Contrary to expectations of oozing sculptures and meticulously convoluted drawings, Matthew Barney’s exhibition in the Yokohama Triennale consists of a single video installation on a small monitor placed high up on the wall of a small, darkened alcove. Titled Guardian of the Veil (2007), this collaboration between Barney and composer Jonathan Bepler (who also composed some of scores in Barney’s video art opus The Cremaster Cycle) is a recording of a live performance that was held at an unspecified theater in New York. The performance in question centers around a series of rituals, the focal point of which is the dismantling of a crashed Chrysler placed center stage, and a young female who is carried into the auditorium on a stretcher, in a sort of funeral procession.
The young woman is placed on the Chrysler, while men in army gear, bandanas and balaclavas assist Barney — performing here with a small dog perched on his head — as he removes parts of the car’s engine and carefully stashes them in white wax-like pots. Next to them, a naked woman with her feet buried in what is probably petroleum jelly stands completely still while masked men stretch some sort of thin black rubber sheet down over her head and torso. Subsequently, a pair of female contortionists, naked from the waist down, walk in step across the stage, where they take turns to arch backwards into crab-like stances and urinate, fountain-like, on the floor.
The entire procession is accentuated by marching drums, violins, flutes and ukeleles, played by bemused orchestra musicians and masked men guarding the entrances, making the performance look part-concert, part-2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis. As the ritual reaches its climax, Barney leads an elaborately decorated bull to the car to pay homage to a bull skin he earlier draped across its trunk (Rumor has it that in a different version of this performance, the bull actually mounted the Chrysler, much to the dismay of animal rights activists). Finally, it is left to the silent naked woman with her feet in the petroleum jelly to bring the performance to a close by dribbling a thin stream of black liquid from her anus.
To Matthew Barney fans this video does not disappoint, in the sense that it is just as mysterious — if not baffling — as his previous works. The mythical characters and grand rituals dripping with symbolism certainly create an ominous mood for the approximate forty minutes of duration. However, unlike The Cremaster series, which was elaborately shot with million-dollar budgets and as a result provides an aesthetically potent cinematic experience (and therefore is relatively watchable even for those who may not understand the concept), Guardian of the Veil looks like a crude recording of something that would be better witnessed live. It certainly does not help bewildered viewers that the video — and the entirety of the work on display at the triennale for that matter — lacks any sort of explanatory text, nothing to even tell you the duration! 1
There are no obvious indications of what the acts portrayed in this video are supposed to mean, although the motifs in the props alone suggest clear visual continuities with Barney’s earlier work. The apron Barney wears in this video is the same as the one worn by “The Entered Apprentice” in Cremaster 3. That work also featured a Chrysler Imperial (smashed here), and the colors of the ribbons adorning the car are the blue and orange are theme colors for the whole Cremaster series, and the petroleum jelly used on stage is the main focus of his full-length feature Drawing Restraint 9. In more general terms, one can assume that the dog on Barney’s head is supposed to transform him into a living representation of Anubis, the Egyptian God of the Dead.
Thus, perhaps the funeral-like rituals and dismantling of the Chrysler signal the demise of the order of the Cremaster, but Barney’s work is so highly abstracted that it is hard to feel confident about any interpretation. The video undoubtedly carries on from where Barney left us, but presented with this alone, viewers are, unfortunately, likely to be left not only confused, but nursing a sore neck from starting up at the overly elevated monitor. That said, even if presented as a video of dubious quality, being able to see a rare Barney performance that we otherwise cannot access is certainly a welcome opportunity in itself, and in that respect Guardian of the Veil is probably one of the must-see works of the triennale.
1 Editor’s note: Lena saw this video during the press preview on September 12, and again on September 14, a day after the triennale opened to the public. At that time there were no signs indicating the duration of the video. By the time I saw it on October 15, two signs had been put up at the entrance to the work: one stating that the video lasts 42 minutes and another warning that some viewers may be offended by the video’s content — and that children below 15 years old cannot enter — suggesting that some visitors may have complained. Similar warnings have been placed outside of the John McCarthy and Hermann Nitsch video works in the same venue, both of which depict graphic scenes of nudity and gore.