Matthew Barney @ Sadie Coles HQ, London, 27 Jan-06 March, 2010

Sadie Coles presents Matthew Barney’s  opera project (2008-on going), inspired by Ancient Evenings, a novel written in 1983 by Norman Mailer. This show exhibits mainly drawings, alongside sculptures, and research materials.

With the composer Jonathan Bepler, Barney intends to create a Libretto set in a seven act performance. Each act will illustrate the seven stages in which the soul passes through after the death of the body. Based on Mailer’s novel, Barney recreates the myth of Isis and Osiris in contemporary and industrial scenery, mixing popular images with Egyptian mythology.

This show presents seven glass cabinets, each titled by the different stages described in Mailer’s novel (Ren, Khu, Sekhem, Ba, Ka, Kaibit and Sekhu). These containers have a nineteenth century look; they exhibit the research tools of the artist: pictures taken from the internet of shocking distorted faces, images of Chrysler cars, Mailer’s book, collages and drawings of Egyptian gods, humans mutating into animals. The artist presents his imagery, his thread of thoughts in his gory and metamorphic style. Even though, at first glance, these glass cabinets seem overloaded, an order and logic reign; for instance in the first one Ancient Evenings is open at its first page and in the last glass box at its last page. Every detail has been though. The scene is set as in a curiosity cabinet where precious artefacts are exhibited; the viewer feels as if it is an ongoing project. This is part of Barney’s theatrical; the artist plays with the ancient and with the 19th century style in the display.

The theatrical and the cabaret style can be noticed in the choice of symbolism to identify Osiris with a top hat; it recalls the magician world, the bourgeois in the 19th century, and mystery. Another side of his work is the archaic reference to the contemporary, the mythology and pop culture, the mutation of the flesh with the mystic, the sacred.

On the walls, the drawings, meticulously executed and delicately framed, contrast with the roughness of the materials in the cabinets. They describe the dystopian stages of the roaming soul. The mystic and sacred invades these drawings with some hints of colours added by silver and gold plates, as well as red and blue watercolours. Here, the drawings illustrate the artist’s mind; they document and record his thoughts. In KHU: Here, at the Center of the Pain is Radiance (2010) for instance, the title speaks for itself, the silver plates spreads on a dark base. Barney brings a story alive with bits and pieces, scattered but flowing together, he turns flesh and blood into beauty such as in the sculpture Isis. This piece exemplifies this aesthetical materiality; it is chunks, trunks, human torsos made of pink wax which are sparse on white slabs, it is powerful and its texture leads to a real as well as unreal representation. The human shape is intended but it is diluted at the same time. Barney excels in bring his audience into an uncanny and disturbing world.

This show works as fragments from past and future performances. It is there as an archiving process of an event that will happen. In 2008, Barney executed the performance Ren:Chrysler in LA. Music, orchestra and cars were the main components.

Barney’s gory materiality and aesthetic is fully developed here. He turns past mythology into contemporary tales where the human body mutates. His imagery is there, flesh and blood, to shock and to be admired.

By Anne Duffau

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