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Matthew Barney: Redoubt review – intriguing brew of sharpshooters, bears and strange goings on in the forest

The Guardian logo The Guardian 21/05/2021 Adrian Searle

Matthew Barney’s Redoubt at the Hayward is a bewildering and intriguing litany of objects and fleeting, capricious images. At its heart is a feature-length film whose themes and images are continued and compounded by several monumentally scaled sculptures and a long series of engraved, etched and otherwise chemically treated and electroplated relief copper plates. Craft tips into alchemy, materiality into magic, film into myth-making and mystery. It is all connected.

Barney’s last major offering, River of Fundament, was a six-hour film that took its cues from Norman Mailer’s near-unreadable Ancient Evenings and the death and rebirth of American conceptual artist James Lee Byars. Excrement featured heavily, and the film was only shown in opera houses.

For Redoubt, the Hayward’s raised mezzanine has been turned into a cinema, with rows of seats — none of those puritanical hard benches so beloved by galleries here — a big screen and good sound. But it is unlikely though that many will sit through the full two and a quarter hours of Redoubt here. There’s just too much else to look at elsewhere. Visitors can in any case watch again at home, and stream the work for a week. This is a welcome innovation. More galleries should follow this example. In any case, there are scenes and moments here that reward repeated viewings.

In the film, Barney plays The Engraver, a grizzled ranger for the Forestry Department, staying in the trailer workshop and home of his collaborator, electroplater KJ Holmes, in the Sawtooth Mountains in the Idaho Rockies. Lost in his observations, and recording what he sees on cumbersome copper plates, he’s a plein-air artist in the snowy landscape. A custodian of the wild, he is also watched, pursued, and shot at by Diana, played by NRA champion sharpshooter Anette Wachter, and her two female companions, a Watching Virgin and a Tracking Virgin. Everyone and everything, both human and animal, does a great deal of watching, waiting and tracking.

Back at the trailer, the engraver reworks his copper plates, drawing and scraping at the metal with his burin, spotting the plate with acid, then passing the heavy plates to the electroplater. Performing all sorts of technical business, she lowers his engraved plates into vats of chemicals, constantly checking the bubblings and the fumes, adding patina and passing an electrical current through the liquid to electroplate his images, affecting all kinds of transformations. It is good to watch the skilled at work. She has her own stuff to do too, constructing what looks like an orrery or astrolabe from copper swarf and cardboard. All this is alchemy as much as science or art. The moon’s phases and the whirling constellations have as much to do with astrology as astronomy, and the relationships of ranger and hunters to the wildlife have an animist streak.

The landscape itself looks like an etching. Pitted, foul-bitten rocks emerge from whiteness. The rough cross-hatchings of branches and tree trunks, the stark scratchy tangles of underbrush, the night spangled with stars and silhouetted trees. Arcs and vectors smear the copper, the equivalent of wind, or animal cries, distant gunfire or the turn of the stars. Blotches bloom on the plates, as curdled as a river’s eddy of mud and snowmelt water, or the slush of animal blood seeping into the snow.

There is no dialogue, and a lot going on that comes without explanation. A retelling of Ovid’s mythological tale of Diana and Actaeon, with added complications, Redoubt, like all Barney’s films, is a complicated affair. At times one thinks of Titian’s great paintings of the subject, except the hunters here are all in technical wear, survivalist designer-camo, right down to the triggers of their guns and the snoods about their necks. It’s the wrong camo for the season, the mountains being snowbound and the trees bare, but that is a minor point, even if such quibbles are the sort to drive readers of Field and Stream to their overheated keyboards. And where would they hire a Tracking Virgin? Etchers and engravers might have a few questions about Barney’s procedures too, but the real point here is the fetishism of weaponry and clothing, the Engraver’s arcane tools and curious techniques, the lovely clunkiness and delicacy of the worked-over copper plates, which also migrates into the sculptures and other works ranged through the Hayward’s galleries and onto the sculpture deck.

Matthew Barney with one of his sculptures, Diana.. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA © Provided by The Guardian Matthew Barney with one of his sculptures, Diana.. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Gigantic, adulterated casts of tree-trunks morph with oversized modern rifle stocks and sights, cartridge chambers and hunter’s tripods and rests. Weird plastics and alloys, pink copper and traceries of metallised, camo-patterned and honeycombed bark unpeel to show splintered branches, burst rifle-muzzles and plugged cartridge ejection ports. The artist has always had a thing about details such as this.

No prints were ever pulled from his copper plates, which are more relief images than vehicles for making inked impressions on paper. They exist in an intermediary state, and as much the work of a fictional Engraver as Barney himself — and you must both get up close and move around them so the light catches on the drawing engraved in the metal. Your own reflection swims within the images too. Watch it come and go, along with the dark bulk of a bear, the naked body of one of Diana’s companions, stars glimmering among the trees, black forest flanking the mountain. These works on copper are genuinely strange and beautiful.

In the film, nature is a force and a presence, never just a backdrop. Like Barney’s sculpted trees in the gallery, the ecology of the Sawtooth Mountains is a delicately maintained artificial construct, not so much primal as managed and manipulated, from the carefully monitored habitat of the bull trout to the reintroduced packs of grey wolves, who keep the numbers of elk and deer in balance. A list of the wolf packs annotates one of Barney’s copper plates.

There’s mountain lions, porcupines and bears in the woods, and wolves padding through the snow, but the top predators here are people. Diana with her high velocity rifle and her bows and night vision goggles, Barney with his guns and his knife and his engraver’s burin. He shoots a cougar in a tree, skins a wolf Diana has shot (we are told no live animals were actually harmed in the film). If Diana is tracking the Engraver, he is also tracking her, engraving her image again and again, swathed in her camouflage patterns and swirled about by branches. Once, she shoots his copper plate, the ricochet doing its own kind of drawing. Another shot takes a bite out of the metal.

The catalogue to Redoubt expands the themes in a number of fascinating essays. You learn about tracking wolves, the history of electroplating, the secret cold war bunkers and silos in the mountains and deserts of Idaho, ecology and meteorology and land use, tourism and mad plans to divert rivers from Canada to California, Ovid’s Metamorphosis and much besides All too much, if you like, to process succinctly. This most wilful of artist’s work is worth the complications. Barney might entertain and astonish, but there are hidden and mysterious depths here, things half-seen or buried like a landscape under snow, an image coruscated by acid or fogged and crusted by the electroplating process. Sometimes in the film we see Barney’s plates under the unearthly light of a UV lamp, revealing things the eye can’t usually see. Such is the way of his work.

Wolves maraud the electroplater’s trailer, wrecking everything except his plates. They drink from the electroplater’s tank. One of the virgins is hoisted like an animal for skinning, or like Titian’s Marsyas, for flaying, then lowered again, unharmed. Diana drools honey down the muzzle of her rifle, and one of her companions uses a hank of Diana’s hair to clean out the barrel. The moon goes into eclipse, stars wheel, the Electroplater howls and Barney’s nowhere to be seen.

Matthew Barney: Redoubt is at the Hayward Gallery, London, until 25 July.

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