Matthew Barney Crown Zinc At Sadie Coles HQ – An Act Of Operatic Alchemy

Matthew Barney

Sadie Coles HQ presents artist Matthew Barney’s exhibition ‘Crown Zinc’ with a series of new sculptures that have their origins in his 2014 film ‘River of Fundament’, which premiered at the English National Opera this summer to wide acclaim. Each work condenses the film’s dominant themes of death, rebirth, and the twilight era of modern America. This is the third exhibition of the artist’s work at Sadie Coles; featuring an operatic score by Jonathan Bepler, the original film ‘River of Fundament’ transports the myth-laden narrative of Norman Mailer’s novel ‘Ancient Evenings’ (1983); which itself based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead, into a contemporary American setting.

The exhibition features totemic sculptural forms and includes two new sculptures by the artist, ‘Head of Norman III’ and ‘Head of Young Hathfertiti’; these works are created using the ‘water casting’ process whereby molten metal is poured directly into water. The heads’ unique contours form naturally as the zinc cools and hardens in the water. The artist intentionally combines ancient methods of casting and gilding with emblematic materials – zinc, gold, crystals, silver, sulphur – it is said that Barney’s latest works ‘reach into the murky recesses of ancient history and the human psyche’. The enduring Beuysian artistic concerns of alchemy are on display as are occultism – and Egyptian mythology.

The transmigration of the human soul is symbolised in the show by three iconic American cars: a 1967 Chrysler Imperial, a 1979 Pontiac Firebird, and a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. Each vehicle was the centrepiece of an outdoor performance –staged between 2008 and 2013 in Los Angeles, Detroit and New York respectively – in which they underwent deconstruction and transformation echoing the distribution of Osiris’s body parts in Egyptian mythology.

The works appear as if Richard Prince’s ‘muscle cars’ had been unearthed by some future archaeologist, after undergoing some sort of chemical transformation underground. The distribution of Osiris’s body parts become a signifier of the the resurrection of the American soul; ironically juxtaposing the masculinity of the iconic American car with the Osiris’s missing phallus.

Barney’s sculptures translate motifs from the film ‘River of Fundament’ into works of art, bearing themes of decay, regeneration and alchemical metamorphosis. The work ‘Crown Victoria’ is a zinc cast of the third vehicle’s undercarriage, the prototype for which was created in an elaborate hieratic ceremony in New York in 2013. The work resembles a ruined sarcophagus at the centre of the gallery; grey and almost crystalline in nature, crusted as if layered with some alchemical process; like a body the sculpture of car sections resembles a skeletal object; the mummified remains of some fictional biological system.

The work is quite Beuysian in nature but also evocative of the artist Nobuko Tsuchiya; described as creating highly wrought agglomerations, beguiling in nature; dramatic microcosms of closed experimental systems with poetic juxtapositions alluding to hidden processes and otherworldly; and even mythical narratives – with stripped down bodies of sculptural frames.

The sculpture is resting on blocks – the object stands both as a decimated vehicle and a body undergoing reincarnation – deposits of salt crystals at the two ‘poles’ of the work allude transmutation. Barney posits a form of operatic shamanism; mysterious and esoteric; the work draws the viewer in.

In Crown Zinc there is also a smaller fragment of the same vehicle that has been cast in zinc and plated with gold. It is modelled on the grill from the Crown Victoria. This was an object that travels and transfigures over the course of the film ‘River of Fundament’. The object was initially removed from the car, to become the crown for which the Egyptian deities Set and Horus ritualistically compete.

The manifestation in the mottled gold ‘pillar’ that clings like a shrunken fist to the immaculate plated surface of Crown Zinc. Melting was used in the film to symbolise Osiris’s spine, related to the Egyptian hieroglyph representing eternity and stability; through the melting of a gold column. Many of the signifiers in these works are not initially apparent; yet the pieces still retain the alchemical, and insinuate the justaposition of the contemporary and ancient upon the viewer.

The work ‘Was’ takes the form of a rather Beuysian vitrine containing a silver crow bar laid against a tubular mass of sulphur – again very Joseph Beuys. Barney uses the object; as the crow bar featured prominently in the battle between Set and Horus. The vitrine-encased assemblage balances the antithesis between creation and destruction that also pervades the film: the crow bar appears simultaneously to carve out the ‘underworld sulphur’ yet sculpting it in the same moment as assailing it.

The sculpture has a simultaneous duality recalling other cycles of production and destruction throughout the exhibition. Referring to Mailer’s novel, Barney has commented that “you have elemental waste coming from the earth like sulfur, molten iron these elements are interchangeable with the waste products of the body.”

The artist’s alchemical processes are obvious; and Barney’s juxtapositions of the mythical – the processes of creation and destruction are less obvious in nature – but the allusions are there to be discovered. The resulting works still encompass an oeuvre of esoteric yet autonomous objects to beguile the viewer.

Matthew Barney, Crown Zinc, at Sadie Coles HQ – until 13 December 2014

Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2015 Photos Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ all rights reserved


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