Ovid’s telling of the story of Diana and Actaeon, which supposedly inspired Matthew Barney’s new feature-length work, Redoubt, is one of those myths of mortal trespass that artists can’t resist, perhaps because on some level they would like to imagine themselves as doing something worthy of cruel punishment by the gods. It goes like this: Actaeon, a hunter from the city of Thebes, stumbles upon a sacred cave where Diana, the goddess of the hunt, is bathing with her nymphs. The goddess, embarrassed to have been seen in the buff by a mere mortal, turns Actaeon into a stag. He flees and is promptly chased and killed by his own hunting dogs.
No such gruesome death or transformation occurs in Redoubt, though there is a camo-clad goddess (Anette Wachter, a prizewinning sharpshooter) and a forest ranger who dabbles in engraving and gets on her bad side. The latter character, credited simply as the “Engraver,” is played by Barney himself. Standing in the snow, he scratches images of mountainsides (the film was shot on location in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range) into metal with a tool. Every now and then, he visits his friend, the Electroplater (K.J. Holmes), who lives off the grid in a trailer, to drink whiskey. Meanwhile, the goddess’ two attendants, the Calling Virgin (Eleanor Bauer, who also choreographed the film) and the Tracking Virgin (Laura Stokes), perform their slow, perplexing dance across the landscape. They do bathe, albeit not in the nude, and not in the presence of any human eyes—apart from those represented by Barney’s camera. Which probably means something, too.
Barney is an artist of many interests, though he is best known for his films: The Cremaster Cycle, a reputation-making five-part series produced from 1994 to 2002; Drawing Restraint 9, a collaboration with his then-partner, Björk, which received an unlikely theatrical release in 2006; and River Of Fundament, his scatological magnum opus, which premiered in 2014. Redoubt itself is the centerpiece of a larger exhibition that includes about 40 electroplated engravings and several large sculptures that were created by pouring molten metal into hollowed tree trunks. But to see those in person, viewers will have to go to Beijing. (Or London, where the show is due to open next March.)
Yet one can’t blame the shortcomings of Redoubt on the absence of its exhibit component. It has become something of a cliché of writing about Barney’s work (and avant-garde film in general) to describe the films as being impossible to summarize. In fact, they are easy to summarize; things tend to happen in them slowly. The truth is that it is hard to summarize them without making them sound inane while also making the writer come off as an anti-art philistine. Their appeal is in the experience—in watching Barney create and unfold his perversely and impressively scaled rituals, with their intermingling of anatomy and geology, industrial history and myth, grotesque extremity and kitsch, viscera and jelly.
None of which is to be found in Redoubt, a sedate (and by Barney standards, occasionally boring) film. Apart from some TV chatter heard in the background of a scene in a bar, Redoubt contains no spoken dialogue. But its hypnotic moments—such as an enigmatic hoop dance performed by a woman (Sandra Lamouche) in an American Legion outpost—are few and far between. It seems as though the artist, all too aware of his reputation for both pageantry and shock value, has decided to offer nothing of the kind. He certainly seems to be aware of his own age. The Cremaster movies usually disguised his good looks behind bizarre facial prosthetics; here, moving stiffly and wearing bifocals and a bushy Santa Claus beard, he appears at least a decade older than 52.
Barney’s best work has occasionally pulled off the feat of being enthralling and ridiculous at the same time, though Redoubt sometimes ends up being merely the latter; a sequence in which the Virgins perform a dance to clean Diana’s rifle using a rod threaded with a lock of the goddess’ hair comes to mind. Instead of having Diana disrobe by the waterside, Barney shows her field-stripping a Glock. His fascinations with machines and biomechanics have always gone hand-in-hand—though Redoubt’s conspicuous gun fetishism carries a very different connotation than the automotive and industrial imagery of his earlier film projects. The hunter’s dogs, in turn, have been replaced by wolves, implying some misgivings about the reintroduction of the species.
Which isn’t to say that Redoubt (which is in many respects a landscape film) doesn’t have its moments of strange and sparse beauty, assisted by a score by Barney’s regular musical collaborator, Jonathan Bepler. But in creating a less self-indulgent film, Barney ironically draws more attention to his cyclical meanings—which have always been the least interesting thing about him as an artist.