The opening pages of Ovid's Metamorphoses describe a time before the ages of silver, bronze, and iron, when Spring was everlasting and nectar flowed in streams; mankind was "without a law," did right always, and lived contentedly. This was definitely not the times described in Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, the libretto for Matthew Barney's project of the same name, which he has been working on since 2007. We might be wise to take the writer's words with grains of salt, however. The novel, though not without moments of wit and brilliance, is on about the same level as a certain Bangles song we can name, but won't, when it comes to Egyptology. The exhibition of Barney's project avoids being pinned down quite so hard by being 1.) an element of his larger series of performances and installations, and 2.) quite beautiful.
Set in ancient Egypt, Mailer's novel chronicles the seven stages of the soul's progression through death and rebirth according to Egyptian mythology. While Mailer's narrative focuses on the transformation of the human body, Barney enacts the recurring cycles of reincarnation through the use of an automobile, creating a contemporary allegory of death and rebirth within the American industrial landscape. The sculptures on view are both formally and conceptually related to the 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial from Cremaster 3. Revolving around three generations of American automobile design, the Ancient Evenings narrative is rooted in the reincarnation of its leading protagonist, the Chrysler Imperial.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, "DJED" is a monumental cast-iron sculpture that was poured during a live performance of the opera's third act in 2010. The primary form of "DJED" is the undercarriage of the Chrysler Imperial, modified to evoke the pillar-like hieroglyph of the Egyptian god Osiris's power. Osiris was the god of the afterlife, and sculptural representations used an attached beard to represent his appearance. The axles and drive shafts of Barney’s "DJED" (2009-11) allude to this in an oblique, metaphorical way. Similarly, the scatter-sculpture "Sacrificial Anode" (2011) refers both to the way we receive Egyptian art (in pieces) as well as to an understanding of old forms of representing the figure.
Artistic conventions at the time required representing the human body in its most complete form. Ancient Egyptians respected the divinity of each of its individual parts. Egyptian mortuary texts associated portions of the human anatomy with particular deities, and certain amulets and votive offerings to the gods were often created in the shapes of abstracted limbs or organs. Vital organs, such as the brain or heart, were removed at death and embalmed separately to ensure their function in the afterlife, and replicas were occasionally provided in their place to guarantee the deceased's spiritual abode.
The British sculptor Henry Moore once noted, "Size and monumentality are not the same thing. What I found in Egyptian [art] was a monumentality of vision." In spite of the grandiosity of the Sphinx and pyramids, Egyptians highly regarded detail in art and short stature in physique as hallmarks of divinity. They associated the physical characteristics of achondroplasia (a form of dwarfism) with the sun-god Re. Myths told how Re died every evening as the sun set and was reborn every morning -- reincarnated as a preternaturally wise child-god.
In many ways Barney's projects have been focused on this sense of death and resurrection all along. What is of interest in this new cycle of performative works is how he transforms the contingent nature of the performances (the two I have seen have both involved rain and things that didn't work properly) into sculptural works of subtle monumentality. In some ways Barney follows in the tradition of Joseph Beuys, whose sculptural works also carried a great deal more metaphorical weight than his performances. - Bradley Rubenstein
The Gladstone Gallery is at 530 West 21st Street in New York, New York.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.