Artist Matthew Barney’s latest work enriched by Yale experience
While developing his latest exhibition, “Redoubt,” renowned artist Matthew Barney ’89 B.A. came to Yale several times to explore the university’s collections and consult with faculty about his ideas for the multi-faceted project that explores themes as varied as classical mythology, ecology, art history, alchemy, and humanity’s place in the natural world.
“This project led me through several different lines of inquiry — American landscape painting, the history of electroplating and copper plate printmaking, wildlife ecology, forestry, dance, etc.,” Barney said. “Working with a university presented the opportunity to follow those different directions and encounter a broader community of researchers and scholars who had expertise in something other than contemporary art. In developing the exhibition and the book at Yale, I was able to engage the many layers that interested me in the ‘Redoubt’ material.”
The exhibition, “Matthew Barney: Redoubt,” opens at the Yale University Art Gallery on March 1. The project consists of a feature-length film, four monumental sculptures, engravings, and electroplated copper plates. An artist-conceived catalogue composed of essays by leading scholars of art history, dance theory, and environmental studies complements the show. “Redoubt” is Barney’s first major exhibition at his alma mater and his first solo museum exhibition in the United States since his work “River of Fundament” was presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2015-16. The show will be on view through June 16 before moving on to Beijing and London.
The film, which was shot in Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley and the Salmon Challis National Forest, traces a wolf hunt over seven days and nights in the rugged wintry landscape. Entwining themes of the hunt, mythology, and artistic creation, the film loosely adapts the myth of Diana, goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon, a hunter who intrudes on the goddess’s privacy and incurs her wrath. Diana is portrayed as a modern-day markswoman with an impressive arsenal. She serves as the protector of the natural world and a predator roaming within it.
Pamela Franks, the art gallery’s former senior deputy director and Seymour H. Knox, Jr., Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, said one of the most exciting aspects of curating the exhibition was reintroducing Barney to campus and facilitating connections with faculty based on the artist’s wide-ranging intellectual interests.
“The university community enthusiastically embraced the project, and I think that Matthew would agree that its engagement enriched ‘Redoubt’ in compelling and unexpected ways,” said Franks, now the Class of 1956 Director of the Williams College Museum of Art.
For example, Barney met with David Skelly, director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Skelly, the Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology, introduced the artist to Arthur Middleton ’07 M.E.M, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, who contributed an essay to the show’s catalogue.
The catalogue’s opening essay, “The Relation of Forests and Forest Fires,” was first published in 1899 and is by Gifford Pinchot 1889 B.A., 1925 LL.D., founder of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Several scenes in the film are set in a burned forest and charred trees provided the basis for the exhibition’s four colossal sculptures, which Barney created by hollowing out trees harvested from the Sawtooth Valley and pouring molten copper and brass into them.
“When I set out to make a book about the project, I wanted it to deal with the many different narrative and contextual threads that run through the film. Rather than feature a series of art essays, I hoped to engage different disciplines at Yale, including forestry,” Barney said. “I knew that I wanted to include an essay on forest fires in the book, but because the topic is so politically divisive, the contemporary essays I read felt too narrow and specific. I came across the Pinchot essay during research and I liked the point that it made — that forest fires are both damaging and regenerative — but also I thought that opening with a historical piece set a more contemplative tone for the book.”
In conducting his research, Barney toured the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the ruins of New Haven’s Winchester Arms Factory; explored the Peabody Museum’s collections; and visited the Payne Whitney Gymnasium to find the site of a performance piece he staged as an undergraduate. He also visited the art gallery, where he encountered “Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail,” the grand 1873 landscape painting by Albert Bierstadt of the famous valley bathed in warm, golden light, which anchored a 2016 exhibition on Yosemite at the museum.
Barney discussed Bierstadt’s work with Mark D. Mitchell, the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, who had organized the Yosemite show.
“The tradition of American landscape painting was always part of the research for the ‘Redoubt’ project,” Barney said. “The particular relationship that those paintings have to ideas of frontier, and the difference between American and European landscape traditions, posed a visual riddle that the film tried to answer.”
The characters in “Redoubt” quietly traverse the Sawtooth Valley’s majestic landscape. Two attendants, the Calling Virgin and the Tracking Virgin, accompany Diana on her hunt. The Engraver, played by Barney, chances upon the hunting party while making a copper engraving of the scenery. He begins stalking the goddess and attempts to document her hunt through his engravings, but his curiosity draws Diana’s ire. The film is without dialogue; dance is often the primary mode of communication.
The film features visually striking images of the mountainous landscape and wildlife — eagles, owls, elk, cougars, and wolves — in their natural habitat. Capturing these natural elements was worth the physical and logistical demands of shooting amid waist-deep snowdrifts in frigid weather, Barney said.
“When we set out to make ‘Redoubt,’ I wanted it to adhere as closely to the experience of a wilderness hunt as possible,” he said. “The conditions were challenging for the cast and crew, but over the weeks spent in these wilderness areas, there were opportunities to document some encounters with animals that felt very direct.”
Dance is key to the film’s narrative. Barney collaborated with choreographer Eleanor Bauer, who plays one of Diana’s attendants. A pivotal sequence toward the film’s end features two notable pieces of choreography. One shows Bauer’s character, the Calling Virgin, scaling the trunk of a towering tree with a rope. At one point, she stretches her body off of a broken limb parallel to the ground against a backdrop of pine forest and snow-covered peaks. In the other, indigenous contemporary dancer Sandra Lamouche performs a Native American hoop dance.
“Sandra, who is Bigstone Cree, had posted some videos online that I saw, and I read about her background as a performer and choreographer of both contemporary and indigenous dance, which Eleanor and I both felt was important,” Barney said in an interview with Franks published in the art gallery’s spring 2019 magazine. “Sandra’s specialty is the hoop dance, a relatively recent powwow form that is a tradition of many different tribes. We were eager to work with her on a choreography that brings the hoop dance into dialogue with some of the other movement-based sequences in the film.”
A sixth character, the Electroplater, treats the Engraver’s copper plates in an electro-chemical bath, which changes their appearance. The character also communicates through dance.
“I wanted ‘Redoubt’ to function within the tradition of the Cosmic Hunt family of myths. In these myths, the hunter is killed and then transported into the cosmos as a constellation.” Barney told Franks. “The Electroplater takes the Engraver’s plates and transforms them, electrochemically, elevating them through her process of abstraction. Her choreography is organized both by gestures of conductivity between the ground and the sky and by reinterpreting the gestures made by other characters throughout the narrative.”
The copper engravings and electroplates are on view in the exhibition.
For a full list of related programming, including screenings of the film, please visit the gallery’s events calendar.