In his second show with Sadie Coles HQ, Matthew Barney presents in a show that is characteristically high on concept, but unsually restrained in execution. It features a group of new drawings from his project Ancient Evenings, an ongoing performance in seven acts in collaboration with composer Jonathan Bepler. Based on Norman Mailer’s symbolic and erotically charged novel of 1983 reimagining ancient Egyptian mythology and ritual, the operatic performance piece is structured according to the seven stages the soul passes through after death – Ren, Khu, Sekhem, Ba, Ka, Khaibit and Sekhu. It transposes the central myth of Isis and Osiris into a contemporary industrialised dystopia: the opening instalment in 2008 supplanted the entombed body for the battered Chrysler that also figured prominently in Barney’s film Cremaster 3 (2002).
Encased in self-lubricating plastic frames, Barney’s highly intricate drawings mirror the themes and iconography of all seven acts, and variously allude to masquerade, mythology and the cycle of death and reincarnation. Enigmatic and organic, the drawings are delicately realised in graphite and ink: Osiris is shown sitting on a watery black throne; a blindfolded figure with multiple top hats takes spectral shape against a network of fine lines in a reference to the late performance artist James Lee Byars and his trademark costume. Diagrammatic and textual elements underline the drawings’ allegorical nature, such as the five-cornered polygon labelled “Five Points Make a Man”, a Byars title derived from Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Several of the works also contain alchemical ingredients – gold, silver and copper leaf and bright blue Lapis pigment – investing them with an aura of sacred and archaic merit.
The show also features working storyboards for the Ancient Evenings project, installed in seven freestanding cabinets and consisting of photography, clipart, drawing and collage. Like the drawings, these form a conceptual analogue to the performance. In contrast to the narrative sequence of a conventional storyboard, they assemble central motifs in a nonlinear fashion, hinting only elliptically at their interrelationships. The sculptures in the exhibition further exemplify Barney’s forensic strategy of isolating and recombining certain materials to reveal their physical progress – copper, halite, polyethelene, gold plate, magazines and salt – and create totemic objects.
The Matthew Barney exhibition is at Sadie Coles HQ in London from 27th January – 6th March.