Critics’ Picks

View of “Matthew Barney,” 2010.

View of “Matthew Barney,” 2010.


Matthew Barney

Sadie Coles HQ | Balfour Mews
9 Balfour Mews
January 27–March 6, 2010

Norman Mailer’s writings were a linchpin for Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle, 1995–2002. Now, Barney has returned to the late author’s work, transforming Mailer’s version of ancient Egypt, as imagined in his much-maligned 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, into an alchemical vision of modern-day Detroit.

This exhibition includes several vitrines filled with storyboards for past and future Barney performances, which are structured around an ancient Egyptian belief that the soul passes through seven stages after death. The storyboards are full of references to Mailer and Motor City, as are the drawings and sculptures that make up the rest of the show. For example, there are broken badges from Chrysler Imperials and toy Pontiac Firebirds, alongside worn paperback copies of Ancient Evenings and portraits of Mailer emblazoned with gold and silver phoenixes. Mailer’s mentor Ernest Hemingway, who spent numerous summers in Michigan, features prominently, too—in photos, and more morbidly, in references to his shotgun suicide. Mailer’s link to Detroit isn’t immediately clear, though one possible tie can be found in Barney’s film Cremaster 2, 1999, in which Mailer plays the escapologist Harry Houdini (Houdini died in Detroit on Halloween of 1926). Barney also adds another Michigan specter to his masculine cosmology here—the late performance artist and Detroit native James Lee Byars. Byars takes several forms throughout the exhibition, fulfilling a role similar to that of Richard Serra in Cremaster 3, 2002: that of a pastiche “father” whom Barney simultaneously embraces and usurps. Thus Barney positions himself as the heir to a tradition of American performance art stretching back through Byars to Houdini’s escape acts.

Barney’s resurrection of Houdini, Byars, Mailer, and Hemingway is characteristic: Hubris and the cheating of death have always been essential elements in his work. Ultimately, this exhibition’s significance is as a preface to what lies ahead. It paves the way for the next stage of Barney’s American epic, which looks like it will be every bit as complex and controversial as the “Cremaster” cycle.