A still from River of Fundament (2014)

Lawrence Weiner stars in new Matthew Barney opera

River of Fundament is set at Norman Mailer's wake and also stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Salman Rushdie

Describing a Matthew Barney work is a bit like trying to encapsulate a half-forgotten dream, albeit one filled with great performances, stunning visual motifs and high-minded symbolism.

Barney, an American artist who prefers to describe himself as a sculptor rather than a filmmaker, is best-known for his Cremaster films, wherein he reassembles biological data, pop-cultural detritus and urban legends into the kind of surreal feature films that don't fit well into an IMDB.com plot summary - even if they do impress both art and film critics around the world. 

So, what should we make of the news that the Phaidon artist Lawrence Weiner will join Hollywood star Maggie Gyllenhaal and Paul Giamatti, author Salman Rushdie and talk show host Dick Cavett, among the cast in Barney's new work, River of Fundament which premiers this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music?

Well, the work is "a contemporary opera that combines documentary footage of three live acts performed in outdoor environments in Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York, with live action cinema, largely set in a careful recreation of Mailer's Brooklyn brownstone apartment where the late author's wake is underway."


Still from River of Fundament (2014)
Still from River of Fundament (2014)

Got it? As The New York Times explains, the opera draws its inspiration from Ancient Evenings, by Barney's late friend and collaborator the novelist Norman Mailer. Mailer's story is set in a highly sexualized version of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, and describes the reincarnation of a nobleman via an underworld river of excrement.

Barney's film recasts the author as the story's protagonist, dividing the action between a recreation of Norman Mailer's own wake - the author died in 2007 - with a far more wide ranging interpretation of Mailer's take on the Egyptian afterlife. This wilder footage includes, as the Brooklyn Academy puts it "a notable and diverse cast. Specialists from various industrial processes-including large scale iron smelting, automobile demolition, and sulphur casting-join dramatic actors Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Paul Giamatti, John Buffalo Mailer, and Elaine Stritch."

Barney featured cars in his Cremaster Cycle, and cast well-known artists alongside more conventional actors. Weiner was included as he was a friend of Mailer's, and so a good choice for a wake guest. "I was on the scene as a kid and so I could get into Mailer's parties," Weiner told the New York Times in a piece about the new work. "The house was pretty close to a replica, and the people all sort of looked the way they looked back then."

Mailer's own son, John Buffalo Mailer, plays his father, which is, Mailer Jr says, quite a trip. "It was so mind-bogglingly profound on so many levels," he told the paper. "I'm playing the afterlife version of my father in a one-to-one re-creation of my childhood home."


Still from River of Fundament (2014)
Still from River of Fundament (2014)

Even for those more used to on-set weirdness, River of Fundament was pretty challenging. "We walk into the studio and there's this decaying pig and maggots in the food," Maggie Gyllenhaal recalls. "It smelled so bad I thought I was going to pass out. Then we start doing the scene. There are these women singing, and the camera is going around the table, and Matthew comes in and says, "Can you guys be a little more natural?" I didn't know what he meant. Natural, as in natural, or natural for a Matthew Barney movie? After that it became some wild, crazy experience. At the time, I was also shooting 'White House Down,' which could not be more different."

New Yorkers can find out just how different this Wednesday (12 Feb) when it premiers at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, while Londoners will have to wait until June, when River of Fundament opens at the English National Opera. For more on this, read the NY Times piece. For greater insight into Barney and his peers, consider our book, The Artist's Body, and for insight into Weiner's career pick up our great monograph.