Mythology and the Artist: Matthew Barney ‘Redoubt’ Exhibition Review at Hayward Gallery
Galleries and museums are opening again – this is a time for presence. Matthew Barney, with his first showing in the UK for over a decade, proves once again why his work excites. The enthralling Redoubt (2018) is now showing at the Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Centre.
The fulcrum of Redoubt is an eponymous film that can only be described as a cinematic experience. Lasting 137 minutes, Redoubt the film stands alone as a blockbuster visual set in the Sawtooth Mountain Range in Idaho (the state where Barney spent much of his adolescence). The pitiless landscape takes no prisoners, though Barney’s “task-based” characters traverse the waist-high snowy peaks just as tactfully as their neighbouring porcupines, beavers, cougars, deer, and wolves. Loosely following Ovid’s recount of Diana and Acteon, the film offers a narrative system in lieu of a traditional arc. Symbiotic and overlapping, the film primarily follows the action-based characters traversing, hunting in, and recording wilderness: ‘The Engraver’ (cast as Barney himself) and Diana (Annette Wachter). The film beautifully pans the complexity of dynamics in nature, along with human influence and existence in an unfathomable environment for many. Such visually stimulating works render troublesome in prose, though certain Barney stalwart themes prevail though. Metamorphoses, cycles, endurances, distortions, visceralities.
Rather appositely distilled is the theme of the stark yet ambiguated ‘American Landscape’. An art historical reference point steeped in colonial violence and domination, a reassessment of the romanticist perspective on the American West by artists such as the Hudson River Valley School has similarly been addressed in contemporary artists like Julie Mehretu with great success. For Redoubt, Barney explained that it was the idea of possession in a landscape painting context that pointed him towards the project - how an artist has final say on the landscape, what is omitted, what is ameliorated. Intertwining this matter of possession, possession of landscape, possession of subject matter, with the myth of Diana and Acteon, Redoubt makes for a work that asks more questions than it answers. Barney plays the role of Acteon, the engraver, and in a way himself, the artist-come-forest ranger. His duties are geological, measuring and recording the land throughout, and the film presents the Engraver as inherently, or rather incessantly, searching. Searching for terrain, searching for engraved subject. These engraved plates are subsequently transformed by Barney’s partner in the film, ‘The Electroplater’. Through electrochemical processes far to complex for me to grasp during the film, the character yet again recalls the act of transformation.
Myth is foregrounded in a contemporary context. According to the catalogue, Barney draws on the debate surrounding the reintroduction of wolves into the Idaho wilderness in the 1970s in posing the animals as subject both hunted, corporeal, and mythologically engaged. This work supplants mythology in real time with the centring of an animal most commonly encountered in story form. The term redoubt itself, while hailing from a military context, is rather adaptable in application. Here, the artist imposes the schema of defensiveness and fortification onto the lives of those isolated and withdrawing from society, a chosen reality for individuals in similar settings and the engraver and electroplater in the film. While there is no dialogue throughout, there is not an absence of dialogue. Instead, as Barney explained, dance and movement forge “choreography (that) becomes a sort of language between the characters”. Subtle, innocuous, correlative movements somehow agree with the act of hunting. Tension is tangible. Diana and Acteon, engraver and hunter, body and environment, myth and reality.
Redoubt’s framework, that of a hypertrophied and far-reaching mythology, extends beyond the film. The aforementioned narrative system populates the stunningly located Hayward Gallery which, on a bright afternoon in London, elevates objects that both emerge from and exist within the fabric of Redoubt. Cast models of burnt pine trees bisect, jut, and emerge from the gallery space in metallic hues of bronze and gold. Razor sharp detail juxtaposes natural processes, armoury clashes arboriculture. These particularly striking sculptures function as remnants of the forested space inhabited for the past two plus hours, a continuation of Barney’s high-tech, mechanised imaginative. The copper-plates are a standout though. They are a rare intermediary, at once utensils yet final products. There are no prints derived from these copper plates, and while they are fashioned in the gallery like prints - accompanied by their plaque denoting individual institution and gallery ownership – these referent sculptures allow the artist to continue the context specific story into the arms of a collector. A tried and tested strategy, Barney adds a coveted backstory, a relevance, to each engraving. An immutable trace of the artist and the film.
Redoubt projects strife. Strife between story and reality, survival and domination, artifice and nature. Barney knows what he is doing in orchestrating a constellation within which he is the axis. He plays with notions of artist-as-hero and dominator of subject matter. Performing the role of a character that seems an autodidact engraver of his desires, the same copper plates are transposed into the gallery space to function as prop-like ephemera from a monumental film. I wonder how this sort of film would receive in a comparable environment, or as a matter of fact in Idaho itself. The mystique and far-away-ness of the setting adds a notable factor of attraction when viewed in central London. With Redoubt dealing with an unmistakeably romantic subject, Barney makes full use of his references and environment. The trip to the Hayward Gallery is more than worth it, and while the film is available on MUBI, viewing experience falls several echelons when attempting to immerse yourself into this intense visual conception through a 13” laptop screen.
Matthew Barney 'Redoubt' is showing at the Hayward Gallery, London through July 24th. Tickets start at £12.