Article: The Death(s) of The Author

The Death(s) of The Author

On Matthew Barney on Norman Mailer: With River of Fundament Matthew Barney confirms his Pharaohic Status in Contemporary American Art

Part 1: Underworld USA

 “Something that eludes naming is automatically relegated... to the status of shit. You can’t name it. It’s too big or evil or outside your experience.”

– Don Delillo, Underworld 77

“The Real cannot be signified not because it is outside, external to the symbolic order, but precisely because it is inherent to it, its internal limit: the Real is the internal stumbling block on account of which the symbolic system can never ‘become itself,’ achieve its self-identity. Because of its absolute immanence to the symbolic, the Real cannot be positively signified; it can only be shown, in a negative gesture, as the inherent failure of symbolization.”

  • Slavoj Žižek, Plague of Fantasies 217

In light of Lacanian/Žižekian psychoanalytic theory, shit is the inarguable Real. The object that arouses both fascination and repulsion, that is irrefutable in both tangible repulsion and ongoing intrigue. Whilst the scatological is inherent in contemporary American culture, from William S. Burroughs to South Park to Paul McCarthy, it is arguably representative of a broader disease, an epidemic of waste. Indeed, what becomes of the Eucharist once it is consumed? 

Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), a discursive narrative that covers a time span from the 1950s to the 1990s is linked via waste; derelict ammunitions, urban slums, generic garbage, abandoned industrial infrastructure and toxic and nuclear wastes. It is shit that links the traumas of the novel’s protagonist, Nick Shay – a waste manager for a global corporation. Aspects of DeLillo’s Underworld are arguably a perfect elaboration of Žižek’s description of the Lacanian Real, something that is fully immanent to the symbolic order but eludes naming. Blurring the lines between excess and waste, DeLillo’s sprawling (827 page) epic fulfils a number of the requirements of what is termed the Great American Novel. It is both physically and psychologically ‘heavy.’ It embraces the Grand Themes of the American Experience. Like the works of David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) and Thomas Pynchon (Mason & Dixon) it is epic. 

The Great American Novel is a title that has been fought over by numerous authors, from Gore Vidal to Tom Wolfe, but it was most especially cherished and lusted after by Norman Mailer.

Barney’s River of Fundament is a monster of over five-and-a-half hours of intense, fecund and fetid imagery. Fundament is every bit as ambitious as the core source material upon which it is based, Norman Mailer’s immense 1983 tome Ancient Evenings and almost as ambitious as its’ central fixation; both film and book take as their inspiration the notion and even attainment of reincarnation. But while Mailer retreated to ancient Egypt for his fantasy, Barney’s is resettled in contemporary American – Detroit, Los Angeles and New York – and is arguably less about reincarnation as it is the deterioration and damnation of the American spirit. 

River of Fundament is very much a homage to American masculinity embodied in the personas of the supposed Big Men of American Letters: Norman Mailer and his idol Ernest Hemmingway. Of equal import to this symbolism are the workers of the Detroit automotive industry and their products. And Barney eschews subtlety as he depicts that city’s decline, poetically overseeing that city’s urban decay.

We are led into the film as a third party witness to a wake in Mailer’s Brooklyn Heights home after the author’s death, featuring a small grouping of New York literati. The party starts with a sober, if surreal, air that gradually begins to crumble into hysteria and excess.  Amidst the first scenes we witness Barney (playing Norman’s Ka) wading through bubbling feces to arrive in Mailer’s bathroom where he discovers a solid-looking turd in the bowl. This he picks up and wraps delicately in gold leaf and places it back in the bowl which in turn allows Usermare (Stephen Paynes) to appear and to promptly sodomize Barney, his ejaculate appearing as mercury which trickles under the bathroom door. 

In flashback we witness a ritualized performance in a Chrysler dealership in Los Angeles where ‘Norman’ is interred in the form of a 1967 Chrysler Imperial. We then return to his wake where, after he has crossed the River of Fundament he finds he is unable to communicate with his wife. Instead he speaks to the reigning Pharaoh in this Brooklyn brownstone, Ptah-nem-hotep, played to great affect by Paul Giamatti. It is fair to surmise that Ptah-nem-hotep is a reference to Ptah-hotep, a minister during the reign of Djedkare Isesi in the fifth dynasty and the author of The Instruction of Ptahhotep, an extremely early piece of what is often described as Egyptian ‘wisdom literature.’


Fundament is a multi-part project structured as a site-specific ‘opera’ in collaboration with musician Jonathan Bepler. It traverses the seven stages of the soul’s progression through death and rebirth according to Egyptian mythology. Barney enacts these recurring cycles of reincarnation through the use of an automobile, creating a contemporary allegory of death and rebirth within the American industrial landscape, rooted in the reincarnation of its leading protagonist, the Chrysler Imperial.

Barney embraces this car-centric landscape with a passion. Throughout River of Fundament, the figure of the Chrysler Imperial both embodies the narrative of the project and drives it forward, weaving together the genealogies of material and myth into sculptural form. The centerpiece of the physical projection created during the filming is DJED, a monumental cast iron sculpture that was poured during a live performance of the opera’s third act in 2010 with riveting results. The primary form of DJED is the undercarriage of the Chrysler Imperial, modified to evoke the pillar-like hieroglyph of the Egyptian god Osiris’ power. For the scene twenty-five tons of molten iron were poured from five custom-built furnaces into an open, molded pit in the earth at the site of a derelict steel mill along the Detroit River. Cinematically it is arguably the high point of the film as flaming metal appears to pour over the screen. DJED’s cast iron and graphite block recalls the jagged alien metallic-organic architecture captured so brilliantly by H.R. Giger for Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Barney has woven several Cremaster elements into River of Fundament, among them the Imperial, his own Apprentice character and Aimee Mullins, whose character Isis is, in something of an X-Files moment, at one point an F.B.I. forensic investigator who reconstitutes the drowned Imperial (her brother Osiris), first as a 1979 Pontiac Firebird, and then as a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor (the same model as that used in the post-apocalyptic wastelands of Mad Max in 1981). Somehow Isis resurrects Osiris’ sexual organ and becomes pregnant, leading to a bizarre power play over who will eventually become the next Pharaoh.


There is a narrative, or series of narratives, running throughout Fundament, but they are segmented and fractured via shifts in time and the very embodiment of the characters. The key stars here are Barney and Aimee Mullins who act as Norman’s Ka spirits, but what cohesion remains is supplied by the brilliant acting of Maggie Gyllenhall as Hathfertiti. One cannot help but recall, as she is confronted in a scene that involves gymnastic female pissing and competitive dwarf tossing, that this is the same actor that held her own against Heath Ledger’s electrified performance in The Dark Knight.


At one point the first Norman, played by John Buffalo Mailer (the son of the writer) eviscerates a cow and then climbs into its belly and then moments later, Norman II emerges as the 72-year-old, African-American jazz drummer Milford Graves. (The third Norman is Chief David Beautiful Bald Eagle, 94, a Lakota tribal leader.) The evisceration of the cow is one of those moments of potent ritual devised by Barney for maximum impact. But there are numerous such moments. In another such scene, in a clear homage to Georges Bataille, as two heavily pregnant women engage in anal tongue play, one removes her glass eye and gently forces it into the others’ anus. Another occurs when Isis gives graphic birth to a falcon. However one quickly becomes inured to Barney’s more ‘gratuitous’ moments. They seem to flow into the narrative in much the same way as the river of feces flows. Much the same can be said of his fairly clear cinematic references; David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Mario Bava or Dario Argenta and the zombie genre are pronounced influences (as is, arguably, the scatological humor of South Park).

The script of Fundament is littered with references to the ‘major’ men of American letters; Hemingway, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William S. Burroughs (and, arguably, in a less literal sense Cormac McCarthy). But there is a melancholy to these references, a sense that the great days of American writing are past in much the same way as the great days of the American automotive industry are past. A sense that each time Norman is reincarnated something of his spirit, eg; the spirit of America, is dissipated.

Unfortunately, by the end of the epic, the audience too feels dissipated. The last hour drags on interminably, as though Barney either didn’t know how to end it or had to keep innumerable repetitive endings. We close in the mountains of Idaho near the cabin of Ernest Hemmingway with numerous National Geographic-style slices, half expecting a new monologue to start narrated by David Attenborough. Many moments in River carry this problem – the point having been made, Barney insists upon belaboring it, clearly believing that endurance on behalf of his audience is part of the project. But regardless of ones feelings about sodomy or the ultra-scatological, River of Fundament is in essence a work of genius, albeit one that requires an edit.

Christian iconography haunts Fundament, perhaps most bizarrely when Barney plays James Lee Byars in turn playing Harry Houdini. The scene is set in a Detroit church in which an ambulance, coated internally in gold leaf, resides upon the altar. Above the ambulance, in perfect symmetry, is the image of the crucifixion. An initially prone ‘Byars’ arises, adorned in a golden straitjacket and a black blind-fold. Rather inexplicably his mouth is bloodied, an explicit reference to the Apprentice in Cremaster 3 (he is also adorned with knee pads, confirming that this indeed is the Apprentice). The camera lingers on this image, which takes on the formalities of a Renaissance frieze.  Byars himself was strongly influenced by theology and philosophy and died, aptly for Barney, in Cairo in 1997. Indeed, Byars “shortly before his departure for Cairo, gave his own last performance in front of the Ancient Egyptian Pyramid at the Louvre,” writes Angus Cook. “The gold leaf floating away had something of the vaudeville about it.”

This is far from the only Christian moment in the film. In the workshop where Djed resides a Latino mechanic pauses briefly to make the sign of the cross. Another moment has Isis (Aimee Mullins) hovering ecstatic above the TransAm, her face veiled in a portrayal powerfully reminiscent of many traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary. And yet again when Isis becomes pregnant it is via an inanimate, inorganic phallus, thus in effect a Virgin Birth. We then witness said graphic birth. The camera focuses in on the extended orifice of the vagina, which begins to pulsate vigorously until what emerges from the vaginal canal is the bald head of a baby falcon. In Christian iconography the wild falcon has been symbolic of evil, of that which preys upon the innocent. (In Egyptian hieroglyphs the falcon often represented the word for ‘god,’ and was representative of sky deities, who often featured the head of the falcon.) The tamed falcon has also often been used as a symbol of the converted Gentile. The emergence of the birds’ head is reminiscent of the emergence of the child from Henry’s neck in Eraserhead or that of the alien from William Hurt’s torso in Alien. Throughout the film the image of two fingers entering the mouth with gold flake is repeated, an image that also recalls the granting of bread in Holy Communion.

The casting of Maggie Gyllenhall as Hathfertiti is an intriguing one following her role as Rachael Dawes in The Dark Knight. In both films she exudes an air of calm amidst chaotic proceedings. In both cases her essentially plain features and melancholic air balance the Carnivalesque and excessive aspects of Heath Ledger’s The Joker and of Stephen Paynes’ Usermare. She is the mother figure, made explicit in Fundament by her milking of her own breast.

Barney also enters the realm of the Judaic during the opening scenes in which a pig is being roasted. As the chefs test the clearly cooked pig with knives the cooked meat emits eerie sounds. This is again reminiscent of Lynch in Eraserhead in the scene where Henry attempts to carve the ‘man-made’ chickens (there is also more than a hint of Peter Greenaway in this baroque approach to food and perhaps Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel.) Given that Mailer, whilst non-practicing, was born of Jewish descent, the choice of pork for the feast is a deliberate disruption. This scene is followed by Paul Giamatti slicing into the pig’s tongue and musing on Mailer’s love of the Word.

The physicality of these scenes was paramount. Speaking to the New York Times, Stephen Payne commented that; “a scene around a table was chaotic as all get out. Matthew kept the dead carcass of a pig in there for weeks. The stench of death and decay was overwhelming.”

 “Someone asked me if I wanted tiger balm up my nose,” Gyllenhaal recalled in the same article. “I said no. Then we walk into the studio and there’s this decaying pig and maggots in the food. It smelled so bad I thought I was going to pass out. Then we start doing the scene. There are these women singing, and the camera is going around the table, and Matthew comes in and says, ‘Can you guys be a little more natural?’ I didn’t know what he meant. Natural, as in natural, or natural for a Matthew Barney movie? After that it became some wild, crazy experience.” In a comment that reflects Žižek’s observation that Straight Means Weird and Psychosis is Normal, Gyllenhaal  added that “at the time, I was also shooting White House Down, which could not be more different.”

Fundament is a work obsessed with the orifice. As an ‘opera’ the central focus is, inevitably, the mouth. But as an adaptation of Mailer’s Ancient Evenings the scatological was inevitable and extreme. At one moment, as the wake in Mailer’s apartment descends into bacchanalia, a (white) woman (Bobbi Starr) is anally penetrated for considerable duration by an extremely well-endowed black man. When they are completed she reclines languorously and begins to defecate a seemingly endless pouring of greenish-brown diarrhea, a river of feces. Throughout, the anus and the vagina are allowed close, almost medical, treatment and moments of attempts at eroticism are a rarity. 

Following the world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, Fundament experienced its’ second screening in Australia at the Adelaide Festival in March, 2014. One reviewer concluded that: “What is most troubling is Barney’s treatment of women – seeming to reduce many of them to wordless cameos in which they are only there for shots of their gaping, penetrated body parts.” This viewing is simplistic at best. While Barney’s work is almost invariably androcentric, the males herein are penetrated as regularly, if not more so, as the females, beginning with Barney himself. Indeed, the most powerful figures throughout are Hathfertiti (played at various stages by Ellen Burstyn, Madyn G. Coaklt and Maggie Gyllenhall) and Isis (Aimee Mullens). Isis is penetrated by choice, indeed, helping mold the phallus that she utilizes. 

Barney himself has expressed his difficulty with the sexualisation of his imagery. “The sexually explicit aspect of the novel did present a challenge. In a way, it’s against my nature,” he said in an interview at the time of the Australian premiere. “A lot of the more sexually driven images I have made in the past are not genital. They are often sexless – it’s often about an undifferentiated sexuality, a third sex. The Ancient Evenings scenes were much more genital than that, so I found it challenging to go there. But I did.”

Barney’s androcentric obsessions border on the homoerotic, not just in Fundament, but throughout his oeuvre. He is fascinated with the bombastic, ‘heroic’ extremes of American male culture, thus his fascination with Mailer’s aspirations to author the Great American Novel – a uniquely ‘male’ competition – coincide with Barney’s clear desire to author the Great American Video. Creative machismo is not unique to America, but it is the Americans who take it to its extreme in terms of hero worship. With Barney it is Serra, Byars, Otto, Beuys, Houdini, Hemmingway and Mailer. This idealisation/fetishisation is yet another symptom of what can be described as an American gnostic void and the schizophrenic desire to ‘be’ the idealized celebrity. These figures take the place of the religious deities of old, they are the demi-gods, the angels and saints and demons (Frank Booth, The Joker, Gary Gilmore) of America’s newest belief system; the church of the cathode ray and the computer screen. 

Intriguingly it seems that Barney’s inspiration was sourced almost equally via a review of Ancient Evenings by religious critic Harold Bloom. “Bloom’s review of Ancient Evenings suggested that Mailer is the protagonist, and that it’s basically about his relationship to the American literary canon,” Barney told the New York Times. “So I developed the story from there, placing Mailer at the center of the film as three spirits who transform through the body of an animal. I was deeply into horror as a teenager. Still am.”

The reading of River of Fundament as being inspired as much by the scholar Bloom as the author Mailer raises thorny issues. “I was influenced as much by a review of Ancient Evenings as by the book,” he told The Paris Review. Bloom’s review, which appeared in The New York Review of Books, was vexed by parts of the novel but rather more accepting of its scope than many others at the time.

“Our most conspicuous literary energy has generated its weirdest text,” Bloom wrote, before making a case for its endearing, invigorating, spiritually searching weirdness. He continued: “I don’t intend to give an elaborate plot summary, since if you read Ancient Evenings for the story, you will hang yourself.” But: “Ancient Evenings rivals Gravity’s Rainbow as an exercise in what has to be called a monumental sado-anarchism.” And: “Ancient Evenings is on the road of excess, and what Karl Kraus said of the theories of Freud may hold for the speculations of Mailer also – it may be that only the craziest parts are true.”

Key to Bloom’s reading of the book, for Barney, was the notion that the most meaningful characters in Ancient Evenings were in fact stand-ins for Ernest Hemingway and Mailer himself. The review, Barney suggests, posited “that the book was effectively autobiographical, that Mailer saw himself as being too late – that the great American novel wasn’t needed anymore by the time he had come into his own. He wanted to be Hemingway but he couldn’t. That interested me. So I started putting Mailer himself into the role of the protagonist, in reincarnations of the same character.”

Mailer himself remains a complicated character, one whose own life seemed to cross between fiction and fact all too easily. That he had the ego of a Pharaoh was beyond doubt, however as Pharaoh, Ptah-nem-hotep expresses his doubts to Norman in the film about his potency as a Pharaoh, it is clear that Mailer himself had his doubts about his role as Great American Author. Nonetheless he evidently planned a sequel to Ancient Evenings set 3000 years hence, featuring none other than a reincarnated Norman Mailer. 

Perhaps Mailer, in his ailing years, planned this all along, yet another reinvention of ‘Norman Mailer.’ After acting in Cremaster 2 Mailer befriended Barney and it is no secret that he encouraged Barney to consider Evenings as source material. Barney was already (in)famous, a young Pharaoh in the contemporary art world. Could he also be an ideal womb for Mailer’s rebirth? One thing that is certain, Ancient Evenings, languishing and largely ignored since its publication in the early ’80s, will have something of a rebirth in the new millennium via art students, academics and Barney fans in general. Sales of the book will no doubt flourish. It is, perhaps, the final turn of the screw for Bloom’s prescient review, however with a further twist; it required a visual artist of Barney’s stature to re-project Mailer’s vision, not the work of literature itself. Mailer had implanted himself in Barney’s vision to engineer a reincarnation unlike any before.

Ancient Evenings ends with a rebirth in language both preposterous and pretentious. Is it conceivable that in finalizing his epic, Barney, having apparently disallowed Mailer his resting place alongside Hemmingway, turned to another towering figure of American Letters? Fundament concludes with stunning, albeit belabored, imagery of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain Range, in the depths of Redfish Lake, near the cabin of Ernest Hemingway, where sockeye salmon make their journey from the Pacific Ocean. Hemmingway lets off a rifle and that is where the film should have concluded. Instead we are treated to innumerable images of salmon spawning. Repetitious and tedious, it is a scene that should have been cut in half. However it is also impossible not to imagine that this scene was, at least in part and given Barney’s own penchant for the apocalyptic, inspired by the final paragraph in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:


“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”


Had Barney, at the last moment, in a moment of Oedipul rejection, turned from Mailer to McCarthy? Given Barney’s sense of apocalyticism and the high profile attention allowed McCarthy’s The Road, this would not seem unlikely. Both artists allow a small sense of reprieve at their conclusions via the image of the fish – an ancient symbol to identify fellow Christians. Is there also a sense of environmentalism? In The Road it is explicit that Man has destroyed the Earth. In Barney’s film images of environmental disaster are commonplace. Indeed, in his world rivers are made of shit and toxic waste. Indisputably, those salmon would last a nanosecond in Barney’s rivers.


This tendency to fall back upon a sense of idyllic pastoralism or even suburbanism is a commonplace in American fictions, even those of the most literal apocalyptic nature. They can fail spectacularly, as in the directors’-cut of Blade Runner where the protagonists are suddenly seen fleeing into an Arcadian paradise. McCarthy’s effort works simply due to the beauty of the language used and the jolt supplied in its context after 240 pages of dust and toxins. The end of Ben Marcus’ recent novel The Flame Alphabet, which suggests the possibility of a happy ending in a sunny forest, works because it consolidates its narrator’s tragically delusional state of mind. The end of Blue Velvet, with the couple staring complacently at a mechanical robin, works because it reminds us of the non-reality of reality. This takes us back full circle to Žižek’s notion of the Straight Means Weird and Psychosis is Normal – by returning us to ‘normality’ we are reminded of how tentative that notion can be.


At the time of the inaugural showing of Fundament, Manhattan was awash in feces beyond Barney’s film. Two other major artists were also provoking via the scatological. The late Mike Kelley was the feature of a huge retrospective at MoMa and his work in a broad sense maintained a delirious mixture of the scatological and the eschatological in such major works as Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile (1985-86). But perhaps equally ambitious as Fundament was Paul McCarthy’s WS (White Snow) at The Armory. Both projects featured intriguing parallels; both are based on specific American fictions: WS on Disney’s 1937 animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fundament on Mailer’s novel. Both require endurance (McCarthy’s film component clocked in at a grueling seven hours). Both refer to specific signature motifs and themes; sex, degradation, art history, violence and popular culture. And both make use of meticulously reconstructed replicas of living quarters; Mailer’s brownstone, McCarthy’s suburban, childhood home in Salt Lake City.

The house or home as orifice or void can carry similar weight to that of the automobile. Beneath Mailer’s brownstone lies the river of fundament. Beneath Ben Marcus’ Prayer Hut in The Flame Alphabet lies a network of tunnels designed for language transmission. Beneath Bruce Wayne’s mansion lies the bat cave. Gnosis is sought beneath the surface.

Gnosis is also, perhaps, sought via physical transformation. Like Barney’s Norman, Lynch’s Fred in Lost Highway undergoes a painful transmogrification in his jail cell into the more docile Pete Dayton. As Eric Wilson has noted, one can “read the film psychologically, and therefore opine that Fred through his negation of concepts has achieved an inner transformation, has metamorphosed into a new self.” However at the end of Lost Highway Fred appears to have reverted and is last seen on a long stretch of darkened highway pursued by police, a lost soul. Similarly, the last images of Norman as played by Chief Dave Beautiful Bald Eagle, adrift without the companionship of Hathfertiti, suggests a similarly lost spirit.

Wilson reads the final scenes of Lost Highway as Fred’s transcendence, that he “reaches union with the void.” He has escaped his pursuers and “becomes a spirit moving effortlessly over the empty highway…” Like Barney’s River, Marcus’ tunnels, Lynch’s highway becomes a metaphor for transcendence. And/or the futility of American desire for freedom, for gnosis. 

At the end of Cremaster 3, the Entered Apprentice (Barney) reached the top of the Chrysler Building and killed the Architect (Richard Serra) after facing a series of hardships that included undead horses, perverse dentistry, and defeating the Entered Noviate (Aimee Mullins). While he was killed by the Architect’s men, he had completed a Masonic/alchemical/mystical journey of ascension, growth, and self-transformation. Thus when a bearded, older version of the Entered Apprentice emerges from the river of feces at the beginning of Fundament, one thing is explicit: this is Barney’s continued exploration of transformation and differentiation. River is, in effect, the third part of a trilogy that follows Cremaster 2 and 3. This, in its own twisted way, is apt. C3 was in fact the last of the films to be executed in the Cremaster cycle, thus the sequence bifurcates, from the final scene in C3 it meanders in one of two directions; C4 or River in a rhizomatic division or cellular mutation. 

It is perhaps worthy of note that C3 is a pseudo Barney versus Serra epic while River is a Mailer versus Hemmingway epic. Alternatively, for Matt Pieknik in The American Reader; “vis a vis the mercurial insemination that opens River of Fundament, Barney, the megastar daddy of the contemporary art world, has adopted a spiritual father, and become a son to Norman Mailer.”

Pieknik recalls that: “In his influential work Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Leslie Fiedler argued that American literature is incapable of dealing with sexuality, and is pathologically obsessed with death. Fielder was concerned with foundational works of the so-called canon – Poe, Twain, Whitman – wherein he thought he located deeply repressed anxieties over women and sex, latently expressed in male homosocial adventures that occurred far from the domestic sphere or the proximity of women. Think of Huck Finn drifting down the Mississippi with Jim, or the crew of the Pequod ecstatically crushing globules of sperm oil in Moby-Dick. The story of American literature, in Fieldler’s reading, is the story of castration anxiety. Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament represents a radical desublimation of the obsession with sex and death; in its unflinching presentation of the twin poles of mortality, what was previously obscene has shifted to center stage, to the stomach’s chagrin.”

In an aspect of his review that Barney seems to have whole-heartedly embraced, Bloom reads Ancient Evenings through his own theory of poetic influence, and persuasively suggests that the novel is an autobiographical work that poses Mailer, as Menenhetet, against his literary father Hemingway, as Usermare. “Mailer clearly idolized Papa Bear, modeling his lean writing style and hypermasculine persona on his literary pater, and self-consciously considered himself the heir of Hemingway’s legacy,” writes Pieknik. 

“According to Bloom, Mailer hoped that Ancient Evenings would be his Great American Novel that would finally solidify his place within the pantheon of Great American Writers. But for Bloom, influence, while unavoidable, is a loser’s game: the influence of one’s predecessors both spurs the creative impulse and is a hindrance to it, for without sufficient ‘strength’ it results in derivative work, lacking the originality necessary for posterity. Menenhetet’s attempts at the immortality possessed by his Pharaoh, Usermare, are doomed from the outset – not only because he reveres him, but also because he has been sodomized by the king, an act that, according to the novel’s terms, forecloses the possibility of true authority and everlasting life. Implicit in Bloom’s reading is that Mailer’s extraordinary reverence for his Pharaoh, Hemingway, is the obstacle that most threatens Mailer’s own bid for posterity.”

In Barney’s version Mailer’s protagonist, the nobleman Menenhetet I becomes Mailer. This, in its way, undercuts Mailer’s role as Oedipul father figure, that of The Author. Where Menenhetet I aspires to overcome his physical status from that of nobleman to pharaoh, Norman aspires to join the pantheon of Great American Writers. Menenhetet/Norman utilise arcane ritual and magic in order to be reincarnated three times in the womb of his wife, who then, in yet another familial twist, becomes his mother. In what could potentially be a piece of literary criticism by Barney, on his third attempt to transform, Menenhetet III/Norman III becomes trapped in the womb, failing to reincarnate and thus failing to reach the desired plateau represented by Barney as Hemmingway. Despite Barney’s clear adoration of Mailer, he does not bless him the final dignity. He seems to acknowledge that, as charismatic and adventurous as the author was, he did not achieve the status of the Greatest of American Authors. This is apt. It would take an extraordinarily generous reading of Ancient Evenings to forgive its multitudinous sins, as was agreed by most critics at the time of its release. Even Bloom, amongst the most generous of these, expressed grave doubts. It is, in a word, a pretentious text; instead of a Barney Drawing Restraint, Mailer needed a writing restraint. With both artists a good editor should have stepped in.

Barney sources his title from Mailer’s second paragraph. As Menenhetet reincarnates he recounts the pain involved. “Is this the feat that holds the universe?  Is pain the fundament? All the rivers veins of pain?” In what would seem to be a bounteous moment of bowel movement, in the book Menenhetet is eviscerated, in effect creating the river of feces that he must cross to be reincarnated. 

Fundament is very much a collaboration between Barney and musician Jonathan Bepler. The two have worked together since CREMASTER 1 in 1995 and Bepler went on to score CREMASTER 2, 3, and 5. With a clear belief in the spirit of collaboration, the duo have worked with a broad and rather bizarre range of talents including actress Ursula Andress, performance artist Marti Domination, singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, thrash metal drummer Dave Lombardo, the Budapest Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra, hardcore bands Agnostic Front and Murphy’s Law and the Radio City Rockettes. Barney’s decision to work with Bepler on what they describe as an “opera” seems to come down to the notion of opera as orifice, both bodily and architecturally. “I don’t have much of a relationship with opera,” Barney told The Paris Review. “But I’m interested in opera houses, the way organic spaces are designed acoustically to receive the human voice. It’s like the resonant chamber in your body. You feel like you’re inside another body when you’re in an opera house. I like thinking about a character on stage performing inside another body.”

At times soaring and melodic, at others discordant and jarring, the soundtrack is an inherent piece of the overall ‘sculpture.’ Bepler, writing with Shane Anderson, most certainly got into the spirit of excess when writing on the score in the accompanying literature: “At the mill, nearer, furnaces press out upon the walls while workers wearing dust masks, small organs, heat metal to melting, breathe in chords for the pour. Oxygen jets increase the heat, injected air pressure lights up the system and gravity’s reckless sonata, nearer, extends into the hollow, vibrating everything touched at a pitch below hearing, beyond the perception of those long since outworn. This rugged sound pressure continues, deeper, into the rebar termite tomb of steel shavings, progressing on piano wires, infiltrating the rusty coke oven frames above to make them sing a last passage before crumbling into the dust of ancient burial mounds.”


In Barney’s and Bepler’s world, nothing succeeds like excess.


Part II: The Synopsis? Based loosely on that presented in the Adelaide Festival catalogue


As Bloom noted in his review of Ancient Evenings, tackling Mailer’s novel as pure narrative is a thankless task and, true to Mailer, Barney’s ‘adaption’ is equally arcane.


Barney utilizes footage of three live performances – REN (Los Angeles, 2008), KHU (Detroit, 2010), and BA (New York City, 2013) which integrate the automobile – the 1967 Chrysler Imperial from Cremaster 3, a 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am and a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor – as symbolic of the process of reincarnation.

Similar symbolism embraces the use of rivers, a time-honored trait in American culture from Huck Finn onwards. New York’s East river plays host to Mailer’s floating brownstone, a funeral barge of sorts, while the industrially poisoned Detroit River and the River Rouge play central roles in the reincarnation process.

However it is the wake itself that binds the various narratives together. As the likes of Salmon Rushdie, Debbie Harry, Fran Lebowitz, Luc Sante, Jeffrey Eugenides and others reminisce about Mailer, his widow, played by Joan La Barbara greets the guests. Meanwhile the spirit of Norman I, played by his son, John Buffalo Major, has emerged from the river of feces beneath the house coated in shit and invisible to the living guests and where he is greeted silently by his Ka spirits, played by Barney and Aimee Mullins.

Barney’s Imp of the Perverse is immediately at play. He flashes back to a surreal event occurring on the lot of a Chrysler dealership in Los Angeles where a mangled 1967 Chrysler Imperial holds centre place. While this is meant to represent Norman I, 1967 is also the year of Barney’s birth and could thus also be read as a self-portrait of sorts. The Chrysler is ‘buried’ at the dealership amidst a surreal cacophony of drums and bugles in a scene that David Lynch would envy.

Barney then shifts back to the wake where Norman I meets the reigning Pharaoh, Ptah-nem-hotep (Paul Giamatti), who envies Norman’s earlier acquaintance of the Pharaoh Usermare (Stephen Payne). Ptah-nem-hotep reveals to Norman I his use of feces in his acts of sorcery. “I think I’m at my best when I can set up a situation where the action is largely dictated by the environment,” Barney told The New York Times. “In the throne room scene with Paul Giamatti, for example, he explains to ‘Norman’ that he’s been using his feces to cultivate crops that people eat. It was easy for him to get his head around that character because of our conversations and the rehearsals, but also because of the environment. Bobbi Starr was really easy to direct. She’s a classical oboist. And one of the most famous anal actresses in the adult film business. There’s a claustrophobia in my films, an interiority that’s relentless. The peaks of violence, of humor and explicit sexual imagery are like little valves that relieve pressure.”

Norman I then meets Hathfertiti (Madyn G. Coakley) who served him as a medium for his rebirth and she leads him through a portal back to the River of Feces where his next resurrection can be completed. Norman II (Milford Graves) then appears as an older, shamanistic sorcerer at the height of his powers. Hathfertiti (Maggie Gyllenhaal) welcomes Norman II into the house where the wake is rapidly becoming a site of the Carnivalesque. 


The next scene is yet another flashback, this time to industrial Detroit. The camera lingers on the ruined buildings, the once potent vessels of America’s automotive industry, now gutted husks with roofing timbers jutting like decaying ribs. These are amongst Barney’s most riveting images in the film; the poetry of gradual decimation.


Barney locks into the scene in the church as both Byars and Osiris. Here Norman II is represented as a gold 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. The myth of Isis and Osiris is then reenacted by the Ka spirits, (Mullins and Barney). Set (Eugene Perry and Herbert Perry) locks Osiris into the Trans Am after attiring Barney in a golden straitjacket and placing five top hats onto his head, stating that: “There are five points to a man,” and then plunges a staff through the car’s windshield. What ensues could well have been a homage to a Steve McQueen film as the Trans Am speeds away, veering around abandoned, rusted automobiles in a scene that whiffs strongly of the post-apocalyptic and careers off the side of the Belle Isle Bridge, landing in the Detroit River. The film returns briefly to the wake and Barney’s tactic is clear, leaping from an almost clichéd action shot back to the interior and then back again. 


This is a recreation of The Death of James Lee Byars, a 1994 performance by the artist James Lee Byars, who was born in Detroit and died in Cairo in 1997. In the piece, Byars, dressed in gold lamé, sat in a golden memorial chamber, “practicing death.” The Trans Am’s jump off the Belle Isle Bridge is a nod to both Harry Houdini’s most controversial escape act, in which he bound himself inside a wooden coffin and was lowered into a hole in the frozen Detroit River, and also the legend of Set’s murder of Osiris, which involved Set imprisoning Osiris in a coffin and dumping him into the Nile. Mailer played Harry Houdini in part two of Barney’s last major film effort, The Cremaster Cycle. Cremaster 2 is based in part on The Executioner’s Song, Mailer’s 1979 novel about the killer Gary Gilmore. The Gilmore Family legend was that their patriarch was the illegitimate son of Houdini, making Gary Gilmore the escape artist’s grandson. In Cremaster 2, Mailer has one of the few bits of dialogue: “I can assure you that each time I allow myself to escape from a locked trunk, a real transformation does take place.”


In Detroit, an FBI investigation led by Isis and her sister Nephthys (Jennie Knaggs) recover the automotive body of Osiris (now a Chrysler Imperial) from the River Rouge. The sisters resurrect Osiris’ sexual organ and Isis becomes pregnant. Set is enraged and destroys the Chrysler. Imprisoned in the back of a Crown Victoria, Isis watches helplessly as the dismembered Imperial is fed into a massive furnace. The gates of the furnace open and the molten body of Osiris is resurrected as a massive iron Djed pillar.


The 1979 Trans Am resurfaces in an industrial canal in New York City. In the back seat, in a highly graphic scene, Isis delivers Osiris’ son Horus, who emerges as a falcon.


It is somewhere at this juncture that Barney lingers upon a singular image that in its way summarizes a cornerstone, or perhaps the very spirit, of Fundament. A massive bird of prey is captured atop the pulsating lights of a police cruiser set against the deep reds and blues of a sunset. It is a melancholic moment and, for all of its surrealist aftertaste, it simultaneously captures the iconic sensibility of the clichéd Old West: the Bird Of Prey atop its victim; the symbol of authority, of Law and Order, its flashing dome lights impotent. It is an image that suggests that the ‘Old’ rules remain in place. This is the West of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, the Law – the police cruiser subsumed by the claws of the raptor. 


This mythos of the old masculine frontier is Barney world. We have seen it alluded to before in the opening scenes of Cremaster 2 as the camera pans across the Utah salt lakes in imagery reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, another American film imbued with spiritual portent (Eastwood’s character, a Preacher, it is suggested, has been reincarnated to serve out justice). Amongst Barney’s opening scenes in Fundament, there is Hemmingway’s rifle blasting through the tranquility, a distinctly phallic and ‘masculine’ moment. Clearly Barney, like Mailer before him, aspires to this macho pantheon alongside the likes of Hemmingway, McCarthy and Eastwood. Clearly the schizophrenia here is sexual. The ‘feminine’ Barney – artiste, fashion model – versus the ‘masculine’ Barney – former footballer and gymnast. 


As we move on Usermare returns to a nearly empty wake at the Mailer brownstone, where he is met by Hathfertiti who reveals that she is his daughter. The Pharaoh is enraged that Hathfertiti has spent her life enabling Norman, a mortal, in his quest for immortality. Hathfertiti rejects her father, defending her dedication to the writer. Meanwhile Norman II has retired to the River of Feces in preparation for his transformation into a new body and his return to Hathfertiti.


At a nearby taxi garage in Queens the spirit of Norman III is embodied as a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, which is being gilded in preparation for the coronation of a new king.


In a flashback to a ritual at a dry-dock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Horus (Brennan Hall) and Set vie for the crown. The dry-dock is filled with chanting youths and the arena is set for an epic battle. Simultaneously a violent fistfight ensues at the garage between two mechanics, stand-ins for Horus and Set. The battle is graphic and violent and could well have been a homage to David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) or Chuck Palahniuk’s novel on which that film was based. One fighter loses an eye whilst the other has his penis torn off. As that battle rages the heavily pregnant garage manager is enjoying anilingus from her equally pregnant lover who then removes an eye and places it in her anus.


Meanwhile the Mailer House continues downriver, perhaps, in a reference to Huck Finn, all the way to Cairo. Wrong river, whether it be the Mississippi or the Nile or the Hudson. The Mississippi and the Nile reach alternate Cairo’s but the Hudson has no such destination. “The river as means of escape,” claims Angus Cook. “It throws them off the scent. Night of the Hunter. Huck and Jim rafting down to Cairo.” At the house and onboard, Usermare holds court as Horus and Set, lacking an eye and a penis but both maintaining their victory, are judged by the Council of the Gods. Isis intervenes in order to ensure that her son to take the crown. 


An aged and bed-ridden Hathfertiti (Ellen Burstyn), having sent Norman II through the portal towards his resurrection, is nearing the end of her life. Usermare pleads with her to abandon Norman and embrace her royal inheritance before she passes. Hathfertiti again rejects Usermare, declaring her allegiance to the energy of the earth and the pursuit of magic. She returns to the bedroom and falls into a final sleep. Usermare, destroyed by his daughter’s rejection, commits a spiritual suicide, severing his ties to his family and to his past. Usermare in sullen and melancholic mode at the end of the film lament that now, in place of a king, “there are only weak princes,” and that “the present moment is only the excrement which the past has left behind.” In the upper floors of the Mailer House, Norman III (Chief Dave Beautiful Bald Eagle) has emerged. After a brief term, he attempts to reenter the portal, where he becomes trapped, ending the lineage of Norman. 


Part III: A Conclusion?


As David Harvey notes: “The only irreducible in Foucault’s scheme of things is the human body, for that is the ‘site’ at which all forms of repression are ultimately registered,”

Upon a singular viewing of River of Fundament much will inevitably be missed and, most probably, misinterpreted. That Barney is a master of the perfectly composed image is beyond dispute. Fundament is resplendent with such images; the Byars moment in the Church, the pouring of liquid metal or gushing water in industrial settings, the falcon perched ominously above a police cruiser, the haggard face of Usermare. There are more powerful singular images in this film/sculpture/opera/performance than there are in a years worth of Hollywood fodder or exhibitions in Manhattan. It is clearly too long and that is clearly deliberate. One must suffer an act of endurance for Barney’s hubris, as we experienced all too clearly with the CREMASTER cycle. The performances, most especially those of Gyllenhaal, Giamatti and Payne are beyond reproach (the exception would be that of Elaine Stritch who is decidedly belabored and boringly pretentious). Unlike his previous works, Barney is not the central focus here. He, alongside Mullins, act more as anchors, charismatic spirits who, aptly, guide the practitioners along their narratives. The moments of pure aesthetic genius largely compensate for the moments of tedium. Flawed though it may be, River of Fundament is the most powerful work of visual art to emerge thus far in the new millennium.

1. Angus Cook, Osiris in Detroit, River of Fundament catalogue, (Adelaide Festival 2014) p. 17 
2.  Linda Yablonsky, Art Matters/Sexy Beast, New York Times, February 7, 2014
3. Debbie Cuthbertson, River flows deep with gilt-edged crap, March 4, 2014
4. Matthew Barney in Matthew Westwood, From sex to excrement, a film of extremes, The Australian, February, 27, 2014
5. This obsession with celebrity, with the ‘unreal,’ has been captured competently by Brandon Cronenberg’s film Antiviral (2012) in which the general public can purchase their heroes virus’ and Spike Jonze’s Her (2014) whose protagonist falls in love with the voice of his operating system; a voice without body

By Ashley Crawford

Ashley Crawford

Ashley Crawford is a freelance cultural critic based in Melbourne.