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HomeLife StyleWhy We’re All Living in Matthew Barney’s Sticky, Slimy World

Why We’re All Living in Matthew Barney’s Sticky, Slimy World


In May and June, Matthew Barney, the visionary artist behind the epic “Cremaster Cycle” film series (1994-2002) and “River of Fundament” (2014), will be showing his newest body of work, “Secondary,” at four galleries: Gladstone Gallery in New York; Sadie Coles HQ in London; Regen Projects in Los Angeles; and Galerie Max Hetzler in Paris.

In his first New York solo show in 1991, a 23-year-old Barney presented a video of himself climbing the walls and ceiling of Gladstone Gallery (left), naked in a harness. The video was displayed alongside a walk-in cooler that featured an exercise bench cast in petroleum jelly. Ever since, his work has dripped with translucent fluid. Goo permeates luxury fashion today, from Balenciaga’s so-called slime printed hoodies (right) to the ooze that trickled from the ceiling at two Prada shows last year (center).

Long before Cillian Murphy in “Oppenheimer” (2023) (left), or any number of prestige TV dramas, Barney was fearlessly — some might say gratuitously — breaking one of contemporary culture’s last taboos (right).

Barney is perhaps the greatest living artist of corporeal fluids, whether urine, feces, semen, blood or breast milk. His 311-minute film “River of Fundament” (left), a very loose adaptation of Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel, “Ancient Evenings,” opens with Barney emerging from a river of excrement, entering Mailer’s home, removing human waste from a toilet, wrapping it in gold leaf and placing it back whence it came, thus conjuring the spirit of a pharaoh who sodomizes him. Barney’s anatomical provocations heavily influenced a younger generation of artists, including Dash Snow (who masturbated onto some of his work) (center) and presaged the river of sewage in Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 film, “Parasite” (right), and the consumption of ejaculate-laden bathwater in 2023’s “Saltburn.”

Not only did the singer Björk (center) write the soundtrack for Barney’s film “Drawing Restraint 9” (2005) — in which the two conduct a Japanese tea ceremony aboard a whaling vessel that floods with molten petroleum jelly — but her lyrics also chronicle their decade-plus relationship, from its happy beginnings (“Who would have known / That a boy like him / Possessed of magical /Sensitivity?” on 2001’s “Vespertine”) to 2015’s “Vulnicura,” in which she declares, “I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions.” Years before Beyoncé’s 2016 “Lemonade” (right) or Taylor Swift’s (left) breakup ballads, Björk and Barney had expanded the ways in which public figures could make their personal lives into art.

Fond of elaborate costumes that question traditional gender roles (flamboyant Freemason, tap-dancing satyr), Barney has worn skirts and dresses in his art — walking so that Harry Styles and Timothée Chalamet (above) could run.



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