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Holahan: Matthew Barney’s Redoubt

Matthew Barney’s Redoubt defies the constraints of genre. On view at the Yale University Art Gallery until June 16, 2019, Redoubt is a multimedia exhibition comprised of a 134 minute-long, non dialogue film, monumental sculpture, and a series of electroplated engravings.

Together, the individual pieces in the exhibition focus on the myth of Diana and Actaeon, adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. In the classical source material, Actaeon, a young hunter, observes the goddess Diana while she is bathing with her nymph attendants. When she sees Actaeon, Diana is furious, and punishes the youth by turning him into a deer. After the transformation, Actaeon’s own hounds hunt him down and kill him.

While Barney’s version works with the same characters, his Actaeon does not suffer the same gruesome fate. Redoubt takes place in the Idaho Sawtooth Mountains, where we meet a contemporary-looking hunter (played by Anette Wachter) who is accompanied by two female attendants (the “Tracking Virgin” and the “Calling Virgin”). For the part of Actaeon, Barney casts himself. The artist plays “The Engraver” a man who watches the Hunter and the Virgins, documenting what he sees with a series of copper engravings. The film also features “The Electroplater” a woman who chemically processes “The Engraver’s” pieces, the very same pieces that are displayed on the walls of the YUAG special exhibitions gallery.

In this manner, Barney creates a self-contained world for his show. He provides an origin story for his engravings, attributing the pieces to himself, to “The Engraver,” and to the confused blend of the two entities. The physical pieces in the exhibition stand alone as complex works, but when paired with the film they are transformed into relics. They become documentary artifacts of the world depicted on screen.

When met with this multiplicity of mediums, the viewer can easily see that Barney is concerned with intermingling genres. His concern with the of frustrating genre boundaries can be seen when we compare one work in the exhibit to another, but it can also be seen solely in the film component of Redoubt.

At once the film is a documentary, a choreographed dance, and a drama.

The film displays grand, sweeping images of the Sawtooth mountains in Idaho. There are long, tracking shots of animals in the natural landscape. Without narration or much context we are given images of carnivorous birds eating the flesh of dead animals, wolves running across the winter landscape, and large deer who meander through the forest. Though many of the closer shots are of individual animals who function as characters, much of the film is a purely documentary depiction of the wildlife.

This documentary aesthetic blends seamlessly with the depiction of the human characters. Just as the viewer must closely observe the movement of the animals, without the aid of a verbal explanation, we are given little context for the movements of the human characters. Throughout the film the Tracking and Calling Virgins communicate through slow, experimental dance. They mirror each other, feign physical fights, and hold each other intimately. These unnarrated and unexplained instances of dance, when paired with the depictions of wildlife, have a anthropological function. At times the audience feels as if they are watching the movements of primordial, state-of-nature humans beings.

While the film contains little explanation for the actions displayed, Barney does provide us with a recognizable plot. He sets up two opposing sides: the world of “the Engraver” and “the Electroplater” against the world of “the Hunter” and “the Virgins.” Watching these two sides interact, and witnessing the exaggerated characters depicted on screen, the audience is aware that this is a fictional world. But, perhaps this line is less clear than one might suppose. For the part of “the Hunter,” Barney cast real-life sharp-shooter Anette Wachter, a noted NRA activist. This politically charged casting decision, brings the classically inspired fictional world of “the Hunter” into our real world where debates over environmental conservation and gun rights are very much nonfictional.

Of late, Barney’s film has garnered press in the art world. It will be screened in New Haven until June, will travel to the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing, and will be shown at the Hayward Gallery in London in 2020. Notably, though it is a feature length film, Redoubt will not premiere in theatres. It will remain tethered to the other works in the exhibit, and will exist solely within the context of gallery showings. Though, internally, Redoubt is difficult to classify, the manner of its distribution indicates that its one constant genre classification is as an art film, not a commercially accessible movie in the conventional sense.