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 // http://www.moca.org/visit/geffen-contemporary

Written by POVarts contributing writer Chelsea Hill

Mark Benson Answers One Of Life’s Eternal Questions in Solo Show “How was your weekend?”

Mark Benson. 2015. Fan, beach ball.

“I worked the whole weekend. Again.” Mark Benson. 2015. Fan, beach ball.

Taking cues from the 9-5 (or is it 8-6 or longer?) sleep/shower/shave/work/weekend/repeat life, Mark Benson’s solo show, “How was your weekend?” at San Francisco’s Ever Gold Gallery starts with the most common of conversations held in jobs the world over, each and every Monday morning, shining a light on the mundane and repetitive in contemporary work culture.

“So? How was your weekend?”

Benson takes almost-found objects and obsessively recreates them through sculptures and paintings, elevating the sacred weekend activities, placing them on the pedestal of art within the holy walls of the gallery – a show of respect and honor for those times of magic and wonder that people share each and every Monday morning together.

“My weekend? My weekend was awesome. How was your weekend?”

Stuck in time and removed of the backyard, or the beaches, according to the gallery release, “a pall hangs over these moments alluding to them as dead and gone forever, or for at least another business week.” 

“I Went Camping For the First Time and Last Time”, Mark Benson. 2015. Cast plaster soap.

“I Went Camping For the First Time and Last Time”, Mark Benson. 2015. Cast plaster soap.

“I had the flu.” Mark Benson. 2015. Wet Newspaper.

“Not Good.” Mark Benson. 2015. Cast Plaster, tufstone, pigment, Imodium AD.

“We Did Absolutely Nothing.” Mark Benson. 2015. Printed jeans lounge pants, Vornado fans.

“We Did Absolutely Nothing.” Mark Benson. 2015. Printed jeans lounge pants, Vornado fans.

Much like a poor man’s Damien Hirst, Mark Benson’s work uses transformed, reinterpreted everyday objects to bring to life a variety of contemporary social issues and emotions, from anxiety around productivity to the fear of failure.

“My weekend? We went to the beach. It was awesome”

The question is, does Mr. Benson succeed? In a poor man’s way, yes.  Not only does a pall hang over the work, its weekend participants dead and gone, but a mundane repetitiveness hums through the space, from the flapping sweatpant jeans to the perpetually circling beach ball. The show becomes a museum to weekends past, from an ancient time when weekends were a thing.  See the beach ball – it goes round and round. Watch the fat pants – they go flap, flap, flap. Everything almost celebrates its own boringness. Even Mr. Benson, who was present, seemed bored by the work, of the gallery, of the visitors, and most of all of that damned question, asked every damn Monday:

“How was your weekend?”

How was his weekend? His weekend was terrible – he fought with his girl, her cat scratched his face, no one bought his art, his friend forgot to include him when they decided to go to the Beauty Bar, on and on and on. How was his weekend? His weekend was shit.

“It Was Great. I Got in Some Good Studio Time 1.” Mark Benson. 2015. Oil on canvas. 13×16 in.

“It Was Great. I Got in Some Good Studio Time 1.” Mark Benson. 2015. Oil on canvas. 13×16 in.

“It Was Great. I Got in Some Good Studio Time 2” Mark Benson, 2015. Oil on canvas.

“It Was Great. I Got in Some Good Studio Time 2” Mark Benson, 2015. Oil on canvas.

But is any of that in the art? Is Mark Benson in the art? Is there heart in the art? No. It’s all too cynical. There is too much about other people and their stuff, and their stories – those dead vanished people and their awesome weekends.

Those magical moments lost.

Does that mean it’s bad art? No.

Art too can be lonely, mundane, boring, cynical and repetitive. Even good art can be. I guess we are just going to have to keep an eye on this Mark Benson to see how good his gets.

P.S. Give the guy some money to go a little bit bigger. Benson’s work might even find some swagger as a result.

Mark Benson received his MFA from California College of the Arts in 2011. He currently lives in Oakland, CA.

Ever Gold Gallery, 441 O’Farrell St., San Francisco. 415-796-3676. evergoldgallery.com

Written by POVarts West Coast Editor: Chuck Frank