“Myths get thought in man unbeknownst to him.”
When “scientific thinking” becomes the significant method and belief for contemporary people to seek for references and answers, Claude Levi-Strauss reflected on the restrictions of “scientific thinking” — “Science will never give us all the answers.” He holds the view that the problems that science can solve were deemed philosophical a dozen years or even a century ago, thus it is not able to solve sealed problems in the future. Meanwhile, the so-called imaginary and unordered myth system seems to create explanations for unknown. In this case, the intersection of science and myth may expand a new route for discussing the current situation.
Inspired by myths to practice art, Matthew Barney is doubtless a representative in the field of contemporary art. On 28th September, 2019, “Matthew Barney: The Redoubt” launched in UCCA Center for Contemporary Art. It presents a major new body of work realized between 2016 and 2019 that marks the artist’s first solo exhibition in China. Specifically, an eponymous two-hour film that traces the story of a wolf hunt in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain range, five monumental sculptures and more than fifty engravings and electroplated copper plates are included in this exhibition.
Through taking “Redoubt” as the object and mythical story as the external idea, Matthew Barney expands his discussion to a variety of metaphors and transformations based on history and current situations.
I. Myth and Narrative
In Matthew Barney’s art creation, the intervention of myth is an unavoidable label. In his latest work “Redoubt” he pays attention to the story of Dianna and Acteon from Roman Mythology. Dianna, the goddess of hunters and the moon, is a representative of virginity and purity.
In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, the story between Dianna and Acteon is described as an accidental occurrence. Acteon came across the goddess Dianna bathing in the mountains by chance. Dianna turned Acteon into a stag with her rage, which led to Acteon being killed by his own hunting dogs. The virtue of the goddess is offended by an outsider, and the offender is expelled and punished. Titian Vecellio’s painting “The Death of Actaeon” depicts the anger of trespassed Dianna and the scene when Acteon is being hunted by his hounds. During the same period, the paintings and poems with this motif are numerous.
The digital transformation of the mythical stories is obvious in Matthew Barney’s art practice. In the film “Redoubt”, Barney loosely adapts the myth of Dianna, goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon, a hunter who accidentally trespasses on her and is punished. The Diana of Redoubt (Anette Wachter) is both the protector of the natural world and a predator in it—a present-day sharpshooter in the frigid Idaho wilderness. Accompanied by her attendants, the Calling Virgin (Eleanor Bauer) and the Tracking Virgin (Laura Stokes), Diana traverses the mountainous terrain in pursuit of the elusive wolf. The Engraver (Matthew Barney) happens upon the hunting outfit in the forest and begins stalking the trio, furtively documenting their actions in a series of copper engravings. He brings his plates to a remote trailer housing a rudimentary laboratory, where the Electroplater (K. J. Holmes) subjects them to an electrochemical transformation. It is a silent film that takes complex dancing movements as the artistic language to facilitate the progression of the plot.
The engraver played by Matthew Barney does not share the same ending like Actaeon in the mythical story. Thus the myth only acts as the outside narrative structure of this series of work; the concrete contents involved in this structure are expanded as diversified clues form the story. Through entitling characters of “Redoubt” with various backgrounds and identities in the mythology, the whole story enables to be happened and developed. As for the direction of the characters’ storylines in the film, it seems to depend on the communications and reactions between various clues and specific fields and sites.
II. Myth and Metaphor
Starting with myth as outside the narrative structure, “Redoubt” seems to convey diversified but interrelated political metaphors through the elements of wastelands, wolves, guns, hunting and redoubt itself.
Idaho is unique for Barney as his family moved to Boise, the capital of Idaho, when he was seven. Due to Barney’s fascination and yearning for his homeland, Idaho acts as a specific site and element in line with his artistic career, such as the stadium in Boise appearing in his “Cremaster I”. Since the “River of Fundament”, Barney has shifted his interpretation of Idaho towards naturalism and mythology. In “Redoubt”, Barney specifies his focus into wastelands around the rugged Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. The sense of isolation brought about by the geographical separation of Idaho is particularly prominent in Barney’s life experience, which is implied in the film.
Through the remoteness of Middle Idaho, the political struggle here shows the mystery. Its original landscape could serve as a vehicle to discuss a number of political issues that exist in modern society. In the 1980s, the “Reintroduction of Wolves” was one of the most significant political issues in Idaho. After more than ten years’ discussion, the “Environmental Impact Statement” was eventually issued by Congress to support the reintroduction of wolves. However, contradictions and debates would never end regarding this problem. Some believed that reintroducing wolves would affect the growth of elks; while others held the view that releasing wolves could reduce the number of elks thus indirectly affect plants and ecology. As the protagonist of this continuing debate, regardless of the perspective, wolves have been metaphorized into a symbol of power that can significantly influence human society and the environment. In this case, the voice of all parties involved in this discussion is actually a metaphorical manifestation of American political division.
The word “redoubt” can be understood as a temporary and shabby fortress. It can also refer to the spiritual and ideological shelter. The other origin of this word might be “The American Redoubt”, an American far-right movement that began in 2011. As a safe shelter for conservatives and liberal-oriented Christians and Jews, “Redoubt” appealed to people who would like to stay away from the government and urban life and return to the natural land. They believed that it was the time that the US government and society are about to collapse. The solution to protecting themselves is to keep a distance with the crowd; thus, they chose to migrate to rural areas with the least population. This group of people returned to the countryside, forests and wilderness where electricity and water are scarce, and they had to hunt for survival. In their mind, the safest route to protect themselves is to become isolated from the crumbling society and modern culture. Therefore, they chose not only the geographical fortress to preserve them but also the spiritual fortress to stay away from civilized society.
The gun, as a hot issue in contemporary American society, also indicates a vital clue in this film. The engraver played by Barney has another identity – a staff member of the United States Forest Service who hates the government’s interference in their life. Guns play an extremely vital role in their lives. Moreover, the actor Anette Wachter who acted as Dianna in the film is the shooting champion of the National Rifle Association. In general, the gun connects the hunter and the prey as well as Dianna and the nature in the film. It is the use of intermedia that allows Dianna to observe the world.
All the metaphors discussed above point out the complexity and contradictions in current American politics and society. In this silent film, as the plot progresses to a climactic moment, the contradiction seems to reach an instantaneous point. The elements of gun, hunting and snooping, etc., seem to echo the mythological structure of the goddess Dianna deliberately.
III. Myth and Transformation
In the film “Redoubt”, the engraver brings his plates to a remote trailer housing a rudimentary laboratory, where the Electroplater subjects them to an electrochemical transformation. Using an electrical current and chemical solvent, the texture on the metal surface would accidentally and continually change. The engraved copper plate was immersed in an acid and copper solution and was subjected to an electrical current, causing copper growths to form out of the engraved plate. This “transformation” process in change is a significant expressional method and ideological embodiment in Matthew Barney’s art creation.
To trace the origin of the concept “transformation”, alchemy as the ancestor of medieval chemistry and philosophical thoughts is inescapable. Alchemy is defined as a technical process where the base metal is developed to reach its naturally perfect state, namely, to evolve to be gold. Gold is regarded as the termination of all metal evolution. In “Rosarium Philosophorum”, Arnaldus von Villanova once discussed that the “morbid” base metal could be cured through controlling and grasping the proportion of elements. The progress evolved into gold can be eventually realized. During the process of alchemy’s development, the pursuit of material “gold” had gradually changed into seeking a “golden heart”. The mission of the alchemist is the “Philosopher’s stone” to realize the inner self-transformation.
To realize artistic and ideological transformation, Barney used Vaseline as a medium in his early works, intending to apply the lubricative characteristic of Vaseline to connect the extending body and outside world. In his “Cremaster” series, the employment of Vaseline was embodied as the expression of the changing state of movement. In his view, the inherent physical property seems to play a role in lubricating and transiting the drastic and dynamic state of motion. Later, converting manure into gold was implied in his “River of Fundament”.
In “Redoubt”, electroplating becomes another medium for Barney to achieve “transformation”. Compared to Vaseline, electroplating is an intermedium between mythology and science. The mysterious colour of “transformation” derived from the history of alchemy in Western culture which still exists in this work. When electroplating transforms Barney’s works through contemporary chemical reactions, it seems the mysterious culture is jointly discussed with the present situation. The image of Dianna was transformed into a copper plate created by the engraver and then converted into the final electroplated copper. During this process, the electroplater shares the same ability with the prophet in Roman mythology to link human beings with nature as well as to connect the communication between heaven and earth.
As various clues in Barney’s work, the fragmented metaphors are serialized by constructed a narrative structure. It eventually realizes a visual narration featuring typical Matthew Barney’s style. “Redoubt” is an innovative attempt for Barney to combine myth and political issues with contemporary society. It also identifies the further development of his artistic language. In the exhibition, the film provides a profound narrative background for electroplating engravings and enormous sculptures; while the detailed works support the film with another layer of aesthetics. The narrative and symbols behind Barney’s work are worth repeatedly thinking about and reflecting on by the spectators.
Text by Emily Weimeng Zhou
Edit by Sue/CAFA ART INFO
Photo Courtesy of the Organizer (Except for the Annotation)