Matthew Barney: Philosophize WIth A Crowbar, Bleed Like A Blade of Grass (A Dialogue)



 [THIS IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. It was inspired by Barney’s 2011 exhibition DJED at The Gladstone Gallery. I need to insert photos.]

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve


This little work is a grand declaration of warfare: and as regards the auscultation of idols, it is no temporary idols, but eternal idols which are here touched with a hammer as with a tuning fork…

—Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Or How to Philosophize with a Hammer, [1]



 The Hysteric: Narrator

Testicular Hysteric: Matthew Barney

Black Cloud Named Representation

Cat Named Being: Houdini[2]

Spirit of Deleuze: himself.

Spirit of Nietzsche: himself

Spirit of Georges Bataille: himself

Fireman: Art historian

Pitbull With Scars: Neville Wakefield

Ipad: as itself, and sometimes as Avital Ronell.



Italicized text means it is a direct quote, sourced in the footnote.






Whoosh….splat. [3]


A hunk of what looks like semen is heaved into the corner of a room in which The Hysteric is lying on a bed made of grass, surrounded by books, pillows, a Cat Named Being and a Pitbull Covered With Scars.  The bed of grass is a well-kept grave connected to the Underworld of Matthew Barney’s current project-in-process inspired by Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. [4] The Hysteric is reading and watching various Barney videos and commentary on her Ipad. A Black Cloud Named Representation hangs over the bed.  Various ghosts of philosophers call out— appear and disappear—from gravestones laid out like books on the bookshelves.




Ipad: Matthew Barney’s work is vast, unfinished (he is only 45), and impossible to contain: From Delay of Game (1991), to the ever-iterating Drawing Restraints[5], Ottoshaft, The Cremaster Cycle and now Ancient Evenings, I’m so glad you’re reading it instead of just looking at it. People miss so much when they think it’s just about image instead of spit or task.


Spirit of Georges Bataille: You mean A Dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. It is this sense of the informe that can describe Barney’s work as always about and in process, but not necessarily just process art. Thus informe is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. [i.e. representation]. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit. [6]


IMAGE 1 Casting Reservoir, Djed Cast iron and graphite 8 ¼ x 370 x 248 inches WEIGHT: XXX


Cloud Named Representation: No, I mean formless! There’s no there there. Stewardesses in blimps playing with grapes (C1),blue and yellow cars circling endlessly around the Isle of Man (C4), a Giant with ribbon’d Jacobean pigeons tied to his scrotum (C5), and what is Gary Gilmore doing in here? [Matthew Barney as Gary Gilmore in Cremaster 2 suddenly appears on the screen.]  It’s just a lot of meaningless nonsense.


Hysteric: No, if anything, an excess of sense.


Ipad: BURPS, The logic of sense. [7]


The Cloud Named Representation: Yee gods, be quiet Ipad. It’s just Spectacle! This is not the time to let images wash over us as some of you have suggested was the upside to not understanding the complex symbolism in Cremaster. Rather than reading Cremaster, we are encouraged to consume it as high-end eye candy, whose symbolic system is available to us but is a hardly necessary component to the art production or reception. Left to its own devices –and it is all devices—[8][Starts snorting.] What about art?


Cat Named Being: [Jumps onto Ipad] Me ee ow.


Hysteric: Alas. Alack. I guess I’m just a consuming machine, you see even my being has been consumed and transformed. (Points to a tattoo on her arm.)


Cat Named Being: [Licking the tattoo] You’re just forceful with your affection, like the work itself. All the materials seem to have a will of their own, although [w]illing seems to me to be above all something complicated, …and it is precisely in this one word that the popular prejudice lurks…So let us be more cautious, let us be ‘unphilosophical’: let us say that in all willing there is, first, a plurality of sensations, namely the sensation of the state ‘ away from which,’ the sensation of the state’ towards which’, the sensation of this from and towards themselves, and then also an accompanying muscular sensation, which, even without putting into motion ‘arms and legs,’ begins its actions by force of habit as soon as we ‘will’ anything.[9]


Ipad: uh huh.


Ghost of Deleuze: If resemblance haunts the work of art, it is because sensation refers only to its material: it is a percept or affect of the material itself, the smile of oil, the gesture of fired clay, the thrust of metal.[10]


IMAGE 2 Djed performance pouring mold



Suddenly The Hysterical Testicle pops out of the Black Cloud of Representation. It is dangling like a spider from the ceiling. Naked except for a climbing harness, pieces of the various Cremasters hang from its belt—deflated blimps, Gary Gilmore’s head, a Chrysler building tchotchke, a crowbar, and white plastic handcuffs.  The whole mass has the effect not of a body but of a vibrating ribbon of affect and sensation, as if a memory was suspended in space trying to realize itself in time. Gobs of petroleum jelly spurt from a hole where a piercing had been. It looks like sperm.


Hysteric: So that’s where that came from [pointing to the wad in the corner] Careful, you’ll inseminate someone!


Testicular Hysteric: It’s just Vaseline™.


Hysteric: You mean petroleum jelly.


Testicular Hysteric: Whatever, thresholds of affect and substance—like the paraffin-like material forming on oil rigs in 1859 in Titusville , Pennsylvania that replaced the oil from the sperm whale who “was the main whale being sought for its oil when the petroleum industry opened in 1859.” [11]

Black Cloud of Representation: See, you make everything so complicated.  What has this to do with anything? [12]


The rope slips. Down falls the Hysterical Testicle splatting all over the bed, causing The Black Cloud of Representation to burst into flames, filling the room with smoke. The cats scatter except for the Cat Named Being. The Pitbull with scars wags its tail and tries to eat everything but he is interrupted when an art historian dressed as a fireman breaks into the room waving a hose attempting to clear the room of fire and smoke.


Testicular Hysteric: Take your hands off me!


The art historian is trying to wrap him in a frame and Bubble Wrap™.


Black Cloud of Representation to Fireman: Thank god you finally got here. I told you, everything is part of a system of eye-candy. These epic narratives can’t even be housed in one museum, and span huge gaps in time. It’s just empty sensational spectacle.


Hysteric: You dope. This sprawling, ever iterating, always becoming, aspect of the work is precisely what makes it interesting.


Cat Named Being: Yah, not even the sculptures just sit there like dumb objects, but are more like stilled moments of  ever-metamorphosing living beings.


IMAGE 3  Canopic Chest  Cast Bronze 731/2x165x23 inches [DJED Exhibition, Gladstone Gallery , 2011]



The Fireman looks at the cloud: Huh?


Black Cloud: Don’t ask.


Testicular Hysteric = shifts from an image into sensation and starts singing:

We paint, compose, and write with sensations. As percepts, sensations are not referring to an object (reference).[13]


Fireman: [still fumbling with Bubble Wrap ™ and frames.] No object?


Ghost of Deleuze: if they resemble something it is with a resemblance produced with its own methods —[14]


Pitbull Covered with Scars is barking: Hypertrophia. Restraint!


Hysteric: The brutalized and sacrificial bodies of the Cremaster, or the Drawing Restraints, or Ancient Evenings are all too big to fit in one space. They’re carcasses without a body – more a diagram. It’s not about fitting them together to make a whole—that’s why the Guggenheim show didn’t work. I’m not impatient, I don’t mind taking time. –I’m interested in another kind of temporality and extension.


Testicular Hysteric: I think about thresholds a lot, where potential is at its greatest [15]


Ghost of Nietzsche: But who has the will to concern himself with such dangerous maybes? [16]The fire out, the Fireman leaves the room shrugging his shoulders.


The Hysterical Testicle suddenly transforms into a crowbar.



“Pry, smash, Auscultation! I wanted to be a reconstructive surgeon but became an artist instead.” 


Ghost of Nietzsche: Nice.


Black Cloud of Representation: As I was saying, Barney’s work is too dependent on a bunch of nonsense.


Hysteric: I told you, it’s an excess of sense.


Ipad: Maybe, because you’re so stuck in your black cloud of representation, you’ve been looking at it the wrong way. It’s profoundly about the limits and extensions of the human; of states, thresholds, potential, movement beyond, even, as in the current work, into the Underworld—


Black Cloud of Representation: You mean ontology?


Ipad: Uh huh


Black Cloud of Representation: Isn’t that an awfully big word. You’re not trying to tell me the guy’s a philosopher. For god’s sake, he’s just a jock.


Ipad: Thinking has been dissociated from exercise and physical force, and yet force is necessary to be a philosopher… Certain philosophers leap, others swim. [17]


IMAGE  4: Drawing Restraint 17 climbing



Hysterical Testicle: Falling is one of the few things I consider really funny. [18]


IMAGE 5: Drawing Restraint 17-falling


Ghost of Nietzsche: ha ha ha


Ipad: Nietzsche, you danced, and everyone walks. My hero is Mohammed Ali. [19]


Hysteric:  What about the car – cars are important to you, aren’t they?


Hysterical Testicle:  Vehicles are.[20] Watch me!


He transforms from a crowbar into the carcass of a car. 


IMAGE 6: DJED Cast Iron and graphite block Djed casting 20 ¼ x 167 x 87 inches  WEIGHT: xxx



Fireman: Looks like death.


Hysterical Testicle: It is about death. As death is about life. You can’t have one without the other. Well, is one human? Or merely alive? Like a blade of grass equal to all existence in the movement it is torn? Yes, if pain is fundament, then a blade of grass can know all there is. I am both blade of grass and fire, in other words living, becoming– shape shifter of sensations, affects and precepts–Vaseline, flesh, shit, graphite line, bronze, muscle, lead, body, iron, petroleum.


Ghost of Georges Bataille: spits across the room, it lands on the grass bed, which screams in pain. The Cat Named Being jumps on top of the Hysteric’s Head.


Pitbull with Scars: In ways more or less elaborate or brilliant, we are only ever preparing for death. [21]






[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Or How to Philosophize with a Hammer, 1888. Translated by Thomas Common, Kindle Book, (Kindle Book, 148 of 1731),

[2] One of the author’s cats is named Houdini.

[3] In Cremaster 2, Matthew Barney’s character Gary Gilmore throws a blob of  petroleum jelly against the interior of the car (body/prison) he is sitting in. He has been trying to build an erect form with Vaseline, but it keeps detumescing so he throws the glob in frustration and it splats against the corner of the interior of the car. This is a reference to Richard Serra’s Splash Pieces of 1968, which are of great influence on Barney. In Cremaster 3, Richard Serra plays the character of Hiram Abiff, the Architect. In the trial/game sequence filmed at the Guggenheim, Serra re-enacts the Splash pieces using “molten” petroleum jelly. He is at the top of the Guggenheim spiral. The liquid petroleum jelly is slapped down into a gutter with the force of lead, and then runs slowly down the spiral.

[4] “Ancient Evenings is inspired by American author Norman Mailer’s 1983 eponymous novel set in Ancient Egypt. Structured primarily as a site-specific opera, “Ancient Evenings,” is a multi-dimensional project that includes sculpture and drawing in addition to live performance….[it] is ordered by the seven stages of the soul’s departure from the deceased body as it passes from death to rebirth, according to Egyptian mythology.” DJED, catalogue/libretto, written and edited by Matthew Barney and Rosalie Benitez for the exhibition DJED, of sculptures and drawings at Gladstone Gallery, October 2011.

[5] I once asked Barney how long he planned to make the Drawing Restraint projects and he said, “I’ll keep doing them till I’m 80—wheelchair and ramp!” 

[6] Georges Bataille, “Informe, ”Visions of Excess, 31. Yves Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss created the exhibition and catalogue, “Informe: A User’s Manual” but do not include Barney’s work. Their interpretation of the term is used to provide a way “to find a form for formlessness, to show that the form has no form” [] since the notion of “form” itself, is one of the great critical issues of 20th century art. I am interested in the notion of informe as task. In a note, they choose to regard this interpretation as of course possible but too limited: “[Note: that one may plausibly try to find the form of formlessness at the level of methods and procedures rather than at the level of individual objects. Then it gives rise to process art and chance art. Or one may give up altogether , and embrace nothing and destruction.]” They catalogue a number of formless forms such as “dangle,” “mess,” trash,” dirt,” “fat,” “mud,” tangle (etc….) all of which can be found in Barney’s work as interrogatory modes not just of the art object but, and here is where his work aligns with Deleuze radical reinterpretation of art, but of the nature of Being and existence of material (as a living form) and “human” existence itself.  It is why Barney’s work, and that of Michael Joaquin Grey’s, is not modern or postmodern but “overmodern” in the Nietzschean sense of overcoming these categories via a kind of eternal return of Pre-Socratic philosophy.

[7] The Logic of Sense is one of Deleuze most important yet difficult texts. What is important here is a) the idea of a “logic” of sense, and b) sense in French is sens, which refers both to sense as meaning, sensation, and orientation. Deleuze philosophical world (for it is a world) is one of vectors and forces (what Nietzsche called the will to power), which are not mere metaphors. Here is where links between his work and Barney’s as “wayward siblings” is particularly provocative.   

[8] Alexandra Keller and Frazer Ward , “Matthew Barney and the Paradox of the Neo-Avant-Garde Blockbuster,” Cinema Journal, Vol. 45, no. Winter, 2006, 2. This essay represents the generally negative attitude of  the critical theory art historian (e.g. the students of Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh and October Magazine in general for whom Barney is, safely to say, toxic. ) The article, and this critique, is not wrong, in fact in its thorough evaluation of Barney in relation to the history of minimalism and performance, it is illuminating but in the end, by remaining within the art historical field of the present, misses the deeper complexity of Barney’s work. For instance, to reduce Barney’s work to the commodified blockbuster (which it no doubt is) rather than see it as in relation to it, without a deeper analysis of his work in general, and the structures of the art market and capitalism today, misses too much complexity. The work, and the artist, are reified into an image of the work, rather than seen as working through and beyond the very spectacle. For instance, “The dissolution of sculpture has been enormously productive of and for performance; so while Barney’s claim to his films’ generative effects relies rhetorically on the instability of sculpture as a category, to claim performance-and film-as sculptural, and to see them as “a family of objects,” as Barney does, might be curiously retrograde.” (4) In other words, they characterize him as kind of clueless and out of date rather than as returning to this notion of sculpture in what is to me a pretty interesting context—post-the expanded field, post, postmodernism and post-spectacle culture itself . “Barney’s claim to the sculptural status of his films is not consistent with a by-now familiar postmodern hybridity (e.g., Tony Oursler, Stan Douglas, Douglas Gordon, and IsaacJulien); instead, it subsumes Cremaster’s hybridity in a hierarchy of sculpture over film, high over low.” (4) No, it is conversation with it. In this sense it is overmodernity (Übermodernity) not as “over” but as a working through and beyond, a transvaluation of the modern and postmodern.

[10] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is philosophy? (New York, Columbia University, 1996 ©1991), 166.

[12] Drawing Restraint 9.

[13] Deleuze, op.cit.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “A Conversation: Matthew Barney and Adam Phillips,” in Matthew Barney:Prayer Sheet with the Wound and the Nail,(Basil, Germany: Schwabe Verlag, Exhibition catalogue, June 12-October 3, 2010,  22. Curated  and edited by Neville Wakefield. 

[16] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: 2, p. 200.

[17] Avital Ronell, Fighting Theory : Avital Ronell in Conversation Anne Dufourmantelle (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 29

[18] Matthew Barney, “Conversation with Adam Phillips,” Op cit.

[19] Ronell, Op Cit.

[20] Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, “Travels in hypertrophia: An interview with Matthew Barney,” Artforum, 1995

[21] Neville Wakefield, “Prayer Sheet with the Wound and the Nail,” in Matthew Barney: Prayer Sheet with the Wound and the Nail, exhibition catalogue,15. 



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