Through the Sewers of the Privileged and the Divine: Matthew Barney’s “River of Fundament”

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, River of Fundament, 2014, production still.

This film is not for everybody.

To anyone that loves finding poetry in grotesque abjection: watch it. Try to sit through the whole thing. You can do it, and you will love it because it hurts. Matthew Barney made me think about my insides for about 7 hours and that made me feel good and bad but good because I felt bad, and then I’d wonder why is this kinda hot and I’d have a headache, but still I liked it.

And you get to watch Paul Giamatti and Maggie Gyllenhaal do some pretty weird stuff. If you are too squeamish for the film, Barney’s sculptures in themselves are both slick and romantic. They act as worshipped icons that are directly related to his multi-dimensional narrative film.

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, River of Fundament, 2014, production still, courtesy of Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels, © Matthew Barney, photo by Chris Winget

The 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial, the 1979 Pontiac Firebird, and a Ford Police Interceptor act as living bodies in River of Fundament. These classic American cars reference the creation myths of our ancient ancestors. Both metal and flesh are equally desirable for their gifts, their powers, and their utilities. Both human bodies and car bodies act as powerful vessels for celestial development, however fragile they might seem. The flesh of the dead deteriorates into the earth, and the bones immortalize as fossils for the living to pay homage to. The gods practice in ways that might seem unnatural, but what do I know about nature? Nature has many definitions, and Barney suggests an alternative viewpoint on the spiritual journey.

Barney wants you to demolish the boundaries between civility and instinct. Once all the walls are broken and the viewer discards the ideals of commonly-practiced decency, the spirit realm can present itself. How should one act at a wake? What social restraints do family and friends enforce while mourning their loss? The feeling of grief for a death can take place on multiple planes of existence. These alternative planes are not controlled by time and they only materialize for the ones who possess the ability to unearth the knowledge passed on by their ancestors. This inherited knowledge is in all living objects. Some choose to heed this knowledge while others stray away from it. The ego is just as fragile as the flesh protecting it.

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, River of Fundament, 2014, production still.

You might have heard that there is a lot of butt stuff in this film, which I enjoyed but some viewers might question the validity of. First of all, it’s 2015 and anal is on art’s menu. Second, Barney reveres the asshole as a portal to a divine dimension. Fucking in the ass could be an attempt to spawn gods instead of mere mortals, and the shit is their runny road to easy glory.

The sewage of the privileged is gold to their followers. Worship the golden gods and bask in their yellow-stained light. The choice between immortality and the rebirth is a difficult one. To some, immortality is a hellish prison for egomaniacs who enjoy suffering. Reincarnation is a gift for the chosen ones who have the rare ability to submissively succumb to chance. Throughout history, man has attempted to categorize the human experience. Is rationality man’s greatest accomplishment? The truth is, spirituality is as much a human function as shitting. Connecting to nature is necessary just as much as shitting is necessary.

Matthew Barney, Shaduf, 2014, cast brass, 144 x 120 x 180 in., courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels, installation view of Matthew Barney: RIVER OF FUNDAMENT at Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), 2014-15, photo by Rémi Chauvin/MONA

In the end, according to Barney, throats and lungs produce pulsating tonal rhythms that trigger the appearance of father and mother gods who come to assist the living. The living must honor these gods even though they too suffer from human dispositions. As the gods assist the living, spirit animals assist the gods in their cycles of regeneration. An animal has the ability to humbly intercept the planes and is therefore revered by both the living and the spirits.

Barney’s intensely penetrating film and its bronze, brass, and plastic sculptural remnants are both mysterious and demanding. If you are willing to reject conservative formality and sit through this violently passionate journey through the sewers of the privileged and the divine, I suggest taking a look at his sculptures beforehand. They act as a guide through the film; they show themselves throughout the narrative and develop as monumental characters. Overall, River of Fundament is a trenchant, spiritually stimulating experience for those with adventurous hearts and strong stomachs.

Matthew Barney: RIVER OF FUNDAMENT on View Sep. 13, 2015 – Jan. 18, 2016

Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N Central Ave, Los Angeles

(213) 625-4390 //

Written by POVarts contributing writer Chelsea Hill

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