AO On Site with photoset – New York: Opening of Matthew Barney ‘DJED’ at Gladstone Gallery through October 22, 2011

October 6th, 2011

All photos on site for Art Observed by Jen Lindblad, unless otherwise noted.

Twenty-five tons of copper, bronze, iron, and lead cover the floors of Barbara Gladstone Gallery, enveloping visitors in an industrial post-apocalyptic landscape. The subject is ancient Egyptian mythology, by way of Detroit, and it is Matthew Barney‘s new endeavor. Manifested in the form of large scale sculptures and accompanying preparatory drawings, the exhibition, DJED, is part of the artist’s new project Ancient Evenings, in progress since 2007. It marks a departure from Barney’s usually gelatinous media—thermoplastic, tapioca, and petroleum jelly—in favor of traditional industrial metals. On the opening night, visitors flocked to the gallery to see the artist’s newest spectacle, forming a queue that reached halfway down the block.

More text and images after the jump…

Installation view, via Gladstone.

Known for his bizarre video series The Cremaster Cycle, Barney is debuting new work of equally mythical proportions. The first puzzle to untangle in Barney’s new installation is the title. Djed refers to an ancient Egyptian symbol signifying stability. According to the British Museum, the djed takes the form of a pillar, and is said to represent the backbone of Osiris. Djed is also linked to the Sumerian concept of temen, meaning house or temple. Temen is often taken to refer to an axis mundi connecting earth to heaven. In Barney’s case, djed most likely refers to a mythological world axis. Whether the artist intends the connection to be tenuous, or charmingly mistakes viewers’ thorough knowledge of the reference, is unclear.

Ancient Egyptian turquoise djed pillar amulet, image © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Secondly, it might help to know that much of the sculpture is based on the myth of Isis and Osiris, the incestuous brother and sister deities who conceived Horus. According to myth, this occurred after Osiris was executed by Set (the god of destruction) and reincarnated through the efforts of Isis. This drama plays itself out in the form of a CSI-style film Barney created in collaboration with composer Jonathan Bepler; it is just one of the many iterations of the project.

In fact, Norman Mailer was the inspiration for the entire project. A well-known and beloved novelist, poet, playwright, and director, Mailer was good friends with Barney. Parts of Cremaster were based on his 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Executioner’s Song; it was only fitting that he should play Harry Houdini in Barney’s Cycle series. Near to the end of his life, Mailer approached Barney with Ancient Evenings (published in 1983), and when the writer passed away in 2007 it prompted Barney to commit himself to the text, which is often hailed as largely unreadable due to its complexity. Taking place in ancient Egypt, Ancient Evenings delineates ancient Egyptian notions of the seven stages of the soul’s progression, from a single-person narrative. Building on these themes, Barney chose to leave the body and use the automobile as the icon of transformation and reincarnation, creating what the exhibition’s press release calls “a contemporary allegory [...] within the American industrial landscape.” The 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial that made its debut in Cremaster 3 is now the basis (and source material) for the artist’s new installation; melted and splayed out all over the gallery’s floors, the iconic automobile becomes the protagonist.

Preparatory drawing for DJED, 2009-2011.  Image via Gladstone.

The third aspect of decoding the exhibition is understanding that it is just a part of a whole, much larger, project entitled Ancient Evenings. According to the exhibition’s press release, Ancient Evenings was “conceived as a multi-part, site-specific opera [...] loosely based on Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel of the same title.”

Act I was REN, which, as Linda Yablonsky explains, “was set in a car dealership fabricated outside Los Angeles.” The central scene of the video piece featured “the ravishing of the already totaled Chrysler by a 20-ton excavator outfitted with a lethal rotating blade. That’s when the golden Firebird made its appearance and descended to the netherworld, a dusty body shop behind the ruined showroom.” Act II was SEKHEM, in which, as Yablonsky narrates, “Barney dressed as the late James Lee Byars, a Detroit-born artist known for staging his death in a golden room, and drove the Firebird over the Belle Isle Bridge while sealed in the car.” This is the same bridge over which Houdini once jumped in shackles, circling back to some of Barney’s previous themes. “Reincarnations, secret names and arcane rituals all play a part in that series — everything’s connected,” Yablonsky writes.

The third installment, KHU, took place in October of last year. Although he missed the performance, Jerry Saltz describes the event as “a sprawling, multi-sited, outdoor, all-day performance Barney staged in Detroit at who knows what astronomical cost for a hand-picked audience of around 200. Detroit was the perfect setting for this tale of woe and reincarnation, an economic and spiritual city of the dead and would-be rebirth. It also rained heavily that day, and Barney’s performance included a freezing barge ride down the Detroit River, where the audience witnessed, among other things, a crane dredging up a 1967 Chrysler Imperial. There was also actress-athlete Aimee Mullins as Egyptian goddess Isis seated semi-naked on an engine block filled with live, writhing snakes. In the spectacular finale, five enormous customized furnaces poured molten metal, including parts of the Imperial, into a fiery casting pit that drained into a mold of a massive Egyptian Djed, an ancient symbol associated with Osiris, whose own body was cut up into pieces before it was retrieved and reassembled.” A full account of this event is published by Art Practical.

Performance stills from Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler’s KHU (2010). Image via Art Practical.

Performance stills from Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler’s KHU (2010). Image via Art Practical.

Upon entering DJED, viewers are first greeted by Canopic Chest, which represents some kind of burial rite. Canopus was an ancient Egyptian coastal town, and the city gives its name to canopic jars, the alabaster containers used during the mummification process in order to preserve organs of the dead for their journey into the afterlife. In Barney’s version, the organs are car parts: a gleaming golden crowbar represents the Egyptian symbol of power, a scepter.

Detail, Canopic Chest, 2009-2011.  Image via Gladstone.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is an enormous iron sculpture that was poured during the aforementioned live performance of the third act of the opera (KHU, 2010). This piece is the one that gives its name to the exhibition.

DJED, 2009-2011.  Image via Gladstone.

In the upstairs gallery is Sacrificial Anode. The second part of the title refers to an electrode through which electric currents flow into a polarized electrical device. The balancing act—of swords? tools?—does nothing to elucidate the connection.

Sacrificial Anode, 2011. Cast zinc and high density polyethylene. Image via Gladstone.

Also on the upstairs level is Secret Name, which reads somewhat like a discarded chunk of a Norwegian icebreaker. The title refers to the car’s insignia, which was removed, although the area remains visible to curious viewers willing to crouch. An enchanting corroded texture covers what Yablonsky coins “the eaten-away sarcophagus,” as a rope snakes across the floor like a strange umbilical cord. It is the gem of the exhibition; Saltz calls it “an island of meaning unto itself.”

Secret Name, 2008/2011. Cast lead, polycaprolactone, copper and zinc.

Encircling the sculptures are what Saltz calls “twelve wonderful Giacometti–meets–northern Renaissance little drawings.” Drawn on blood-red paper, the sketches provide insight into Barney’s Boschian world of myth and narrative.

Although the exhibition is replete with recondite references, it may not be necessary to have the entire backstory to get a handle on the exhibition. As Yablonsky said in her review, “The sculptures are so evocative of death and transformation that viewers can fill in their own blanks. After all, part of the fun of engaging with Barney’s art is working out the arcane symbolism in the elaborate puzzles he constructs. This one is just more complicated, and enduring, than ever.”

And what of Barney’s previous work in video? Does this exhibition mark a new, more traditional, direction for the artist? Howard Hurst summed it up nicely when he wrote, “Though he is a performer and video artist, its perhaps easiest to think of him as a sculptor obsessed with controlling and inventing his own context.” Jerry Saltz concurred, writing, “Barney is first and last a sculptor, a maker, who uses narrative, myth, architecture, biology, pageantry, history, geography, geology, music, mayhem, and video to create a palpable sculptural universe [...] This is Barney basic, the artist he really is and, I think, has been beneath the trappings all along.”

Matthew Barney was born in San Francisco in 1967 and lives and works in NewYork. Solo exhibitions include “The Cremaster Cycle,” organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, which traveled to Museum Ludwig, Cologne and Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; “Drawing Restraint,” organized by the 21st Century Museum for Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan, which traveled to Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Serpentine Gallery, London; and Kunsthalle Vienna. Barney is the recipient of numerous awards including the Aperto prize at the 1993 Venice Biennale; the Hugo Boss Award in 1996; the 2007 Kaiser Ring Award in Goslar, Germany and the San Francisco International Film Festival’s Persistence of Vision Award in 2011.

Barbara Gladstone Gallery is located on 530 West 21st St. and the exhibition is on view through October 22, 2011.

Installation view, image via Gladstone.

Detail, Sacrificial Anode, 2011. Cast zinc and high density polyethylene.  Image via Gladstone.

DJED, 2009-2011. Cast iron and graphite block. Image via Gladstone.

Canopic Chest, 2009-2011. Cast bronze. Image via Gladstone.

Detail, Secret Name, 2008/2011.  Image via Gladstone.

Detail, Secret Name, 2008/2011.  Image via Gladstone.

Detail, Canopic Chest, 2009-2011. Image via Gladstone.

Detail, DJED, 2009-2011. Image via Gladstone.

DJED, 2009-2011.  Image via Gladstone.

DJED, 2009-2011.  Image via Gladstone.

The crowd outside Gladstone Gallery at the opening on September 17th.

– J. Lindblad

Related Links:

Exhibition Site [Gladstone]
Artifacts: Matthew Barney [NYT]
Imported from Detroit [NY Mag]
Show & Tell: Matthew Barney’s Egyptian Sculptures at Gladstone Gallery [ArtInfo]
Forged in myth [Financial Times]
DJED at Gladstone Gallery [NY Observer]
Matthew Barney Takes Manhattan [NY Observer]
Mythic Proportions [Art Practical]
Greek Mythology [Artforum]
The Grand Tourist [NY Observer]
DJED: Matthew Barney x The Remains of 1967 Chrysler Imperial [Financial Times]