Matthew Barney: The Gesamtkunstwerk and Cosmology Creation

Gesamtkunstwerk: a total, ideal, comprehensive, universal work of art. A self-enclosed aesthetic system.

This term is German in origin and has been assimilated into the English language particularly in the realm of aesthetics. It can be seen in the work of artists such as Matthew Barney, who creates huge cosmologies from the linking, the relating and reimagine of concepts and mythologies. I think that it’s also easy to see this idea appearing within conspiracy theory where each smaller theory is added to the whole creating a continuous, seamless compound theory. Believers can be quite flexible in how their theories can mould and change in order to fit in with other, seemingly unrelated conspiracies. But it’s probably fair to say that those who are able to think in this way might not have a lot of practice with critical thinking.

In the novel, ‘Foucault’s Pendulum‘ (Umberto Eco, 1988) three publishers (Casaubon, Diotallevi and Belbo) become obsessed with reading about occult conspiracy theories. The idea of all the links and associations within the occult world is both fascinating and absurd to them so they decide that it would be fun to create their own grand theory (their gesamtkunstwerk?) which they will then release into the world. Unfortunately they become the target of some real occult societies who think they possess some secret knowledge (the whereabouts of the Templar treasure). The three creators start to wonder if their creation is not just something they dreamed up after all but have, in fact, stumbled upon a real conspiracy. Over time they become unsure whether what they are doing is just a game or whether they are in real danger.

The story looks at the links and associations that appear within occultism and how they can be manipulated to create new cosmologies. Seemingly absurd ideas and flimsy connections can be linked together to create new webs of meaning. In Foucault’s Pendulum the friends use a computer to create these connections in a way that they believe is completely random, but seems to create a cohesive whole that even the creators become hard-pressed to remember is a fabrication.

Matthew Barney creates huge, elaborate all-encompassing cosmologies with his long-running works “The Cremaster Cycle” and his latest “River of Fundament”. In River of Fundament Barney explores Egyptian mythology in relation to American mythologies (particularly industrial America) through the lens of Norman Mailer’s “Ancient Evenings“. The trials of reincarnation and rebirth are told as a journey down the shit filled currents of American waterways and the body of Mailer is reimagined as classic american cars whose bodies are pulled apart and reassembled, cast from metals and displayed as living sculptures. The work is huge in scope, incorporating live performance, video, sculpture, music, drawing and writing. His sculptural pieces for River of Fundament both appear and are created within the performance, are replayed in the video and displayed as sculptural artefacts (see previous entry on trace of performance). The richness and complexity of Barney’s cosmologies seems to allow them to take on a mythological position separate from Barnet’s narrative. Much like The Plan in Foucault’s Pendulum, Barney’s creations take on a life of their own which lives outside their creator.

6766994b-60dd-4442-ac2c-b7c379c6192f-2060x1236The Chrysler Imperial is dismantled (dismembered) and melted down to prepare for it’s rebirth

70e4e_nov21_ona_imgRouge Battery (2014) cast copper and iron

MB_Geuter_10_630x350_03Sekhu (2014) Cast sulfur, salt,copper, bronze and brass. These sculptural objects appear in the performance and film recording

“The melding of the self with the artistic figure, and the development of an entire complex of relations to the corporeal and the mythic, fit Barney’s retinue of allegorical codes.”
Enwezor, O. “Portals and Processions” in Enwezor, O. Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (2014) Neri, L. (ed) New York, USA: Kira Rizzoli Publications (P251)

“There is something Houdini-like in the way in which Barney weaves in and out of his narratives: now an actor; now an athlete; now a dancer; now a performance artist; now a mythological figure. To see these transformations as the assumptions of “roles” is to miss Barney’s crucial insight into the way in which the artist is both internal to the meaning and making of the work, and as a shaper or builder, hovers outside and around the work. Barney suggests that many artists are conscious of “being simultaneously present and absent, and how that feeling manifests itself in an object”.
Bhabha, H. “On the Changing Space of Things: Memory and Cartography in the Making of Narrative Sculpture” in Enwezor, O. Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (2014) Neri, L. (ed) New York, USA: Kira Rizzoli Publications (P270)

The above two quotes have caused me to think about ideas that were hovering around the periphery of my research. I’ve found that in my work over the last year and a half there has been elements of the performative in nearly everything I’ve made. Many of the pieces have elicited comments to the effect that, as the artist, I was somehow a director or guide to the viewer’s experience of the work. This is something that was never explicitly intended at the time, but that has started to more consciously manifest itself, particularly in performance work or work that requires the viewer to interact with it in a performative manner. With the work “Hive Oracle” I took on the role of the character in the video, but more that that, I felt that the character was a part of me, as the artist, rather than purely a role I was enacting. Adding to that, it was far from obvious that I, the artist, was the one playing this role. I see this also in Barney’s work; with him being quite famous now, it’s usually obvious that he is portraying the character (or characters) in the work. But from my viewing of his work I have always felt that it was more than just assumptions of roles and that the creation of the characters was a manifestation of aspects of the artist himself.

In my current work in progress I’m working with performative video again as I feel there is a lot for me to explore using that medium. I’m also still very interested in the way artists like Barney and Dwyer create works that weave together performance and object, so looking at the role of object as trace or artefact is ongoing for me. I can see the work building upon itself and reimagining aspects of previous work within new work to create that layering and linking of meaning found within this creation of cosmologies.

“I think it is a fascinating model for object making; this way of working, where things that have nothing to do with each other are placed together as if a form of alchemy could happen and a material transformation could take place between the two states of material”.
Matthew Barney quoted in Enwezor, O. Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (2014) Neri, L. (ed) New York, USA: Kira Rizzoli Publications (p271)


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Horus

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100 Images

Caroline gave me a very useful exercise to do which involves taking 100 images and sorting them. I had several folders of images that I’d been collecting from over the course of the last year and a half – some of them are images of contemporary art but a lot of them are just images I liked and felt drawn to.

I did a first sort where I used all of the images and found places for them.
Then I did a second and third sort where I looked for specific aspects relating to my practice and content for my oral presentation. I added in a few of my own works so I could find their place in the image groupings.

FIRST SORT

IMG_1810ARTEFACT


IMG_1808ENVIRONMENTAL

IMG_1806EXPERIENTIAL

IMG_1809DIAGRAMATIC

IMG_1812UNNERVING / OTHERWORDLY

IMG_1813COSTUME AND RITUAL

IMG_1811ANCESTRY

IMG_1807ICONOGRAPHY

SECOND SORT

IMG_1815PERFORMANCE

IMG_1816PERFORMATIVE

IMG_1817BOTH PERFORMANCE AND PERFORMATIVE (I actually wondered whether the Ren Ri hive work should be in this group because the bees themselves are actually performing while the viewer observes the work)

THIRD SORT

IMG_1818PERFORMANCE TO CAMERA

IMG_1819OBEJCT CONVERSATIONS, BOTH HETEROGENEOUS AND HOMOGENEOUS

I’m going to keep these images, add to them and continue my sorting process to distill further ideas. I find the sorting and thinking to be really useful and I wonder if I’ll come back and move some of the images out of the groups I’ve placed them in? There are a number of images that appear over and over in my sorts and I feel those ones are important to my practice.

Wunderruma

Anita and I visited the Auckland Art Gallery this afternoon to view the Wunderruma jewellery show. It was more exciting than I expected as the curators had chosen to explore the concept of jewellery in many interesting ways. Not only did we see many decorative, wearable pieces but they also provided examples of jewellery in and as image, jewellery as sculpture, as installation and as artefact.

I was particularly thrilled to see one of Mikala Dwyer’s necklace installations as I had been looking at pictures of them today in relation to the language of things. IMG_1793Mikala Dwyer, Methylated Spiritual (2012) photo taken at Auckland City Art Gallery

Speaking of heterogeneous object collections there were several I saw in the exhibition. This one is a collection from the Randell Family cottage, discovered in a small hole behind the chimney.
Obviously someones little stash of magical objects!

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IMG_1800 IMG_1801Hany Armanious, Turns in Arabba (2005) Photo taken at Auckland City Art Gallery

This Hany Armanious work has a fascinating collection of objects presented on an altar-like shelf and in various stages of creation and transformation. This work had me pondering around how it expressed the jewellery theme of the exhibition. Was it the casting of the objects? Their decorative shapes and method of display? The way they ornament their altar/shelves? The sound added an extra dimension to the work by seeming to fill the negative space around and between the objects.

Another thing of note was the very unusual display strategy of stacked perspex cubes for the smaller pieces. At some points I felt it didn’t work as the small items on the lower cubes got a bit lost and I don’t think it works to force a viewer to bend over uncomfortably when the intent is display rather than as a function of the artwork. But overall I found the display strategy engaging and interesting, it also allowed for the viewing of many small objects without breaking up the gallery spaces with standardised, waist level display tables.

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This exhibition appealed to me in particular because of my own interest in jewellery. I found that it opened up my ideas around jewellery and it’s possibilities in my art practice. The wide variety of objects and images allowed me to see the concept of ‘jewellery’ in more than just decorative of wearable terms, but also objects that can be brought into installation or sculptural conversations.

Mikala Dwyer and The Language of Things

“Walter Benjamin understood the true collector’s collection as a ‘magic encyclopedia’. Such a collection is animated. It acquires a life of it’s own. What is more, when objects are added to it they undergo a rebirth as they are placed in this new context.”
Taussig, M. Art and Magic and Real magic. P26, Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.

“According to Benjamin this language of things is mute, it is magical and it’s medium is material community.”
Steyerl, H. (2006) The Language of Things, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0606/steyerl/en

Over the years I’ve had many collections; collections of objects that I felt were significant in some way, collections of images that I wanted to return to and put into order (these orders would change as I revisited them), collections of items I wanted to make something out of, to change into another object that becomes a new thing by the sum of it’s parts. In a way they were all potential collages, both two dimensional and three dimensional. Why do collections appear to have their own innate power? Adding or subtracting from them can change their very nature and the nature of the new addition or subtraction.

Benjamin suggests that objects have their own innate language that is expressed in their relationships to each other. (Steyerl, H. (2006) The Language of Things ). We, as humans, come along and name them, try to impose, vocalise, amplify their language with our own. Benjamin refers to this as the Language of Judgement which I suppose means that the Things (capital T!) allow each other to be content with their original thingness while we are unable to resist imposing our own language upon them.

I have seen these ideas expressed in the Mikala Dwyer’s ‘Additions and Subtractions’ works, the collections of objects that create a conversation between themselves and a magical space in which to exist and explore their ‘thingness’. The works are never the same and Dwyer is never sure what they are going to be, bringing large numbers of objects with her and then responding to the environment and the relationships of the objects to each other and their surrounds. The circles created in the ‘Additions and Subtractions’ works create an otherworldly space within their circumference that is created by their conversations with each other. Sometimes, as in ‘An Apparition of a Subtraction’ (2010) Dwyer will add other elements to the collections such as smoke and sound to create a ‘sonic object’ within the circle. She also utilises materials and forms that draw on her family history; blocks of stone from Cockatoo Island where her parents lived and shapes from her mothers jewellery making practice (see Goldene Bend’er, 2013).

Dwyer tries to limit her ‘language of judgement’ by allowing her Things to realise their own language.
“I try to get to a point where things can speak for themselves rather than having me impose my voice upon them.”
Mikala Dwyer in conversation with Robert Leonard. p57 Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.

002Mikala Dwyer ‘An Apparition of a Subtraction’ (2010).

_MG_2803Mikala Dwyer ‘Goldene Bend’er’ (2013).
Objects reminiscent of the shapes of her mothers rings

I really enjoy the variety of size and materials in Dwyers objects. The same form may be repeated over and over but take on a completely different life depending on it’s dimensions and materiality. I also appreciate the way they create windows and vignettes for each other, giving the viewer new perspectives and insight into the conversations between the Things.

“The circle then becomes a defined space of activity in which the conversations between forms matter far more than the forms themselves. This reversal of focus, from the installation’s positive solidity to the negative spaces it leaves, is similar to the experience of a séance, which invites participants to believe certain arrangements of objects and bodies in space will create electrical fields that enable spirits to transform or reappear.”
Byrt, A. Prism Break. P12, Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.

I would go so far as to say that the above idea can be related to much ceremonial ritual practice, where the gathering of specifically chosen Things creates an energy between both the Things and the practitioner that enables the experience of the otherworldly. The language of the Things imparts an importance to the ceremony that enables the practitioner to believe in the ritual and remove the conscious (and skeptical) mind from the proceedings. Michael Taussig suggests that Mikala Dwyer exhibits both scepticism and faith in equal measure (Taussig, M. Art and Magic and Real magic. P26, Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.) and this is an idea I relate to in my own work and, indeed, my own life. I’m an entirely skeptical atheist but at the same time inexplicably drawn to the occult, the esoteric, the otherworldly. I don’t see these stances as being oppositional to each other, indeed the flourishing of occult practice in conjunction with the emergence of Modernism around the turn of the last century brings together metaphysical thinking with the western scientific worldview in a strange amalgamation of the rational and the mystical. Friedrich Fröbel’s rather mystical thinking produced the Kindergarten movement which exerted a significant effect on certain Modernist schools. And Dwyer herself utilises a form of modernist, esoteric practice in the way she assembles her Things, using a Fröbel-esque approach to uncovering the objects relationships to each other.

It seems that the interplay between the Things is strongest and most ‘electric’ when the collection is heterogeneous, when the objects clash, confuse and challenge. This can be seen in Dwyers circle works as much as on in the collections of magical practitioners. The image below shows a West African Voudou altar where Catholic icons sit side by side with jewellery, traditional pottery, stones, snakes and offerings of food and drink.

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When looking at Dwyers collections of Things it’s easy to see them reflected in the magical collections of both traditional shamanic ritual and of western ceremonial tradition, as well as their relationship to the ‘magic encyclopedia’ that Walter Benjamin describes. Michael Taussig makes a connection between Things and the human relationship to the otherworldly:

“Could it be that magical practice through the ages needs things so as to maintain a relationship with the non-human, thing world?”
Taussig, M. Art and Magic and Real magic. P27, Franzidis, E. (ed). (2014) Drawing Down The Moon. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art.

Maybe it does, especially if Things speak the language of creation, or as Benjamin described it, the residue of the word of god. (Benjamin, W. (1916) On Language as Such and on the Language of Man, http://users.clas.ufl.edu/burt/chaucer’swake/LanguageofMan.pdf

Goat

I discovered this music video directed by Sam Macon for the band Goat’s song “Hide from the Sun”. It manages to pull together occult psychedelia, weird childlike paper-mache costumes, a threatening creepiness and homage to pe-renaissance European religious iconography in one strange little package. Who knew that was even possible? One of the elements I love most about it, and see relating to my own work, is that it straddles that fine line between being so bizarre that it’s funny and at the same time being genuinely quite otherworldly and engaging. As I’ve discovered, that is such a difficult balance to strike. It is totally earnest or is it having fun playing with the ideas of spirituality through psychedelics? Does it matter? The obviously constructed sets and costumes lend the scenes a realness and genuine uncanniness that you wouldn’t expect. In fact you would expect the whole thing to just be hokey and badly made, but somehow these very qualities allow the video to transcend expectations.

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