PRINT May 2004



Anyone who knows (and who doesn’t?) Matthew Barney’s recently concluded Cremaster cycle, with its baroque symbolic systems and rituals of performance, should be at least partially primed for De Lama Lâmina (From Mud, a Blade), a collaboration between the artist and American-Brazilian musician Arto Lindsay for this year’s Carnival in the Bahian city of Salvador. Staged as a performance but scripted and filmed for possible future exhibition, the work is intriguing, not in the least because Barney’s identification with the Cremaster films has been so extreme, a decade-long realigning of art production and ambition on a spectacular scale. Yet to label this new work a transition—or as Barney puts it, “detox”—is to tell only part of the story.

De Lama Lâmina’s Carnival context seems tailor-made for Barney’s long-term preoccupation with scoring and performing metaphorical structures. A variation on the typical trio elétrico, Lindsay’s guitar band leads a procession of drummers and costumed dancers from a stage—resembling a block of earth—rolling through the streets of Salvador. It also provides a rhythmic counterpart to one of Barney’s notoriously hermetic narratives, played out in real time, with actors and studio-fabricated props, from a giant logging truck leading the parade. Though one could easily be cynical about the way Barney “uses” his indigenous context—in this case, the local prisms of deforestation and Candomblé religion—the artist himself approached Carnival like a film director on location. The overload of social and moral contrasts that defines this work seems not totally out of sync with Carnival’s own blending of ideology and ecstasy. How De Lama Lâmina translates beyond Brazil, as an artwork, will be interesting to see.

Bennett Simpson


In Salvador, the musicians are the stars of Carnival; it is much less visual than in Rio. With the exception of the Afro “blocks”—which are something like Mardi Gras krewes—where there is more interest in the costumes and the particular dance steps that have been passed down through generations, the trucks and the groups that parade around them tend to look and feel the same. The truck is both stage for the band and sound system. A typical trio elétrico resembles a boom box blown up a hundred times, with a band perched on top.

When Arto approached me about doing something in Salvador we decided to make a group that would function as a proper parade—people could sign on the way they normally do for Carnival, be given costumes, and dance with us. I had been interested in getting back into live performance for many years. One of the younger Afro blocks, Cortejo Afro, with whom Arto had collaborated in the past, agreed to give us one of their three nights. We decided we would use the performance to make a film, to document something that was happening in real time. I began to focus more and more on the narrative aspects, the truck and costumes and characters, and Arto set out to write the music for the band, a mix of his own songs and Carnival standards he adapted.

I don’t know how many people marched in our group. We laser-cut a thousand costumes from the synthetic paper Tyvek in a pattern derived from tree bark, but it didn’t feel like there were a thousand people out there. Only afterward, looking at the video, can I see moments that look like mayhem. It was much more improvisational than my Cremaster work, more like a very public moving film set.

I was in the mood to make a more overtly political work as a reflection of my confusion with the current political landscape. The dualisms inherent in the Candomblé religion helped me organize this. We focused primarily on one of the main deities in Bahia, Ogun, the deity of war, whose symbol is iron. In Candomblé systems he represents man’s simultaneous power to create and to take away. He developed iron, the blade, as a way to cut the first civilizing paths through the forest, but with the same iron he’s able to take the head off another man. His seven tools symbolically cultivate growth and reap the land, both. The other deity that felt useful is Ossâim, master of the forest and herbal healing. He makes a contract with the forest and maintains a kind of balance between what he takes to transform and what he leaves behind to conserve the fertility of his garden. With these two characters, I began thinking about how the piece could inflect a more local politics having to do with deforestation.

I had been intrigued for some time with Julia Butterfly Hill, the eco-activist who lived in a redwood for two years to prevent it from being cut down. An actor portraying Hill climbs around the branches of a tree held in the front mandible of the massive forestry truck we used—its tires were six feet in diameter. The tree trunk appears to have been pulled out of the ground. There is a slit across the tree right above the roots that references a cut made on Hill’s redwood, a year after she came down, possibly by angry loggers. Oozing out of the slit a kind of synthetic sap organizes itself into the seven tools of Ogun—tools of cultivation and destruction. I think people reacted strongly to this deforestation allegory. As in the Cremaster cycle, I was interested in taking something very concrete and using it as abstraction.

Another character, called the Greenman, became the center of the narrative. He has bulbs or roots coming out his ass and mouth, which in the film develop into blooms. He lies under the truck on a specially constructed plate and masturbates against the main driveshaft. There are a couple of climaxes. The film opens with a close-up of his penis going from a relaxed to a fully erect state, a two- to three-minute continuous shot. Later, the Greenman has an interaction with an endangered golden lion tamarin monkey (a doll), whose shit, which is crucial to the production of certain antibiotics, is used to lubricate the driveshaft the Greenman masturbates on. It’s quite explicit. Ultimately I was interested in how the combination of these relationships—the merging of Julia Butterfly Hill and the tree, the intimacy of the Greenman and the truck—suggests a single character, a hybrid of Ogun and Ossâim.

Unfortunately I have no idea what the public was feeling when they saw us. Afterward the reaction was pretty split. Some felt the performance could have a positive effect on Carnival. Arto, for example, had managed to put the drummers, who were on the ground, in sync with the electronic beats on the truck in a way that hadn’t been done before. On the other hand, there was some strong criticism: Who were we to come from outside Brazil, outside Bahia, and deal with the ethnography and mythology of Candomblé? Ultimately, the situation was out of my control, so I stopped worrying how the performance was functioning in real time and started thinking about what we needed to capture on video.