Crazy, Sexy, Khu

Linda Yablonsky at Matthew Barney’s “Khu”

Left: Curator Klaus Kertess. Right: Olympia Scarry with curator Neville Wakefield.

THE SIGHT OF a beautiful blonde having sex with a slimy engine block may strike some people as bizarre, and probably it should. But when a Matthew Barney (or a J. G. Ballard) dreams up the scene, it’s not just kinky. It’s mythological. And weird.

And so it went last weekend in Detroit when Barney staged “Khu,” Act Two of Ancient Evenings, the multisite magnum opus he is making with composer Jonathan Bepler in seven different, one-time-only performances. To prepare for this one, Barney’s New York dealer Barbara Gladstone welcomed two hundred art professionals and friends arriving on Friday night to a Slows Bar-B-Q buffet in the Pewabic-tiled and stained-glass lobby of the Art Deco Guardian Building. Due to interminable flight delays, I arrived only in time to say goodnight to lingering hometowners like Detroit Institute of Arts curator Becky Hart, veteran dealer Susanne Hilberry, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit director Luis Croquer, artist Scott Hocking, and art patrons Julie and Bobby Taubman, all of whom were thrilled that “Khu” would take place in their vast backyard.

Next morning, I joined artist Mika Rottenberg and MoMA curator Jenny Schlenzka in a hunt for a cup of joe powerful enough to brace us for what lay ahead. Not that we had any idea what to expect. All we were told was to wear comfortable clothes, to dress in layers, and to leave the fancy shoes at home. We were warned that we might be exposed to unnamed dangers, and also threatened with expulsion if we should arrive at the Detroit Institute of Arts after 11 AM.

Left: Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “Khu,” October 2, 2010. (Photo: Hugo Glendinning.) Right: John Buffalo Mailer.

Naturally, there were stragglers—is this not the art world? The self-entitled make rules of their own. Early birds had the run of one of the finest museums in the country, a revelation to nearly everyone present. The Whitney’s Chrissie Iles could hardly believe she was seeing Cézanne’s The Three Skulls for real instead of the Sherrie Levine version; Clarissa Dalrymple was entranced by a Gustave Moreau. But what caught everyone’s eye were Diego Rivera’s immense Detroit Industry murals in the central atrium, where the group gathered to gawk and schmooze.

From Los Angeles came dealer Shaun Caley Regen, Vogue editor Lisa Love, and Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen. London sent dealer Sadie Coles and artists Gary Hume and Georgie Hopton. Detroiters like College of Creative Studies gallery director Michelle Perron, artist John Corbin, and CCS president Richard Rogers added some local color, but the majority present were New Yorkers: Dia director Philippe Vergne; Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer; art consultants Allan Schwartzman, Mark Fletcher, and Gabriel Catone; Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs; Artists Space director Stefan Kalmar; MoMA associate director Kathy Halbreich; and that ubiquitous multitasker James Franco, without whom no art event can really begin.

Barney’s opera, as Hart called it, is based on Norman Mailer’s nearly unreadable and sometimes obscene 1983 novel of the same name, which involves ancient Egyptian burial practices and the gods Isis and Osiris. In Barney and Bepler’s telling, “Khu” is a crime story featuring the double-amputee athlete Aimee Mullins as an FBI gumshoe named Isis and a 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial as Osiris. (The protagonist-vehicle was dismembered during Act One’s “Ren” two years ago at a bulletproof car dealership outside LA.)

Left: Aimee Mullins as Isis. Right: Artist Matthew Barney.

To move us to the car’s next transformation, Lieutenant John Morello, a Detroit homicide detective, ordered our cell phones off as if we were perps and herded us, like lambs being led to slaughter, to a screening of a short film. In it, Barney drives a golden Pontiac Firebird Trans Am—which emerged from the ashes of the Chrysler in “Ren”—through the guardrail of Detroit’s Belle Isle Bridge. (For the uninitiated, Harry Houdini, Barney’s mentor-by-proxy, also went over the bridge—in a coffin—in 1906, an act Barney invoked at the end of Cremaster 5.)

From there, actors playing stone-faced security guards commanded us to board three chartered buses that drove us in a funereal procession through Detroit to an abandoned glue factory on the Rouge River. Inside, workers assembled fifteen oddly shaped steel viols for as many musicians, who played like droning tone-deaf bees while accompanying Detroit-based soul singer Belita Woods in an aria to the two cars.

Then it was onto the chilly barge where we would spend the next several hours sitting on iron girders with the musicians and a film crew, sailing down the Rouge and Detroit rivers. During that time, it became clear that Barney meant to praise, not to bury, Mailer, Houdini, Rivera, James Lee Byars, Henry Ford, and most of all the architectural splendor, mineral wealth, history, and personality of Detroit, a city with a suppurating soul that is also always in the process of regeneration.

Tugboats carrying a brass section announced our arrival at the riverbank crime scene where Mullins made her entrance and directed the wreck of the Chrysler to be dredged from the deep while assistants wailed like banshees at the muddy sight of it and a helicopter buzzed the barge from above. At about this time, it became clear that we were watching a film shoot while also being in it, a slightly queasy sensation. It was also obvious that this production must have cost Barney a mint.

Left: Matthew Barney with crew. Right: The wreck.

The artist was nowhere in sight—he was directing from a trailer behind two Port-O-Sans—but Björk was there, huddled against the increasing chill in a sleeping-bag coat, the only one aboard dressed for the weather. “I’m from Iceland,” she shrugged. Yet John Buffalo Mailer wore only a light shirt. Wasn’t he cold? “I’m very hairy,” he said.

That’s when it started to rain. Out came the plastic ponchos from our goody bags, and I must say watching this band of elitists don such antifashion statements was pretty sweet. The rest of the sail was a bit grueling, however, so it came as something of a relief when one of the twin baritones playing Set told us to “get the fuck off the boat.”

We had reached an abandoned steel mill where five mountain climbers dressed in gold lamé stood atop five skyscraping silos, an evocation of the Detroit-born Byars, best known for his use of gold leaf in a performance of his death. We followed in procession behind the brown 2001 Ford Crown Victoria carrying Mullins, now “under arrest,” to a platform facing the forbidding mill, where masked workers toiling in a spectacular construction pit were smelting iron in five white-clad furnaces spitting embers into the frigid air.

And there we stood in pelting rain for a back-aching eternity, watching the workers’ repetitive actions, listening to the musicians play their dissonant industrial sounds and the singers shriek, awaiting rapture. Darkness fell, the wind came up, and the temperature dropped, but we stood our ground. At last, something new entered the scene: a dump truck that dropped the Chrysler remains for the workers to feed to the furnaces. Everyone felt it: Something big was about to happen. But nothing did.

Left: Aimee Mullins as Isis. Right: John Buffalo Mailer.

I couldn’t imagine how the Byars figures could remain so stationary in the wind atop their towers, or how the musicians stationed on slag heaps around the pit could keep on playing. My own fingers and feet were numb. Standing near me, Leo Villareal was soaked through and blue with cold, no doubt wishing he was still at Burning Man. Kalmar lit a cigarette, partly for warmth. Mailer looked like a sodden scarecrow.

All of a sudden, rivers of golden lava sluiced through the site, radiating a blessed heat. I heard cheers. But our excitement was very short-lived. Burly guards rushed us off the platform with an urgency that told us danger was near, bringing the performance to an abrupt close before the final scene, when a vulture was to rise from the fire. Apparently water can ignite powerful explosions if it meets molten steel. But wasn’t that the point? To die for art? Oh, well. The whole day was (literally) a blast, anyway.

Exhausted, shivering, and spattered with mud, buffeted by winds that had sent us reeling from the astonishing to the baffling and back again over eight hours of steely endurance art, we clambered onto the buses and drove into the mill, where we became the vultures, diving into bowls of hot chili and rushing the bar. Klaus Biesenbach, the institutional champion of durational performance, bailed early for the Book Cadillac Hotel, Detroit’s finest. When Barney arrived, smiling, Dalrymple told him he had finally gone far enough and that it was time to stop. “No,” she said. “I don’t mean that. Your only hope is never to stop.” He grinned. Five more sections of his giant picture puzzle of the transportation of a soul are yet to come, all to take place in New York. Best not to think about that now. As art advisor Lisa Schiff said, “I feel like we really accomplished something today. Didn’t we?”

Left: Artist Scott Hocking with Detroit Institute of Arts curator Rebecca Hart. Left: MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach with James Franco.

Left: Gladstone Gallery's Rosalie Benitez. Right: Curator Clarissa Dalrymple with dealer Sadie Coles.

Left: Gladstone Gallery's Rosalie Benitez. Right: Curator Clarissa Dalrymple with dealer Sadie Coles.

Left: Vogue's Lisa Love with dealer Shaun Caley Regen. Right: MOCAD director Luis Croquer with Susanne Hilberry Gallery director Hazel Blake.

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “Khu,” October 2, 2010. (Photo: Hugo Glendinning.)

Left: MoMA's Jenny Schlenzka with artist Mika Rottenberg. Right: Gladstone Gallery's Max Falkenstein with dealer Barbara Gladstone. (Except where noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)

Left: Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “Khu,” October 2, 2010. (Photo: Hugo Glendinning.) Right: Björk.