Matthew Barney’s first British show in more than 10 years is all picturesque nature, a 21st-century version of the American sublime. Everything centres on the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, where the artist was raised. Gilded tree trunks soar up through darkened galleries, radiant etchings cast an eerie glow on the ground, and a feature-length movie unleashes spectacular visions of snowbound peaks, torrential rivers, star-shine, dawn, dusk and wolves. This is a meditation on the wilderness, with Barney as a multimedia Thoreau.
The film is easily summarised (surprisingly, given the abstruse mythologies of Barney’s great five-film Cremaster cycle). Ovid’s tale of Diana and Actaeon is restaged with Actaeon working as a ranger for the US forest service, and Diana as a camouflaged sharpshooter tracking him through the sights of a hi-tech rifle. The nymphs he unwittingly spies are two contemporary dancers in hideous white long johns. The choreography is laboriously weird.
But Actaeon is not just wandering among wolves and dancers. He is also an artist – what else? – engraving the peaks and pines on portable plates in sub-zero temperatures. He has an associate called the Electroplater, who performs alchemy upon these engravings in her off-grid caravan, but also creates her own astrolabe sculptures. Which, in turn, have obvious counterparts in the complex hoop dances of a Native American performer in the local one-horse town.
There is no dialogue, no characterisation or evolving drama. Though there are sporadic jolts, including the revelation – when he removes his hat – that grizzled old Actaeon, with his white beard and grandpa specs, is in fact Barney himself. (He was only 52, and still glamorously athletic, when the film was shot in 2019.) Diana is played by Anette Wachter, an NRA champion. The wolves are descendants of the original animals controversially reintroduced into Idaho a generation ago. (Should they still be regarded as an endangered species?) The film is at least in part concerned with the politicisation of America’s great outdoors.
But it is essentially a form of landscape art, reverential in its observation of icicles, silver moons and solitary firs, like flagpoles on the Sawtooth summits, of wild creatures (both animal and human) slipping among the trees like figures in a winter Brueghel. But you will have to hold fast to these moments of intensity, for the pace is intolerably glacial at two hours and more. Admission includes a link to watch Redoubt at home, should you prefer. If you have that kind of time, try true snowbound masterpieces such as The Great Silence, The Shining, McCabe and Mrs Miller or even The Revenant instead.
Diana, with the bathos that undermines this film, does not shoot the artist but one of his works. You can see this very object at the Hayward Gallery, red copper (with bullet hole) in an open golden box. These framed plates are a most original hybrid of image, engraving and sculpture, emitting a kind of moonlit glow and bodying forth in three dimensions. They freeze-frame the film’s forests, peaks and constellations in miniature, transforming them into something almost numinous with the use of chemicals and electroplating.
Gigantic sculptures, alongside, tilt upwards like rocket launchers: tree trunks that resemble both telescopes and military equipment, torn roots flaring like jet flames. Molten brass and copper, poured through the charred remains of Sawtooth trees, turn these great columns into gleaming reliquaries. Man, machine and metal, and their coexistence with nature, have always been among Barney’s most devastating themes.
But it is through the intimate scale of the engravings that he really transports you into the wilds. Liquid crystals forming across the engraving plates metamorphose into cloud rack, snow light and Milky Way, the dark forests of the night. And in the final work, thickly encrusted, you even catch sight of yourself reflected in the shining surface, a miniature figure passing quickly through the Idaho landscape.
The accompanying Hayward show, by the South African artist Igshaan Adams (born 1982), is outstandingly original too. Adams weaves vast tapestries that miraculously incorporate beads, glitter, shells and even painted stones into their immaculate warp and weft. These hangings resemble aerial views, yet also journeys through a mystical landscape of bright rivers and secret paths, dense undergrowths, urban grids and shadowy flatlands. More humble flotsam is swept up into whorls of silver wire that rise like tornadoes, drift like clouds or roll like tumbleweed on the gallery floor.
Here and there are hints of prayer mats, Lurex clothing, crochet, grass and human hair. Everything speaks of something personal, possibly political, yet of some mysterious place elsewhere. A woven dreamscape of an installation through which the viewer moves as if in another world: this is the most radically imaginative use of tapestry I have ever come across.
Star ratings (out of five)
Matthew Barney: Redoubt ★★★★
Igshaan Adams: Kicking Dust ★★★★★