, was much more about considering the tradition of opera and exploring performance, as a way to get back into moving image. You know, I feel like that successfully kind of short-circuited – or rewired – my doubts about working in moving image and Redoubt is probably, in a way, a return to some familiar territory for me.”
Sight & Sound June 2021
In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy