Anyone familiar with the provocative artist’s elaborate cultural cross-referencing won’t be surprised to learn that Redoubt is a reworking of the classical myth of Diana and Actaeon
Billed by the Hayward Gallery as “one of the most ambitious and provocative artists of our time”, Matthew Barney, the former Mr Björk, has become a huge name on the international art scene without individual works making a particular impact – certainly not in this country. And given that his best-known work, the Cremaster Cycle, is a series of five feature-length films – with accompanying drawings, sculptures and installations – in which Barney himself plays a tap-dancing satyr and mass murderer Gary Gilmore, that isn’t perhaps surprising: this is not art that can be instantly absorbed or pigeon-holed.
I must admit, though, to feeling dismay on learning that this show – the 54-year-old American’s first in a British public gallery in more than a decade – centres on a two-hour-plus film. Sitting in the dark for long periods tends to mix awkwardly with the wander-at-will nature of the gallery experience. Shows mixing feature-length films and other art forms – paintings, sculpture or installation – rarely gel in my experience. One element tends to dominate, and generally it’s the film.
Given social distancing, however, the Hayward is providing ticket holders with a link to Barney’s film Redoubt for a week around their visit so they can get a flavour of the film, even watch the whole thing, before they set foot in the gallery. And it is a hell of a film.
In Idaho’s remote Sawtooth Mountains, a white-bearded forest ranger crosses paths with a trio of female hunters whom he suspects of randomly killing animals and leaving them to be feasted on by other beasts in the immense snowbound woods. Glimpsing their leader through trees, the ranger pulls out not a camera but a copper engraving plate on which he proceeds to draw her image. His identity as an artist, then, is established, while the hunters, whom we have seen performing strange choreographed rituals, are clearly dancers.
The ensuing pursuit of the white-bearded artist through the spectacular landscape by the ruthless young hunter-dancers unfolds like some dialogue-less, super-slow, mystical western. If it sounds beyond wacky, you certainly can’t accuse Barney of a lack of ambition. Anyone familiar with his work’s elaborate cultural cross-referencing won’t be surprised to learn that Redoubt is a reworking of the classical myth of Diana and Actaeon in which an inquisitive hunter is punished for gazing on the goddess of the hunt at her bath by being torn to pieces by his own hounds.
Here, Barney’s out to create not only a complex meditation on the nature of art but also nothing less than a “new cosmic hunt myth”, which will rival, and incorporate elements from, classical mythology and the beliefs of the Native American people living around the Sawtooth Mountains, where he spent much of his youth. Inspired by the real-life eco-drama of re-introducing wolves to the region – to the consternation of locals – Barney pits the classical hunting goddess Diana, in the form of the three dancer-hunters, against Actaeon, in the form of the ranger-artist, played by Barney himself. They represent an intuitive, ancestral understanding of the land; he stands for man’s scientifically based, yet often disastrous interventions in nature. And he is punished, like Actaeon, for “seeing too much”, which is surely his destiny as an artist. The Diana and Actaeon myth is also the basis for Titian’s “poesie” paintings, featured in last year’s hugely popular National Gallery exhibition. Titian’s works have been interpreted as a fictionalised self-portrait: the man who has to “look” pays for it with his death – a resonance of which Barney seems well aware.
The fact that none of the figures Barney depicts even start to come into focus as a character, as the film moves slowly towards a climax involving bullets, a pack of house-wrecking wolves and a cosmic dance beneath an eclipse of the sun, is beside the point or perhaps actually the point. The hunters are played by two of New York’s leading contemporary dancers plus a National Rifle Association champion, who seems to be Diana herself. We may not “believe” in these people in the conventionally cinematic way, but they actually are what they’re supposed to be in the film.
Watching Barney’s character working diligently on his densely textured copper-engraving plates, it occurs to us that we’re watching the creation of the art that will appear in the exhibition, holding out the possibility that art and film will be much more closely integrated than tends to be the case with such shows.
In fact, the gleaming electro-plates, with their strange fungoid copper encrustations, are the least compelling part of the show: Barney could use a few drawing lessons.
Far more impressive are room-length casts of some of the charred trees that fill the vistas of the film, with grafted on machine-parts – based on the guns in the film – representing the “militarisation” of the wilderness. In the most spectacular of these, the trunk is draped with the pelt of a wolf skinned in the film (no animals were harmed) and the Diana figure’s distinctive patterned clothing, while exploding star-forms projected on rods represent the constellation of Lupus, the wolf, also referenced in the film. It’s all cast in stainless steel. Yet while that’s a mind-boggling technical feat, it’s not clear how we’re supposed to connect it with what we’ve seen in the film, except as an interesting add-on. The sculpture needs its references to the film to be fully understood; the film doesn’t need the sculpture. The film has its own self-contained existence whether it’s in this exhibition or on your phone. The sculpture is an object that can only be seen in a gallery.
Once again there’s a disjuncture between film and art; once again the film dominates. While some will find Redoubt a demanding watch, its sheer conviction keeps you going. And if it doesn’t quite achieve the sense of powerful, driving purpose to take it to the level of “cosmic myth”, it’s a rich and complex work that leaves you feeling you’ve definitely been taken somewhere.