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Matthew Barney
Photograph: Takis Zontiros

‘Wolves are nothing like dogs’: Matthew Barney on the lessons of his epic art film ‘Redoubt’

A two-and-half hour conceptual feature film about wolf hunters forms the centrepiece of Barney’s complex solo show at the Hayward

Written by
Katie McCabe

Matthew Barney’s first UK show in ten years is an ambitious exploration of the Idaho landscape told through etchings and huge tree sculptures. But its core piece is a work you can take home via Mubi link: Barney’s wordless two-and-a-half-hour feature film about wolf hunters, set in the Sawtooth Mountains. Here the artist explains the ideas behind his conceptual American art western, and tells us why wolves are ‘nothing like dogs’.

Hi Matthew. How has lockdown been for you?
‘I work with a team of people, and have for some time. The filmmaking and sculpture demand that, and a number of the people I work with have been a part of the team for many years, so there’s a trust and shared knowledge that we have developed. The pandemic certainly changed the pace with which we could work at the studio, but we managed to reopen quite early in the process and have maintained productivity throughout. I think, in part, this is because we are so close as a team.’

Your latest exhibition involves a feature film, large-scale sculptures and etchings, what was the most difficult aspect of pulling it all together?
‘Making a comprehensive exhibition with all of the elements of a larger project is always a challenge. Balancing the presence of the film with that of the sculpture is the trickiest part. The architecture of the Hayward Gallery provides an interesting frame for this show, with its bunker-like volumes and the slot windows that resemble turrets – it creates a meaningful conversation with the work, and I believe it helps give this show a more holistic feeling.’

Your film, ‘Redoubt’, is a reworking of the Diana and Actaeon myth, could you tell us a bit more about that, and what interested you in that story?
‘I knew I wanted to make a piece that touched on the management and use of the wilderness in the American West. That landscape is politicised in many ways, and I knew I didn’t want to make an explicitly political work. The myth of Diana and Actaeon was useful in that way, to make the subject more universal. The role I play is of a US Forest Service ranger, who spends his free time making observational drawings of the landscape and wildlife where he works. He comes upon Diana, who is hunting wolves, and begins to follow her and make drawings of her. Like the Forest Service ranger, Diana is a steward of that landscape. Diana protects the forest, yet she also kills what she holds sacred. Diana is complicated, just as wildlife and land management is complicated.’

What did you learn about wolves while making ‘Redoubt’?
‘They are nothing like dogs, even if they look similar. When you look into their eyes you can see they don’t have any of the need-to-please-you which has been bred into dogs for centuries. They look at you like an ape looks at you: trying to figure you out, sizing you up. It was a privilege to be so close to them.’

You cast yourself in the film. It looks like it was a difficult shoot. Were there any hairy moments?
The winter of 2016-17 in central Idaho had one of the heaviest snowfalls in the last decades. Running a production in waist-deep snow in remote locations is definitely not simple, but I went into the project wanting to make a portrait of that region, in all of its contradictions, and so in that sense I felt like the obstacles which the landscape and its climate presented were an important part of the piece. As dance plays such a central role in “Redoubt”, the performers had to constantly adapt the choreographies to the changing conditions. This too became a significant part of the piece.’

Matthew Barney: ‘Redoubt’ will run at the Hayward Gallery until Jul 25. £12. Book tickets here

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