Art Basel: Artist Matthew Barney Presents Six-Hour Film

Tina Brown (left) and Matthew Barney
Tina Brown (left) and Matthew Barney
 Courtesy of David Biedert Photography

Previously a place for Leonardo DiCaprio sightings and Kanye West party crashing, last week’s Art Basel art fair paid less attention to celebrity Instagrams, and more to the presence of financial titans like Steven A. Cohen and Daniel Loeb – and of course, the 1986 self-portrait of a spiky-wigged Warhol portrait, which was said to fetch around $34 million at the booth for New York’s Per Skarskedt Gallery.

With its focus on quality over quickies, this summer’s Art Basel was a prime place for the screening of River of Fundament, the six-hour film that artist Matthew Barney – known for his visually-scarring Cremaster Series (1994-2002) and Drawing Restraint 9 (2005), a collaborative effort with his then-partner Bjork – made with composer Jonathan Bepler. Barney has spent the last seven years working on “contemporary opera,” which is loosely-based on the cycles of death and reincarnation behind Norman Mailer’s baffling 1983 novel, Ancient Evenings. Scenes veer from the ritual extermination of a Chrysler in Detroit to a recreation of Mailer’s apartment, where personalities like Fran Leibowitz, Elaine Stritch, Laurence Weiner and Paul Giamatti attend a wake held for the author, who is played by his son, John Buffalo Mailer.

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In between are myriad examples of the kind of unshakable images the artist is known for, which has prompted The Hollywood Reporter to praise Barney’s “trans-dimensional sorcery,” while also wondering “Is this the weirdest film ever made?”

River of Fundament premiered in New York last February, but has since only been screened at a handful of far-flung places, from the Adelaide Festival in Australia and the National Theater in Reyjkavik, Iceland, to the Luminato Festival in Toronto and the Haus der Kunst in Munich, where Barney currently has an exhibition at the latter location. This list expanded last Thursday when the Basel Theater held a special screening of the six-hour film, testing the endurance of even those used to long days at a fair.

In the run-up to the screening, Credit Suisse held a talk and dinner in Barney’s honor at the Basel Kunstmuseum on Tuesday. The evening’s hosts included L.A. art collector and philanthropist Eli Broad, alongside his more photogenic counterparts Daphne Guinness, Dasha Zhukova and Credit Suisse’s Pamela Thomas-Graham. The talk — a tête-à-tête between the artist and Tina Brown — was conducted under the auspices of the media entrepreneur's newly-launched company, Tina Brown Live Media.

The conversation attracted quite a diverse crowd: collectors Steve Cohen and Yvonne Force; architect Jacques Herzog; curators Klaus Biesenbach and Marc-Olivier Wahler; dealers Jeffrey Deitch, Barbara Gladstone and Sadie Coles; advisor Esthella Provas, and Barney’s creative director Dennis Freedman. A special front-row seat was reserved for Isadora, Barney’s 11-year-old daughter with Bjork.

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Mindful of her audience, Brown was careful to steer clear of the more grotesque aspects of Barney’s film, making only the mildest of mentions to the River of Fundament itself, let alone some of the more disturbing imagery. The artist explained that he was more interested in establishing presence than building a narrative. It would seem he had succeeded: “You emerge like a creature from hell out of raw sewage from underneath Mailer’s home,” Brown began. “It was literally one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen.”

Noting the length of the film (Barney’s five-part Cremaster Series may be longer end-to-end, but it is rarely screened in succession), Brown observed: "When you ask an audience to watch a six-hour film, in a way, you’re asking them to become endurance athletes." Barney demurred: "There’s a shift that happens in your attention after the first four hours. Your ability to emotionally carry changes."

Over the last 25 years, Barney himself has changed, becoming noticeably more adept at fielding questions. That is, until Brown stumped him with the last one: "You’ve worked with so many unusual materials — petroleum, salt, tapioca — is there anything you haven’t worked with that you’d still like to…?" Barney took a painfully long pause, during which the crowd (and Brown) started to grow visibly uncomfortable. The artist didn’t soothe their anxieties when he finally replied: "Radiation." The answer may have left Brown temporarily speechless, but it gave guests plenty to talk about over dinner.

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