Hydra, Greece

Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton

Deste Foundation Project Space

A makeshift tarpaulin body bag left on the road’s shoulder signaled something nefarious, something noir. In the crepuscular light, a scrawny orange cat—a common sight on Hydra—fished under the tarp and apparently found something it liked. Soon a woman ran over to shoo the cat away, like some PA on a movie set. As dawn broke over Mandraki Bay, guests began to gather along a squat stone wall to peer into the water below, waiting for the commencement of Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton’s Blood of Two, 2009, the artists’ first collaboration.

In that bag, it turned out, was a dead shark, though this fact didn’t become relevant until later. Around 6 am, divers launched into the sea and dragged a coffin-size, iron-girded vitrine—barnacled, rusted, aestheticized—to the base of a long set of stairs. Several men then hoisted the case, with notable strain, up the steps to the path where everyone had gathered. The shark was placed on the vitrine and carried up the road, followed by a procession of viewers wielding cell-phones and cameras (inevitably taking pictures of other people wielding cameras). Shades of Damien Hirst—though, as a riff on Hydra’s annual Easter ritual, the catafalque also invoked Christ. The allusions were both obvious and baffling (a reassuringly Barneyesque quandary, at least). En route, some men released a herd of goats and sheep. It wasn’t a liturgical gesture, it was an establishing shot, and it underscored the extent to which the event performed the choreographed spectacle of film. Blood of Two wanted to be cinema, but it was not—at least not yet. It held out the promise that everything could be cinematized, edited, made transcendent.

The procession eventually arrived at the newly inaugurated Deste Foundation Project Space, a small stone slaughterhouse set on a cliff facing the sea. Two paintings had already been installed in an adjacent stable and two others in a small building underneath the abattoir; the vitrine was placed in the main killing room. The procession’s climax came when—after much effort—the bier was pried open and a gush of water poured onto the floor. Inside, in place of the traditional Epitaphios, an icon depicting Christ’s body being prepared for burial, lay five weathered drawings and a “drawing cemetery,” a block of drawings atop one another like a closed book. Some of the images illustrated daily life on the island (a cat eating a fish; a seagull scouring for food), while others limned Greek myths.

The performative element of Blood of Two was remarkable insofar as Barney’s own physicality was kept in abeyance. Hired laborers did the heavy lifting; Barney and Peyton merely watched. The workers’ struggle occasionally disturbed; it was like Santiago Sierra without the consolation prize of the stinging message. Barney clearly spurns messages as such: too transparent, too resolved. His work often seems allergic to critique, one of a few features he and Peyton share. Her artistic apparatus, on the other hand, functions according to its own counterintuitive logic: She maximizes the potential of understatement. The work in the exhibition that most clearly bears her mark is a portrait of Barney. Enshrining his vulnerability, providing a counterpoint to his hubristic trajectories, it is the anti-“Cremaster.”

At the end of the day, the witnesses gathered at a long table on the path by the slaughterhouse and ate. Some claimed that we consumed the sacrificial fish, or at least some ersatz version, though no communion was announced. It didn’t seem to matter much either way: The animal had served its function, had been transubstantiated into symbolic texture. It still seems a shame they didn’t let the cat eat the shark.

David Velasco