Home » Maximal vs. Minimal (or Matthew Barney & Terence Koh)

Maximal vs. Minimal (or Matthew Barney & Terence Koh)

For Luminato this year, Toronto’s annual––incredible––arts festival, I took in two very different works of art.

The first was Matthew Barney’s latest film, a grandiose, operatic 6 hour long endeavor titled River of Fundament. The second was the first Canadian solo show by New York based Chinese Canadian artist Terence Koh.

Matthew Barney, from River of Fundament. Image: Artspace.com

I’ve been a fan of Barney’s since the first film in his famous Cremaster Cycle. Those films were heavily stylized, gorgeous pieces, big on sculptural components and various body orifices that showed a clear interest in the birth-life-death cycle. His use of material (Vaseline, tapioca) and costume created a decadent, surreal experience for the viewer. One is never able to understand all of Barney’s references, but the films tend to be purposefully slow, smart and very, very lush. The best approach is to sit back and let them happen.

Matthew Barney, from River of Fundament. Image: Hollywoodreporter.com

I felt somewhat prepared for River of Fundament. I had done enough research to know that the film is adapted from Ancient Evenings, a critically panned novel by the late Norman Mailer (of whom Barney is a big fan and who starred in Cremaster 2 as Houdini.) The book (and therefore the film) is based on Ancient Egyptian mythology, centering around one long evening and in particular the story of the Egyptian god Osiris, the god of the afterlife.

Matthew Barney, from River of Fundament. Image: adelaidenow.com

Barney’s film takes as its starting point and central event, the wake of Norman Mailer in present day Manhattan. Among the attendees are Salman Rushdie, Debbie Harry, Elaine Stritch, Fran Lebowitz and Paul Giamatti (who plays the Pharoh.) It would be pointless for me to try to outline the film’s plot, but I will say that it keeps you interested, visually, for its duration. Like the Cremaster Cycle, it is populated with cars (the Chrysler Imperial representing Osiris is sunken & dredged repeatedly), mythic creatures and plenty of close-ups of body orifices. Its main point seems to be to deal with the afterlife by way of a modern day myth through a confluence of both Mailer and his subject matter. Whereas the Cremaster Cycle was mostly contained to a series of rooms, much of River of Fundament takes place outdoors, in Detroit, and involves sweeping shots over the Detroit River and Manhattan. Apparently the Detroit sequence alone had a budget of $5 million.

I thought was a good film. An epic modern myth, provocative and overwrought, but a good film.

The following night, I went up to the McMichael Gallery to see a performance described by Terence Koh in a letter he sent to Luminato director Jorn Weisbrot:

“I just had an idea for the piece at the luminato festival. its based on a margaret atwood novel i remember reading when i was 8 years old. take a public square in toronto that has trees in it. fill the plaza with tapiaco powder so it looks like freshly fallen snow in summer. have an 8-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl holding hands and dressed simply in all white. they make snow angels for eight minutes.”

The piece, tomorrow’s snow, at first appeared simplistic. We were led with considerable fanfare to a clearing in a beautiful tree-filled setting. The sun had just set and a round area of ‘snow’ was warmly lit by a large streetlamp. We waited with anticipation. Minutes passed as we took in the surroundings. And then….well, not much. The streetlamp slowly dimmed. A bright light was shone into the audience, and slowly two small children walked towards us, their heads outlined by the light. They walked to the middle of the snow, lay down and started making snow angels. After a few minutes, the light dimmed and the audience tentatively began clapping. As we left, the anticlimactic vibe was palpable.

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Terence Koh, tomorrow’s snow, 2014. Images: VoCA

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It’s easy to dismiss such minimal work as this. But to me, what made it good was its precision. The length of time we waited before the performance allowed us to really experience the natural surroundings. The dimming of the light to emulate a sunset. The innocence of the two eight year olds. Perhaps even the shining light was meant to refocus the audience on the memory of our own childhood. It’s a brave artist who creates such a spare performance, because to succeed, it needs to say a lot. Koh’s performance was a sensitive, lovely, painterly moment. It fit in the conceptual tradition of Yoko Ono’s famous Ceiling Painting, but I can’t say the revelation was as impactful.

“I think it’s important for me to be as immaterial as possible. And maybe in this immateriality there’s spirituality, and maybe in this spirituality there is humanity.” – Terence Koh

So River of Fundament was grand, and good. Tomorrow’s snow was spare, and good. Fun fact: In 2007, Koh made his name with an installation including his own feces, plated in gold. In the first few minutes of River of Fundament, Barney covers a piece of feces in gold leaf.


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