Matthew Barney works in sculpture, performance, and video –often using his own body- to produce groundbreaking art. Jim Lewis pays the artist a visit as he prepares a new video for this month's Whitney Museum Biennial.
March 1993
Matthew Barney

Matthew Barney.

The night before his New York debut in 1991, Matthew Barney locked himself inside the Barbara Gladstone Gallery and climbed the walls. Then he climbed across the ceiling, strapped naked in a harness, and inched himself along by means of titanium ice screws that he planted in the plaster; then he made his way down into the lower gallery, where he slowly lowered himself into a refrigeration unit, penetrated himself with a pair of the screws, and eased himself onto an accomplice in a football uniform lying on his back next to a weight‑lifting bench made of Vaseline. The next day's visitors found the pristine gallery marked with footprints and holes and full of oddly fashioned athletic equipment; downstairs, a videotape of the previous night's climb played on a monitor.

It was a remarkable beginning, and it put to rest a great deal of speculation. At the time, Barney was a 24‑year‑old ex-athlete and ‑fashion model from Yale, with no more than a few group shows and a solo exhibition in Los Angeles behind him. Nevertheless, he'd already attracted high praise from the art‑world press, and there was enough word of mouth to draw crowds to the Gladstone gallery the day the show opened. It was the kind of attention that even the most prodigious artists ordinarily have to wait until their mid‑30s to enjoy, and along with the gossip there were the customary complaints about star‑making machinery and hype. But by the time the show closed, the grumbling had ended, because something quite extraordinary had happened: Barney turned out to be the real thing, an artist with a strikingly original and fully realized way of rendering a world.

Still, it's difficult to describe just what it is that he does, and even more difficult to explain it. Barney works in performance, video, and sculpture, but the grand narrative that he makes out of them is a genre unto itself, and his ideas are singular and strange. Not that his art has no precedents: In its emphasis on the artist's own symbolic suffering and endurance, it harks back to the '70s work of Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden. And it has something in common with the elegant theatrical meditations of Robert Wilson; and with the coolly eccentric choreography of Pina Bausch; and with the melodrama of human transformation presented in horror movies. But in the end Barney's imagination is just unlike anyone else's.

Consider, for example, OTTOshaft (1992), a three‑site work built around a set of characters who operate the way semidivine heroes do in Greek myths, as protagonists in fables of human transgression. First among them is Jim Otto himself, a legendary former center for the Oakland Raiders who was so devoted to football, and so inured to pain, that he ended his career playing with a partially prosthetic right knee. His foil, played by Barney, sometimes takes the form of the brilliant magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, and at other times shows up disguised in full drag. Occasionally, these two are joined by Raiders general manager and notorious hardass Al Davis, played by a performer who, with the help of facial prostheses and a wig, looks uncannily like the real thing. And in the videotape that closed out the work‑shot in a German parking garage for last year's Documenta art fair‑three Scottish bagpipers appeared, done up in carefully selected tartans and dressed down to their spats.

If the players seem unusual, the props they work with and the actions they perform are even more so. Imagine a set of equipment devised by some demented sports physician: weights and benches made of Vaseline, blocking sleds cast in milk‑white plastic, a speculum, pearls, something known as human chorionic gonadotropin (a natural steroid), a hydraulic jack, climbing gear, and the so‑called Hubris Pill, a giant tablet that appears in successively metabolized states‑from glucose to candy to sucrose to Vaseline to tapioca to meringue to pound cake. Strewn with such objects, the gallery space becomes the staging ground for a series of strenuous confrontations. Singly or in pairs, the characters act out mythic woundings and healings, climbs, chases, and escapes that together form a vast and visceral exploration of conflict, suffering, hubris, and metamorphosis, as embodied in the acts of the athlete and the escape artist.

OTTOshaft was Barney's overture; complete and self-contained, it nevertheless sounded themes that continue to occupy him as he takes his work through its variations. A recent visit to his studio, a big, cold loft in New York's meatpacking district, found him preparing to shoot a new video for this month's Whitney Museum "1993 Biennial Exhibition": Two assistants were putting the final touches on plastic-cast horns and goat's legs, and Barney himself was toying with a bicycle brake that he hoped to turn into an opposable hoof‑all elements of a trio of satyrs, descendants of the Documenta bagpipers, two of whom will battle in the backseat of a renovated limousine, while the third climbs under and around the front seat, chasing his tail.

The artist has done his best to avoid being singled out from his peers for special attention; until now, he's begged off interviews with the popular press. And while he's sweet and accommodating in person‑just folks, rather than the mad scientist one might expect‑he remains guarded, almost shy, about discussing anything not directly related to his art. But as soon as he's asked about his work he responds easily, in a voice that seems to become more matter‑of‑fact as the interpretations and connections become more extraordinary. "I was interested in the way Houdini used the external form of performance as a way to execute an internal disappearing act," he says, by way of explaining the work he's made to date. "So I started working with the idea of thresholds inside the body and the way they move around." He goes on to elaborate on the graphic implications of Otto's name, the anatomical significance of the double 0's that frame it, and the formal parallels between the two middle T's and the goalposts, bagpipe drones, and ram's horns that show up in the videos. "In the end," he notes, "Jim Otto isn't Jim Otto. He's just a form."

And yet the more farfetched it all sounds, the more sense it seems to make. Every detail Barney describes has a role to play in the tale he wants to tell; what's more important, the works themselves‑the tapes and the sculptural objects that accompany them‑are so well put together that they're convincing on some level prior to cognition, and watching the whole affair unfold before your eyes can be strangely liber­ating and great fun. Barney seems to have access to a part of his mind that most of us have grown out of or suppressed. Even the way he uses and abuses his body‑the nakedness, the cross‑dressing, the induced muscle strain, the objects introduced into unlikely orifices‑has a tone of presexual innocence. As he himself says: "I'm less interested in definitions of gender than I am in trying to deal with elusive internal sources of energy."

One can't help but wonder how he managed to maintain such an uncensored imagination, especially since his background is so all‑American that it seems scripted. Born in San Francisco, Barney grew up in Boise, ID, and played quarterback and wrestled in high school. In 1985 he was recruited by Yale for its football team; he entered intending to pursue a pre-med program. But neither the football nor the medicine panned out, so he began focusing on making art‑not paintings or sculptures but what he calls restraint pieces, environments in which he made drawing as difficult as possible‑for example, by attaching himself to rubber cords and straining up an incline to make a mark on the ceiling. They were, in his own words, "facilities designed to defeat the facility of drawing," and they drew upon the knowledge that he acquired as an athlete. "Football is abstract," he insists. "It's all about strategy, about finding a hole in your opponents' defense. And in wrestling, you're taught to internalize maneuvers until you can respond to information about your opponent completely intuitively." Even the modeling he was doing to support himself at the time ended up providing an oblique lesson: "Being the subject of that kind of manipulation is an interesting way to learn about how flexible an image can be‑how the subject must have the ability to evacuate his or her body in order for the transformation to take place."

The particularity of his experiences aside, Barney gives little credence to the suggestion that he may have an unusual sort of mind. "I don't think my work is so strange. It's just a matter of having the discipline to go the whole way with an idea, to stretch it as far as it can go," he says.

He works hard. In the past year, he's installed a room at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and staged the Documenta Action in a garage in Germany. This year brings not just the Whitney show but this summer's Biennale in Venice. And he's working on an upcoming five‑site piece, encompassing a football stadium in Boise, an ice cap, a room at the top of the Chrysler Building, a racetrack on the Isle of Man, and a bathhouse; pictures of all five are pasted to his studio wall. If he pulls it off‑and there's every reason to believe he will‑it may propel him out of the art world entirely and into that rare, unbounded aesthetic space where only the most ambitious, resourceful, and creative of our artists work.