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Matthew Barney at the Hayward is deeply complex and massively rewarding

  • Art, Contemporary art
Installation view of Matthew Barney: Re ... tthew Barney, 2021. Photo: Mark Blower.jpg
Mark BlowerInstallation view of Matthew Barney: Redoubt

Time Out says

Matthew Barney’s a real onion of an artist: we’re talking layer after layer after layer of meaning and myth and narrative and concept and aesthetics, on and on for ever and ever. So your chances of fully grasping what this show’s about – even if it didn’t include a two-hour film – are pretty slim. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a go.

There’s the headline version of what this is all about: Barney’s latest body of work explores the rewilding of the Sawtooth Mountains in his native Idaho, following the reintroduction of wolves to the area by conservationists. But that barely scratches the surface, because the whole thing takes in the story of Diana and Actaeon from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, the politics of gun ownership in America, cosmology, metallurgy, alchemy and – as ever with Barney – a whole bunch of sex. 

The centrepiece of the show is an icy, austere, slowly unfurling film set in the snows of Idaho following a hunter and an engraver, full of achingly languid choreography. Visitors are given a Mubi link to watch it at home – which is a relief – because though it’s beautiful and complex, it’s hard to grasp in the actual space. 

The rest of the show is made up of copperplate engravings and huge sculptures of trees made of brass and copper, some with their roots exposed, others emerging from artillery batteries. The face of Diana the hunter peers out at you, stars and planets draw curves across the sky, all on frazzled, burnished copper plates. 

But it’s the trees that are most striking. Part wood, part metal, part stone, they feel like a brutal clash of nature and manmade violence: roots tracing paths for bullets to follow, that sort of thing. 

There’s a sense here of nature being weaponised, of electricity being sent coursing through metallic elements, through stone and wood, forced to come alive as something new, something dangerous. But there’s also a whole bunch of phallic potential to everything: just these giant penile guns jutting up into the sky.

I have my ideas regarding what this is all about, but there are so many layers to this show, and Barney’s work in general, that it almost doesn’t matter what I take from it. What matters is whether or not you have the focus, heart and inclination to give the work the time it deserves. It might all be about wolves and natural violence, or it might all be about how great it is to have a penis: you’ll just have to find out for yourself. 

Open now. Until Jul 25. Book tickets here.

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


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