Matthew Barney: River of Fundament

Matthew Barney: River of Fundament


Mathew Barney (born in 1967 in San Francisco) is a multi-dimensional artist whose work encompasses all media – drawings, photography, sculpture, performance and cinematography.  I first encountered Barney’s unique style with the release in 2002 of his CREMASTER Cycle (1994-2002), a five-film project.

For the uninitiated it will be difficult to hang on for the full six hours of his latest film, River of Fundament, a three-act, many-layered, opera-cum-stage-play, without a heavy dose of faith in his artistic skill and an open mind.  The film was shown in Toronto on June 6-8, as part of the Luminato Festival.

The film deals with a convoluted story-line heavily imbued with ancient Egyptian mythology, a beyond avant-garde operatic sound track and over-the-top vulgarity. The film loosely follows Norman Mailer’s 1983 book, Ancient Evenings, which has been described as a bewildering and scatological extreme tale “…that chronicles the ancient Egyptian belief in the seven stages of the human soul as it passes from death to rebirth.”  In Barney’s hands the protagonist is Mailer whose spirit seeks reincarnation, by traversing a river of sewage, in an attempt to be reborn and achieve greater literary success than he did in real life.  The shadow of Ernest Hemingway is ever present in the film alluding to Mailer’s envy of Hemingway’s success.

Matthew Barney has been quoted as saying that he is “…not particularly interested in the control of traditional film making.”  NO KIDDING!

In my opinion the best thumbnail outline of the film can be found in the review published in The Hollywood Reporter: “…While a wake is being held for Norman Mailer in his Brooklyn home, the author’s spirit is struggling to be reborn, hoping to climb the ladder of literary greatness in successive incarnations. Three versions of his soul emerge in succession from a River of Feces… They spy on the wake’s guests, interact with Egyptians both mortal and divine, and try, but fail to reach their destination.  In between are (more) cryptic sequences, partly staged at real-world art happenings, in which three different cars are destroyed, transformed and treated as if they hold strange supernatural powers we cannot fathom.”

While trying to appreciate Barney’s creative skill it is never a good idea to attempt to match every scene with logic or relevance to the unfolding action but the synopsis in the program is a huge help.  Without at least this minimal outline of Egyptian mysticism (who is Hathfertiti?) and the broad strokes of each of the three acts a person might feel overwhelmed and simply give up.




This movie, seven years in the making (2006-2013), in my opinion moves Barney’s cinematic, set design and production skills beyond the earlier Cremaster Cycle.  Even though I did survive that five-part film, when I saw it in 2002, I was not ready for the opening act of the River of Fundament – the extreme crudeness of some of the images and the gratingly disconnected sound track almost drove me from the theatre. I’m glad I persisted and saw all three acts.  For me, Acts II and III were more decipherable and less jarring from a sound and crassness perspective.  Full disclosure: I separated my viewing into two parts – Acts I and II were viewed the first night and Act III the second night.

No matter how this film is received, I think it is a remarkable example of Barney’s artistic creativity. He demonstrates this creativity through his skill in weaving any number of narrative, acoustic and visual threads through a series of quite spectacular sets.  Whether the scene takes place in a replica of Mailer’s Brooklyn home (floating down the East River) or is staged outdoors in the cities of Los Angeles, Detroit and New York City, you can’t help but be impressed.  I remain to be convinced, however, as to why he needs to continually immerse the viewer in the least attractive bodily functions and excretions.  I am thankful that the state of movie-making does not yet include an olfactory experience.




The automobile and its symbolism (power and waste), the city’s arteries (waterways and highways), the decay of our cities, repeated reference to Egyptian mysticism and a diverse cast of characters make for a convoluted but nevertheless compelling piece of theatre. While you have to suffer quite a few distractions you are rewarded by brilliant visuals, in particular: the wake at Mailer’s residence; the documentation of the decay of Detroit and scenes shot along the Detroit River; the night scene with 25 tons of melting iron flowing out of five towers; and, finally, the vistas of the Idaho Sawtooth Mountain Range, near Hemingway’s cabin closing out Act III.




I can’t think of the work of another artist that is as complex and multi-layered and that has held my attention for so long after witnessing it.  Even two weeks since the completion of my viewing experience I was still replaying scenes in my head, remembering small symbols or gestures and playing a mug’s game of trying to decipher the meaning of it all.




Darren Waterston: Uncertain Beauty

MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA – March 8, 2014 to February 1, 2015


Douglas Coupland: everything is anywhere is anything is everything

Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia – May 31 to September 1, 2014


Charles Edenshaw

McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario – June 28 to September 21, 2014


Shelagh Keeley

The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto – September 20, 2014 to May 17, 2015


Ciara Phillips: Turner Prize Exhibition of Nominees

Tate Britain, London, England – September 30, 2014 to January 4, 2015




About George

My long-time interest in Canadian and international contemporary art has led me to write and reflect on the artists I've met, the exhibitions that I've seen and the catalogues that I've read (I've been told I'm the only person that actually reads exhibition catalogues cover to cover). My interest began in the mid-1960's when I was searching for easy credits and I stumbled upon "Art Appreciation 101", and the rest, as they say, is history...
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3 Responses to Matthew Barney: River of Fundament

  1. brian ballingall says:

    Nice, easy to follow and good precis of what took you two evenings to view. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Sally says:

    Wow, I did not think anyone could make a coherent expose of his film. Congrats

  3. Glenys says:

    So enjoyed your perceptions of a show I’m sure I’ll never have the tenacity to see to its conclusion.
    Yet when you speak of the fact that the images, symbols, and issues have stayed in your head for weeks after, hmmm. Who knows. Love your posts, George. And look forward to a visit in August.
    Xo Glenys

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