Ren Faire

Linda Yablonsky on Matthew Barney's Ren

Los Angeles

Left: Writer John Mailer with artist Matthew Barney. Right: The Chrysler storefront. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

Process art was alive and kicking last Sunday, when Regen Projects in Los Angeles had no trouble persuading over six hundred art-worlders to a baking-hot spot an hour south of town to be extras in the filming of Ren, the first of a series of unique performances to be staged by Matthew Barney and his longtime collaborator, composer Jonathan Bepler. A funeral rite with an origin-of-the-world soul, the work is based on Ancient Evenings, a book by Barney hero Norman Mailer that riffs on the seven stages of the afterlife as imagined by the ancient Egyptians. Mailer took a trip down the Nile. Barney chose to turn a former RV sales lot just off the I-5 into an eerily authentic Chrysler dealership complete with bunting, balloons, a hundred new Chargers, Rams, and Sebrings bearing “Ren 5-Star Chrysler” stickers, and a convincingly coiffed sales force of a half-dozen suited men who nonetheless had a hard time finding buyers. “There aren’t any Hemis,” explained artist attendee Billy Sullivan, easily slipping into unscripted character.

On the roof of the building, three mobile snack trucks parked in a semicircle on the roof of the building sold water and energy drinks to the friends from the Left and Right coasts. Most would have preferred something harder. Aside from Barney reps Barbara Gladstone, Shaun Caley Regen, and Sadie Coles, the crowd included artists Mike Kelley, Shannon Ebner, Raymond Pettibon, Doug Aitken, Amy Adler, and Jack Pierson, dealers Jose Freire and Tim Blum, LACMA director Michael Govan, and curators Paul Schimmel, Ali Subotnick, Clarissa Dalrymple, and Klaus Kertess. (Collectors were conspicuously absent.)

Those expecting entertainment were destined for disappointment. For the ninety minutes it took Barney’s cast and crew of 140 to position themselves for what turned out to be the equivalent of shooting a feature-length, multicamera film shot in one amazingly well-coordinated, continuous take, more tolerant veterans of the avant-garde expertly occupied themselves by doing what they know best: schmoozing. “I hear we're going to see locusts and bison,” one woman said. “We can always leave early,” someone else chimed in. This amounted to an idle threat.

The performance officially began at 6:40 PM, when a drum-and-bugle corps approached the car lot from surrounding roads and sprinted up the ramp to the roof, playing Bepler's percussive music. With the audience lined up on either side, the trucks parted to reveal a lime-green 1967 Chrysler Imperial with a Barney seal (both familiar from Cremaster 3) on the hood and a large, eggshell-white orb covered in dirt and roots on the back, chained to a smashed-up Port-a-San. Cremaster 3 star Aimee Mullins, who plays The Entered Novitiate, was interred on the roof, under a mound of rock salt and Idaho potatoes.

Left: A view of Matthew Barney's Ren. Right: Truly Hall and artist Mike Kelley.

Though just a hop and a skip from the freeway, we were now deep in Barneyland—a landscape of the risible and the awesome. A salesman-actor appeared to intone a nearly unintelligible monologue involving piss, feces, mud, gas, and other typical Mailerisms, like “Isn't time itself born in shit?” Led by the musicians, a thick complement of burly men accompanying the car began to pull it down the ramp like Volga Boatmen, while all six hundred of us followed them into the showroom below. This took about an hour. No one bailed.

The two-story showroom had double-paned glass on three sides; parked in its center was a gold Pontiac Firebird with its windows blacked out. Interspersed among the spectators, the musicians carried on while the Pontiac drove out and was replaced by the Chrylser. From under the hood came plumes of smoke, cuing the great Oaxacan singer Lila Downs to appear with a mariachi band on the balcony above to perform a haunting dirge. When they were done, the salesmen thanked us for our “business” and asked us to leave so they could clear the smoke. (Mullins was also carried out.)

As a nearly full moon rose above, an interior garage door opened and out came a front loader with a big steel wheel attached to its crane. Six hundred noses pressed against the windowpanes, only to be repelled by the smack of debris thrown by the carnal wheel as the machine tore at the car like a mad, lustful dog humping and grinding its prey. It took about thirty minutes to exhaust itself in the most erotic machine-sex act in recent memory.

Of course, any live performance comes with risks. The front loader’s passion shattered a pane of the exterior glass, which caused three people to suffer minor injuries and firemen and EMS technicians to make an unexpected (if necessary) appearance. The accident temporarily delayed our steady descent into a “tomb,” actually a garage of football-field length. There, the Firebird, now bearing Mullins, was parked between two long rows of Chryslers in need of service. Mouse, the British performance artist, was standing naked at the center, leaning on one of Barney's signature white resin canes and holding a white snorkel-like thing that was sticking out of her vagina.

Left: Artist Paul McCarthy. Right: Dealer Emi Fontana with LA MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel.

I found myself standing next to Paul McCarthy, an artist who has played with his share of simulated bodily effluents. He watched, fascinated, as Lila Downs reappeared to sing another dirge, a cappella, and one of the dealership's “mechanics” reached up between Mouse's legs to draw out a long piece of black plastic turd. With majestic patience, the mechanic and his cohorts slowly unfolded it into a large shroud that they placed over Mullins—and the performance ended in a blackout.

Because this was only one of seven distinct performances that, a few years from now, may cohere into a single vision, it felt too soon to judge the whole as anything but a mystery wrapped around a particularly sociable enigma. All the same, I asked McCarthy where this stood on his performance meter. “I haven't any idea!” he said, shaking his head. “I think I was standing in the wrong spot.” I recalled John Cage's aphorism—that everyone is always in the best seat. “That's right,” McCarthy said. “All you have to do is pay attention.”

His words were still ringing in my ears when I arrived at a dive karaoke bar called Bobo's Cocktail Lounge for the afterparty, feeling less than alert. After all those hours in Barney's “cauldron of emotion,” to borrow a phrase from Ren, I eagerly joined the hundred ravenous people who were lunging, like Barney's sex-crazed Terminator, for the free drinks and take-out chicken, ceviche, guacamole, and chips laid out on picnic tables out back, opposite a supermarket parking lot. The artist himself arrived late, with a smiling but pale Mullins, who had fainted when the crew took her down from her automotive pyre. Barney was ebullient, relieved that most of the accidents had been lucky. “There's a lot of new faces in here,” observed a karaoke singer, one of Bobo’s regulars. “It must be someone's birthday."

Left: Artist Raymond Pettibon with dealer Shaun Caley Regen. Right: Artists Adam McEwen and Jack Pierson.

Left: Artist Amy Adler. Right: Gagosian's Louise Neri with artist Ari Marcopoulos.

Left: Curator Neville Wakefield with photographer Matthias Vriens. Right: Artist Glenn Ligon.

Left: Artist Ron Athey. Right: Writer Bill Powers.

Left: Artist Shannon Ebner. Right: Architect Michael Maltzan.

Left: Performer Allan Louis. Right: LACMA curator Carol S. Eliel with LACMA director Michael Govan and LACMA curator Lynn Zelevansky.

Left: Artist Liz Craft. Right: A view of Matthew Barney's Ren.