Glen Helfand drew comments from Matthew Barney on his live, staged performances as well as his full catalogue of visual work.

Unrestrained at SFIFF54, Barney Offers Live Insight

Robert Avila May 2, 2011

Few visual artists have pushed the boundaries of multimedia creation as far as Matthew Barney, whose phantasmagoric Cremaster Cycle of feature-length films (made between 1994 and 2002) incorporated related sculpture, drawing, photographs and other objects into a striking engagement with the fractured landscape of American mass culture. Festival-goers got further insight into the process and concerns of this American artist-filmmaker (and San Francisco native) as he received the SFIFF54 Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award on Saturday.

Lean and handsome former athlete Barney spoke in subdued and thoughtful passages about his work with Bay Area writer and art critic Glen Helfand before a full house in the main auditorium at the Sundance Kabuki, ahead of a screening of the latest film in Barney’s Drawing Restraint series, Drawing Restraint 17. Amid a wide-ranging discussion that included stills from a current massive opera project called Ancient Evenings (after the Norman Mailer novel), Helfand asked how such projects start for Barney. Were all of the Cremasters, for example, mapped out at the beginning? “How persistent was that vision,” wondered Barney’s interlocutor.

“I think there’s a general map that’s made,” responded Barney, though he admitted it was “probably more organic and less predetermined” than it might appear. “It’s quite abstract in the beginning. It locks into particular locations—Cremaster did this. For quite a while, I just thought about those places as a very primitive narrative. I had connections to these different places and the films built out from there. I started making plans for some of these locations without ever having gone there, and in that sense I could only develop those stories so far until I had a chance to go there and immerse myself in it. By doing that there’s a whole language that comes out of the place that ends up giving the piece its form and its power and its set of symbolic characters.”

After the screening, during an audience Q&A, a woman asked about the decision to make the film silent. Barney began by pointing to a practical constraint, the fact that the film was originally cast onto the side of a building to be seen from a great distance. But it also worked as an aesthetic enhancer, according to Barney. “It’s similar to a lot of pieces that I was making in the ’90s that were silent. My interest then was to alter the gravity. I was trying to do that both in the way that the image was rendered—things were lit in a very flat way so there was very little shadow—and [by the fact that] there was no sound. Speed was often changed too, maybe ten percent. Some things were slowed down significantly; some things were slowed down in a very subtle way to try to take the naturalness out of the figure. I think it was to do with this desire to make the moving image an aspect of the sculptural language. In my mind, somehow, removing gravity from that would alter the gravity that’s imposed on the object sitting on the floor in proximity to that. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s something I’ve thought about. So that experience makes me quite comfortable and interested in showing something silent and letting it just be visual.”

Helfand marveled at the young American climber featured in Drawing Restraint 17, who scales the massive inner wall of Switzerland’s Schaulager contemporary art museum. “How do you find them?” asked Helfand. “These days the Internet makes it a lot easier than it used to be,” admitted Barney, before going on to explain an aspect of his attraction to the physical. “I really enjoy the dialogue with these people because I’ve put my body in a position where it’s objectified, used as a tool. It’s sort of an easy conversation fro me to have with people who are body specialists, body workers. It makes me feel maybe closer to dance than many of the other art forms. The relationship that dancers have to their bodies is probably similar to some of the choices that I’ve made.”

A member of the audience, acknowledging that sports has played a large role in Barney’s early life as well as in much of his work, asked, “Are you a fan of sports now?” Barney gave another thoughtful and specific reply. “I’m a fan of sports but I can only watch it if the sound is off. I really don’t like the language of sports; I don’t like the way people talk about it, the commentary. But I like the action very much. I like being there, particularly football, I love the sound of impact and contact. I’m probably not a sports fan, in that I like different things about sports.”