Society and spectacle

Sketches from the making of Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler's 'Khu'

In case you hadn't heard, Matthew Barney has created of some of the most visually stunning and intellectually challenging art of the last few decades, including his major works, The Cremaster Cycle, and the Drawing Restraint Series. Both creations are mixtures of filmmaking, live filmed performance art and collaborations with such composer as Jonathan Bepler and Bjork. Within the films you'll find sculptures and costumes created by Barney and his team, each a separate artwork of its own: petroleum jelly casts, arena-sized salt installations, hand-blown glass corsets and so on.

One of a few contemporary artists to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, Barney seems to pick up with film where James Joyce left off with literature, deftly combining myriad disparate images and visual allusions to tell stories in an attempt to engage his audience in a deeper and more direct way than simple dialogue. He stages his films to focus on processes, orchestrating the biggest set pieces as experiences of live art that can stand on their own as art performances.

And it's eclectic stuff. In a single frame of Barney's latest film, the audience will see visual language that refers to ancient Egyptian mythology, the life of Harry Houdini, the performance art of Detroit native James Lee Byars, the history of U.S. auto manufacturing, and the geology of southeastern Michigan.

In fact, Matthew Barney has just spent the past two years in Detroit working on Ancient Evenings' second act, "Khu," a collaboration with composer Jonathon Bepler. Given Barney's longtime commitment to "using landscape as character or architecture as character as much as humans as character" (he says as much in the 2006 documentary Matthew Barney: No Restraint), he has tried to bring together historical, musical, geological and performative elements of our city as no other artist has.

The film

Khu is the second of a seven-part series based on Norman Mailer's 1983 novel, Ancient Evenings. The seven pieces of Barney and Bepler's film version refer to the seven stages of the soul's departure from the deceased body in Egyptian mythology. In Mailer's novel, Menenhetet I (the main character) passes through all these stages and is reincarnated twice in the process. Mythologically speaking, Khu is "the light leaving the body."

Typical of Barney's work, he portrays the thrice-living Menenhetet I as one character — a car — manifested in three bodies: a 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial, a 1979 Pontiac Trans Am Firebird and a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. The "Khu" episode will be the only one of the seven parts to feature all three cars.

"Khu" combines both traditional filmmaking — in the form of a delicately composed "prologue" — with a gargantuan live performance. The prologue establishes elements of the story — the tragedy of Osiris, Isis and Set modernized as a CSI- style crime drama. Beautiful shots of the Zug Island skyline and the wastewater treatment plant on the Rouge River close in on the "crime scene" — inside a church with the body of a car wrapped in mortuary-like plastic. Barney — as the embodiment of Osiris, Houdini and artist James Lee Byars — is seemingly embalmed in a gold straitjacket, within an ambulance whose interior is all in gold leaf. A detailed investigation commences, culminating in Barney racing through Detroit — alone, blindfolded and straitjacketed — in the 1979 Pontiac Firebird. Finally, the car rockets through a guardrail on the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle and sinks slowly into the water.

The show goes on

On Oct. 2, after screening the "prologue," the 200 spectators — including artists, gallerists, musicians, and laborers — make their way to an empty glue factory on the Rouge River, to see what the DIA's associate curator Becky Hart says will be "performance art."

"It will become a film, she says. "What we don't know is what he is going to do with Ancient Evenings. We don't know if this is going to be a series of films or a single film. Anyone who was there knows that they were a part of something so much bigger than what anyone of us was or could be."

At the vacant factory, things begin with Detroiter Belita Woods, a contributor to Parliament-Funkadelic among many other projects on her résumé — sang an aria that, like the rest of the libretto, was adapted from the ancient Egyptian funerary text, the Book of the Dead.

O D., as you are endowed with life, bring me this, for see, I have come.
Do you know those two rivers, Magic Man?
I know them.
What are those two rivers, Magic Man?
They are the Rouge and the Detroit, or so I believe.

Her vocals are accompanied by a section of "metalins" — viola-like instruments cut from metal and played with copper bows. The group moves next onto a huge barge where a 1967 Chrysler Imperial is dragged out of the water as the body of Osiris, and mourned by paralympic athlete and actress Aimee Mullins, playing the role of Osiris' sister Isis. The audience peers on as the engine block is removed from the car's battered remains, revealing a nest of live snakes. The performance climaxes with the incestuous Isis mounting the engine block. Further up river, Isis joins Nepthys — played by Jennie Knaggs of local groups Lac La Belle and I, Crime — to confront their brother Set (played by twin opera stars Eugene F. Perry and Herbert Perry) about Osiris' murder on the Detroit steel docks as the barge arrives.

The piece concludes with a sort of funeral pyre as the body of Osiris — the Crown Imperial — is dropped into the Detroit Steel casting pit. To date, this performance represents the largest non-industrial iron smelt in world history. Twenty-five tons of liquid iron pour forth from five towering smelters, and five rivers of molten metal run into a mold of an ancient Egyptian ceremonial object, a djed. Meanwhile, five gold-jacketed figures (resembling James Lee Byars) cast gold dust into the winds. The whole performance is accompanied by live orchestral accompaniment. Leaving no creative stone unturned, the orchestra consists of a combination of singers, saxophones, instruments invented by Barney and Bepler — such as "the long strings" (also dubbed "land harps"), 250-foot metal wires, bowed and strummed — and the percussive thumping of machinery, among other noises. This is high opera indeed, and you could describe this spectacle with the Wagnerian term gesamtkunstwerk — "total art work" — and not overreach.

Interpreting 'Khu'

In addition to the obvious logistical and technical complexities of pulling off synchronized smelting, keeping barges on schedule and properly placing mics on a 250-foot instrument, for instance, Barney is able to weave similarly complex visual and historical depth to the characters and story.

Actress and singer Jennie Knaggs describes the anthropomorphization of Barney's nonhuman characters. "One day, I was working with Aimee and Belita, and, before us is a melted-down, beat-up car lying prostate on the barge. We are wailing and sobbing; in the story, it's so meaningful that it became real to us. We see the vehicle not as a machine but as a character — as a person. I don't know if, when the audience sees that, they will see a car. But I think because of how we felt when we were performing and how passionate we were, it was very honest for us, and I would hope that comes across to the audience as more than just a visual. They're not just objects. There's a lot of depth to the story."

Barney uses the story of Osiris to describe Menenhetet's light leaving the car body, or the "Khu." To build the Osiris character, he then dresses him up in metaphor — as two characters from Detroit's history: James Lee Byars and Harry Houdini.

MOCAD Director Luis Croquer describes the great Houdini as "a kind of cryptic character, an escape artist you never really get to know." Houdini came to Detroit twice in his life. The first time, in 1906, he jumped off the Belle Isle Bridge handcuffed. Under the frigid waters, he escaped from his shackles, emerged and climbed onto a waiting barge, triumphant. He returned to Detroit in 1926, already suffering from a an inflamed appendix and peritonitis, and died on Halloween. (Barney has represented Houdini previously in his work; interestingly, Houdini appears as a character in Barney's Cremaster 2, played by Norman Mailer himself.)

Osiris, as king of the underworld and the representation of death in ancient Egypt, is an escape artist as well. Trapped in a box by his brother set and tossed in the Nile to die, he was resurrected by his sister Isis. Houdini's escape from the Detroit River is a marvelous parallel.

As for James Lee Byars, he was a performance-installation artist born in Detroit in 1932, who died in Cairo, Egypt, in 1997. MOCAD's Croquer has researched Byars extensively.

"Byars was a very well-known artist who was very unknown as well," Croquer says, "I think in part because he's a very difficult artist. His work requires a lot of surrender from the audience; you're left with more questions than answers. In a period when performance was believed to something that was mostly encapsulated in the body, Byars was doing something more theatrical — something that had to do a lot with the response of the audience to art, and a lot with hybridizing what an art event was. Often, he did things that were meaningless and became important as a result. He utilized disguise to remove himself from his pieces and remain present, a way of being there and not being there. Toward the end of his life, he often performed in the gold suit, which appears in the Barney performance, and in the black hat and blindfold that appear in bits of 'Khu.'

"I think that his work had moved into a mythological part toward the end of his life. He was always looking for things that were intangible, and I think Egypt is a great place of mystery. The connection [to Mailer and Barney] is not random. His pieces often had references to an ancient culture."

One of Byars' most famous pieces, "The Death of James Lee Byars," features the artist dressed in the gold suit, black hat and blindfold, lying in a gold-leafed interior as if dead. This, of course, has obvious parallels to Osiris' entombment, Barney's gold-leafed ambulance, and Houdini's death-cheating performances. In fusing them together, Barney not only enriches the visuals of his work, but strengthens their connection to the place, Detroit, which can be considered to be the major nonhuman character in the work.

DIA curator Hart explains, "Matthew also has this uncanny way of figuring out what makes local color, and who are the primary actors. Jonathon Bepler had a lot to do with this as well."

Knaggs adds, "Matthew worked hard to hire local musicians, and many of the technical jobs are done by local people as well."

All the people who were interviewed for this piece — curators, actors, artists, interns and metal workers — noted Barney and Bepler's collaborative openness.

Knaggs continues, "It wasn't like rehearsing something just for someone else. Both Matthew and Jonathan and everyone involved were very good at keeping everyone as individuals and were very open to ideas. As a result, performers really took ownership of what they did because it was just as much their own creation as it was Matthew and Jonathan's."

The creative duo chose Knaggs for the role of Nephthys — sister of Osiris and Isis reimagined as an FBI agent — based on her talents.

"Both Jonathan and Matthew were interested in my folk background in yodeling and hollering," Knaggs says. "Jonathan is really good at using the talent around him and composing based on that. He worked with us to create our own musical language. We invented our own repertoire of what the music should be like. It was a mix of us improvising and him conducting that became the solid form of the piece.

"I don't know if I have a clear definition of the musical genre — which is what I really liked about my experience. There are few pieces that demand things outside of their own genre. Traditionally, you don't work on a classical piece and throw a yodel in it, and you don't sing a Carter Family song and put in operatic trills. I was working on combining several schools of thought in what I was singing and really focusing on the story and what it should sound like to express the story."

Along with the trans-genre singing, the unique orchestration will create a musical fabric for the piece every bit as unique and engaging as the visuals. Daniel Roberts, an MFA sculpture student at Cranbrook and an intern for 'Khu,' describes the "long strings": "There were giant strings, 250 feet long, strung up from the towers of air heating the furnaces. They were being plucked and played with a bow. From time to time, cymbals [the strings were threaded through their center holes] were dropped down." The sound also seemed to be run through a delay to create deep resonances. These instruments not only provided a truly unique auditory experience but lent themselves to the majestic visual scale of the performance as well.

Meaning and marvel

No one knows when the finished "Khu" will come to light, nor does anyone yet have an idea exactly what Barney will be saying with the Ancient Evenings piece. Croquer contextualizes the work within art history by simply saying, "There are things that become loved without being understood. Consider ancient pieces: Most people don't know the significance of the "Winged Victory of Samothrace," but they know well the sculpture [popularly titled "Winged Victory" at the Louvre]. Maybe it had a function then, but now it's just beautiful. Maybe it lost its function along the way, but certainly with things that are being created now, the meanings are constantly shifting, especially with people who have very complex references."

However it works out, with "Khu," Detroiters will have the pleasure of enjoying more than just the film's beauty, but also the depths of it connections to us and our history, however unusually it has been reinterpreted.

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