In 2000, Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist, published an article in which he argued for the advent of a new geological epoch in which human beings have become so dominant that they can redirect the course of life on the Earth. Crutzen used the term Anthropocene to characterize this period and his coinage gained considerable traction not only in scientific communities, but also among scholars in humanities and art. Artists who have been interested in the changing ecological and political conditions we are experiencing worldwide, are now using various mediums to reevaluate our relationship to nature from a much more bleak standpoint.
It is not surprising that an artist whose works have often been characterized as “self-enclosed aesthetic system[s]” of growth and demise, has now decided to take up issues more directly related to the environment--this time, from a more politically and perhaps even existentially urgent perspective. Matthew Barney’s 2018 gesamtkunstwerk entitled Redoubt is comprised of a film around which revolve two extensive sets of objects: a) a series of electroplated copper engravings which presented as standalone works of art not made to go under a printing press; and b) a number of large aluminum and copper sculptures created by pouring brass or copper through burned trees salvaged from Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain range. The elegance, and at times even sumptuousness of these works, have little to do with the gooey abject materials used or shown in the artist’s previous works such as his last project, River of Fundament (2014) or his magnum opus, Cremaster (1994–2002). This fact alone may mark a departure from Barney’s established aesthetics.
The film begins with a striking drone shot which descends and closes on a corpse at the center of a horizonless landscape. This spatially disorienting site/sight of annihilation sets the tone of a film which is divided into six episodes or “Hunts”. Interlayered between the environmental politics of his home state of Idaho over wolf hunting and Ovid’s story of Diana and Actaeon, Redoubt narrates a perilous dynamic between the goddess of hunting played by Anette Wachter, who is a member of the U.S. National Rifle Team in real life, and an active of supporter of the NRA; and a ranger/”Engraver” played by Barney himself.
Redoubt progresses toward the final encounter between the two main characters and each episode is partly presaged by Diana’s two assistants or Virgins through dancelike movements that allude to Steve Paxton’s contact improvisation dance. While Redoubt is heavily invested in dance as its primary mode of communication, none of the two main characters actually dance in the film. Instead, the virgins (Eleanor Bauer and Laura Stokes), Engraver’s collaborator (K.J. Holmes) who processes his plates in her trailer; and finally, later on in the film, a native American woman (Sandra Lamouche), do much of the dancing, often to the aural electronic music composed by Barney’s longtime collaborator, Jonathan Bepler.
“Redoubt” refers to a range of survivalist movements usually known as the American Redoubt. One of the leaders of such extremist conservative ideologies, James Wesley Rawles, cites “Réduit Suisse” as a source of inspiration for his call to retreat into the more inaccessible areas of mountain states such Idaho. The patterns of the camouflage clothing worn by the Diana in Redoubt is in fact taken from actual clothing of the preppers who are anticipating the final collapse. The fact that Barney finds unexpected similarities in the rhetoric of doom in both the left and the right, touches on some underlying characteristics that define our contemporary moments which are not being detected by the radar of contemporary politics.
The cast brass and copper trees expand on the arboreal-turned-rhizomic aesthetic that has been at the center of works by Mark Dion (Neukom Vivarium, 2006) or Eija-Liisa Ahtila (Horizontal-Vaakasuora, 2011) in the past few years, with roots that can be traced back to one of Robert Smithson’s “site/non-sites” entitled Dead Tree (1969). Barney’s denaturalization of trees, forces the viewer to see them from an unsettling vantage point within the clinical space of the gallery. What’s more, paper was conspicuously absent in the original presentation of the project at Yale University Art Gallery. Barney, who is an extraordinary drawer, decided not to include paper in his vast repertoire of forms and materials. His use of various mediums continues in the catalogue. Although the book is much more modest than the ostentatious tome which accompanied Cremaster’s 2003 exhibition, Redoubt’s catalogue stands somewhere between a collection of photographs and a scholarly work (as much as, an exhibition catalogue can be).
Barney’s constant preoccupation with questions around processes of growth and cycles of birth and death have now produced one of his most politically topical works in his oeuvre to date. With multiple references to not only the extinction of animals, but also the massacre of native Americans and contemporary gun violence, Barney seems to be targeting and engaging with the outside world in more direct ways than the tortuous metaphorical layerings and foldings he has been usually orchestrating in much of his works so far. This welcome political, but not activist, engagement is the result of a new late-work aesthetics that the artist is developing and can be called, rather oxymoronically, lyrical realism. This should not mean, however, that we can mark a new trajectory in the artist’s oeuvre. At least not until we see his next project.
Kaarnamaa, 2019, “Mathew Barney’s Redoubt,” Accent Wall; A Journal of Art History and Criticism. kaarnamaa.com