Matthew Barney: Biennial brings six-hour cinematic, sensual experience to Denver

“Film” is a woefully inadequate term to describe River of Fundament, an epic undertaking by artist Matthew Barney and composer Jonathan Bepler that will be screened as part of the Biennial of the Americas on Saturday, July 18, at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. 

While the medium of choice is, yes, film, this multi-layered collaboration seven years in the making combines narrative cinema with elements of sculpture, opera and live performance.

And it’s six hours long. “So you better bring dinner,” jokes Denver Art Museum Director Christoph Heinrich.  

Christoph Heinrich quote The film, which begins at 5:30 p.m. and runs until 11:30 p.m., is co-presented by the Denver Art Museum and the Clyfford Still Museum. But, Heinrich says, the Still’s Dean Sobel gets the credit for bringing the film to Denver. “As soon as he mentioned it to me, I said, ‘Yes, let’s collaborate,’ ” Heinrich said.

River of Fundament is loosely based on Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, which elaborately reinterprets pre-Christian Egyptian mythology while chronicling the seven stages of the soul’s departure from the body as it passes from death to rebirth.

Barney, who has worked with Bepler since Cremaster 1 in 1995, first imagined staging a nontraditional opera that would be presented as a series of three site-specific live performances across America over a five-year period. The resulting film chronicles these one-time-only events as they were presented before audiences in Los Angeles, Detroit and New York. But that is just the cinematic starting point.

The film combines that footage with scenes set in a reconstruction of Mailer’s brownstone apartment in Brooklyn Heights. According to the film’s production notes, Barney and Bepler reimagine Mailer as his own protagonist who reincarnates three times in three different bodies by magically entering the womb of his wife, Hathfertiti. In his attempt at rebirth, Mailer must endure the departure of his soul’s seven mythological states. With each incarnation, the undead Mailer emerges from a river of feces that runs beneath his Brooklyn Heights apartment and enters his own wake.

In a parallel narrative, River of Fundament replaces the body of Mailer with the body of an automobile along the American landscape. The film’s notes say three generations of American cars act as vehicles that carry the narrative forward: A 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial (known for its crashworthiness) is transmogrified into a 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am (known as the last high-performance engine of the original muscle-car generation) and finally into a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor (known for its tireless service in the U.S. government fleet).

Barney is a celebrated, 48-year-old alternative artist from San Francisco who typically works in sculpture, photography, visual art, drawing, film and live role-playing. His early works were sculptural installations combined with performance and video. He is, in Heinrich’ estimation, a true American original.

“For pretty much anybody who has ever seen a Matthew Barney work, it changes you. It changes your perspective,” Heinrich said. “Matthew Barney is one of the most important contemporary artists on the scene.”

Heinrich describes experiencing Barney’s art as an incredibly sensual experience. River of Fundament contains scenes of such a strong sexual nature that the film may not be suitable for audiences under 18.

“It really deals with the human body, but it also has a whole level of poetry to it that is so powerful,” Heinrich said. “Once you see one of Matthew’s images, it never leaves you. It wraps you. It encloses you. It just doesn’t let you go. And at that moment, you just dive into it, and you become a part of it.”

By revisiting pharaonic Egypt, Heinrich said, Barney has created a sprawling allegory of death and new life within contemporary America. Which makes the film a perfect choice for presentation at the Biennial of the Americas.

The Biennial is an international festival of ideas, art, and culture that is always hosted in Denver. The Biennial gathers experts together in the hope of broadening  perspectives by examining major issues, ideas, art and culture from across North, South, and Central America.

“Really the Biennial is a wonderful showcase for Denver, and a great hub for the exchange of new ideas,” said Heinrich. “It’s an opportunity to think about a larger America than just the United States of America.”

River of Fundament

  • Saturday, July 18
  • 5:30-11:30 p.m.
  • At the Ellie Caulkins Opera House
  • To buy online, click here
  • Presented by the Clyfford Still Museum and Denver Art Museum in partnership with the 2015 Biennial of the Americas.
  • Tickets: $20 general admission; $15 for museum members; $10 students (plus fee if purchased online). Tickets purchased with cash at the Denver Coliseum box office (Saturdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.) are not subject to service fees.

Photos from 'River of Fundament,' courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. Top photo copyright Chris Winget. Photo above copyright Hugo Glendinning. Photos from ‘River of Fundament,’ courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. Top photo copyright Chris Winget. Photo above copyright Hugo Glendinning.

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