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On its publication in 1983, Norman Mailer’s epic Egyptian novel, Ancient Evenings, was widely panned. “Pretentious, unreadable, even incomprehensible” was the consensus. Mailer, once dubbed by the New York Times “the maestro of the human ego”, was not one to be discouraged. To him, Ancient Evenings was a misunderstood masterpiece, and in 1999 when New York–based artist Matthew Barney cast him as Harry Houdini in the second film of his five-part Cremaster Cycle – a dense, ritualistic series – Mailer recognised a kindred spirit. Years later, he asked Barney to adapt his novel for the screen.
Barney declined, but Mailer’s prose took hold, eventually providing the source material for Barney’s most ambitious project to date. River of Fundament, comprising a series of sculptures and a six-hour “filmic opera” scored by his long-time musical collaborator, Jonathan Bepler, and peopled by a cast including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Salman Rushdie, Deborah Harry and Paul Giamatti, slowly found its aesthetic and conceptual outline.
Mailer, Barney once said, was “fundamentally American, but wrapped in a thin layer of gold from another culture”, a statement as good as any for describing Barney’s own practice. His sculptures are equal parts ancient and contemporary: strangely familiar yet compellingly foreign. In an addition that sets the exhibition apart from its original manifestation at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, the works – which knit together themes as diverse as spiritual rebirth and the decline of the American automotive industry – are embellished by selected objects from MONA’s holdings of Egyptian antiquities.
The even, impersonal fluorescent lighting chosen for the exhibition – notable given the museum’s general preference for sepulchral gloom – lends a clarity that neatly sidesteps the synthetic drama of stage lighting. In doing so, Barney’s objects are drawn further from their filmic origins, their cumulative effect heightened. The beautifully contained Coming Forth by Day (2014) is a stand-out, but the showstopper is the vast Boat of Ra (2014): an inverted, to-scale rendering of the writing attic of Mailer’s East River eyrie.
Weathered by undefined environmental, apocalyptic and ceremonial forces, Boat of Ra is both shipwreck and future ruin. Like many works in the exhibition, it is bombastic and hulking: heavy (in all senses of the word) and, perhaps above all else, strikingly sincere. In fact, irony – or levity for that matter – is almost entirely absent here. In its place, Barney enacts a grim-faced and determined ambition enabled by two deeply intertwined factors: a seemingly boundless creative vision and the vast reserves of global art capital. At MONA, it’s a match made in heaven.
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