A Secret Performance

Matthew Barney
Matthew Barney Wikimedia Commons

By the East River in Queens, a rainstorm shrouded the view of New York City in a pale mist. The prolific artist Matthew Barney recently staged a non-public performance event here, in his new warehouse studio along the river. On the gate to his studio, a sign warned visitors of a secretive performance art event, which would include dangerous live animals and controversial content. The sign, the electric static of rain against pavement and the drum-beat on my umbrella set a mood of mystery before the show.

Famous for his enigmatic film series "The Cremaster Cycle"‑-which includes mythological goat creatures, plastic sculptures and a copious amount of Vaseline—Barney has also partnered with the elfin and otherworldly Icelandic pop star Bjork. Drawing Restraint 9, Bjork and Barney's recent film, features the couple on a Japanese whaling ship as they undergo a metamorphosis into whales.

A crowd of about 150 people gathered in the warehouse space, which featured a mangled lime-green car at its center, a waxy coffin and several Egyptian-style urns made out of a substance that seemed like cake-icing. As Bjork looked on, Barney's performance piece featured (take a deep breath): a platoon of men in olive garb and black ski masks--as if lifted from the Irish Republican Army--playing drums and strumming ukuleles; a woman in a silver gown laying on a gurney on top of the car; contortionists; and an enormous, shaggy bull with golden horns and a garland of flowers strung around its neck.

Barney stealthily entered his mythic scene too. He seemed like an ancient Egyptian god, wielding a cane, a pointy-eared dog perched above a head shrouded in a black veil. The pacing seemed slow and monkish—the first half-hour featured only the empty car and the occasional plucking of a ukulele by the militants in ski masks, dispersed across the space. I kept wishing Bjork would start singing, if only to lighten a performance that felt like a funeral procession. To paraphrase a friend of mine, some types of performance art can be measured in dog years: one minute feels like seven.

The other artists brought considerably more humor to the show even though they too explored primal and elemental themes. The smiling sculptor Michael Rees donned enormous white feet on every limb and jumped about the room; a Greek chorus in Franciscan monk robes sang about death and lit small fires.

Jonathan Meese, a German Expressionist artist, followed this performance. Earlier in the evening, I had been warned by a friend of his, a German arts journalist, that Meese had no idea what he was actually going to do. Despite his beard and long hair, Meese almost embodies pure, childlike art--his elderly mother manages most of his affairs. In contrast to the pretense of Barney's somber and choreographed performance, Meese jumped on a stage and launched into a nonsensical tirade of German and Japanese words (Hirohito! Hirohito!), danced a little, drew the iron cross on his bare chest and painted the words "Dictator of Art" in German across the floor with a stick. He then painted an "=", which pointed to Matthew Barney's mangled car.

Though "non-public," the uninhibited performances by Rees and Meese revealed how some artists stay refreshingly close to the child within despite the pretensions and machinations of the art world. At the same time, they can approach serious topics while laughing all at once, a noble pursuit.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.