Last week Sam and I flew to Detroit; the first stage of a month-long whirlwind trip, which includes the Red River Gorge, KY; Yangshuo, China; Mexico City, MX; and Banff, Canada.

We were invited to Detroit to attend a live art performance by Matthew Barney, the artist who I worked for in Basel, Switzerland this past June (for my personal account on the Pezl Team blog and some background on Barney, look here and here).  Barney’s wild imagination was brought to life in an extravagant and sensational live performance like nothing I have experienced before.  The entire show lasted around 8 hours and was moving, with scenes set on several locations around the city.  There were only 200 guests invited to watch the performance – a one-time only event reserved for some of the most prominent figures in the art world as well as some of Matthew’s friends and family.

The details of the event are long and complicated, involving a murder mystery story based on Norman Mailer’s novel “Ancient Evenings” about an Ancient Egyptian myth.  Barney’s project tells Mailer’s story with the setting and time frame set in industrial Detroit.

Below is my brief account of what I saw:

We began our journey at the Detroit Institute of Art, one of the most impressive museums I have ever visited.  We were then escorted by the Detroit Police Department from the museum all over the city.  First we rode greyhound buses on a tour of old and new.  We saw the new Lions’ and Tigers’ stadiums, as well as the old stadium and the abandoned train station; a tall, majestic looking building with every window shattered.  It had a jagged, harsh beauty to it that seemed to set the mood for the rest of the day.  We rode through some extremely dilapidated industrial neighborhoods, stopping outside a run down building that turned out to be an old glue factory.  It was inside there that we watched an assembly line of workers construct around 20 metal violins and hand them off to musicians, who played them for us as a woman resembling Aretha Franklin in appearance and sound belted out a powerful solo.

The Detroit Institute of Art

After the musicians were finished, we exited the building, which happened to be on the bank of the Rouge River, and hopped aboard a 185 ft barge for around 4 hours.  The weather on that day was awful.  It was frigid, windy, and raining.  Thankfully, I had prepared adequately and wore all of the three jackets I had brought on my trip, in addition to a winter hat and gloves.  The other audience members were less prepared.  One guy had only a cotton hoodie to keep warm.

View from the barge

Sam is cold.

We floated from the Rouge to the Detroit River, stopping once for the next scene, where several opera singers dressed as policewomen and FBI agents boarded the barge and sang as a car was dragged out of the river by a crane and placed before our feet.  We learned at this point that the car was the main character of the story.  It had suffered a tragic death and the FBI agents began to dismember it, gingerly taking it apart while 4 tugboats with brass players aboard them circled the barge, playing a mournful tune.

The "Crime Scene" on the barge

The Corpse of the car (Hugo Glendinning Photo)

We finally docked at an abandoned steel mill for the last scene and grand finale.  There were five 130 foot tall towers standing ominously above five furnaces heating molten iron.  Each of the ovens, called copulas, were emitting large amounts of fire and smoke.  On top of each of the towers stood a person, still as a statue, and only visible because they were dressed in fluorescent gold jumpsuits.  Three of these people were friends of ours, climbers hired by Matthew on our recommendation because he wanted people who’d be comfortable at that height.  The entire scene appeared eerie and menacing.  I felt a buzz of electric suspense and excitement.  After all the crazy things I had already seen that day, I expected this to be the most dramatic.  This scene was certainly set for something wild to happen.

The corpse of the car was lifted off of the barge and placed on the ground.  It was then cut into several pieces using large blow torches and transported in a dump truck up toward the towers.  The audience was then told to walk toward the towers and stand on top of two platforms situated in front of the copulas. All of the musicians were there too: the violin players, opera singers, brass section, even iron workers banging on dumpsters and other industrial materials, creating a multitude of sounds that melded together to form an impressive orchestra.  The gold-dressed statues atop the towers began zipping cymbals down wires, like circular blades on a zip line, creating a high pitched noise that was unsettling and startling.

The weather took a turn for the worse at this point.  The wind and rain picked up and tore through us incessantly for an hour and half while we stood atop the platform, watching the musicians and dozens of iron workers attempt to heat the five copulas in preparation for what would be the largest non-industrial metal pour in history.  The dump truck containing the car parts was suddenly on fire for some reason and lumbered slowly toward the copulas, where workers hoisted the parts up and threw them into the inferno to melt with the rest of the ore. When ready, the molten iron would be released from the ovens and flow down five corridors into a giant mold in the shape of the skeleton of a car,  I assumed as an enactment of reincarnation.

It felt like we stood there for an eternity.  I kept thinking that something was going to happen, but it just didn’t.  We found out later that the temperature had dropped so dramatically and the wind was so strong it was difficult to get the ovens hot enough.  The workers continued stoking, throwing giant blocks of iron ore into the openings at the top of the furnaces as flames and smoke billowed out.  Seconds felt like minutes and minutes were hours as the wind strengthened and the rain sent sheets of icy water into my face and soaked my clothes. I was frozen and shivering uncontrollably.  I kept thinking longingly of sitting down and being warm, while wondering numbly how the guy in the hoodie was faring as well as our friends on top of the towers, their gold costumes flapping wildly in the wind.  Some of these people have to be hypothermic by now I thought. Then, finally, something did happen.

I felt a rush of warmth and looked up to see molten iron gushing out the side of one of the copulas like a giant wound.   Workers were frantically running around trying to contain it and stay out of harm’s way.  One of the cookers inside the oven had busted.  The other ovens were released shortly after so that the mold would be given a chance to form.  The liquid iron spewed out dramatically, hissing and spitting and throwing sparks onto our platform.  The iron resembled lava, hot-orange and twisting its path through the contours of the ground into the mold at the base of the ovens.  It was like watching a volcano erupt 100 feet away.  I heard a loud pop and sparks exploded in a stream over our heads.  It was then that the police officers and workers told us to get OFF the platform, the performance was over.  Apparently, when molten iron comes in contact with water (in this case, small puddles caused by the rain) it has a tendency to explode.  We staggered away from the scene as the five gold statues dumped giant buckets of gold glitter mixed with glycerin down each tower, creating a vibrant gold streak down the length of each one.  We were drenched and slipping in the mud, but completely astonished and hypnotized by what we had just witnessed.

The Finale (Sam Elias photo)

An iron worker preparing the mold after the pour (Hugo Glendinning photo)

The Copulas (Hugo Glendinning Photo)

We were immediately ushered onto a bus and taken to an abandoned building filled with heat lamps, candle-lit tables, a bar, and caterers serving steaming bowls of chili and cornbread.  Everyone from the performance was there, even Matthew and his partner Bjork, as well as the hundred or so cast members and iron workers, their faces covered in soot and grime from working near the ovens for hours.  Our friends managed to rappel safely off the towers and join us as well to thaw out under in the warmth.   Everyone was smiling and animated after the thrilling end to the performance, which had not gone exactly as planned due to the horrendous weather.   Obviously, the oven was not supposed to break open and the audience was not supposed to get sprayed with sparks and hot liquid metal.  There was supposed to be another scene after the metal pour involving a live vulture and some more music; but things don’t always go as planned. Thankfully, no one was hurt and we all agreed that the miserable weather and the unfortunate but exciting ending probably added more to the show than if things had gone accordingly.

There was a strong sense of triumph and collective accomplishment that night. Several of the people who participated in the project were local, working-class individuals who never dreamed of being a part of something so removed from their everyday lives.  Detroit has recently been a city characterized by decay and economic depression.  The once booming industrial capital is now a hollow shadow of it’s previous self.  Matthew’s project highlighted these aspects and brought it under a new light, celebrating the city’s history and focusing on it’s creative potential. Art is not something typically associated with industry, but Matthew made the connection and brought it to life.  The project may not have provided anything tangible to the city or to those who live and work there, but it did bring inspiration, hope, and creativity to an otherwise depressed and struggling community.  I was honored to be able to witness such an event, and I would stand in the freezing rain all over again just to experience it.

Matthew and iron workers (Hugo Glendinning Photo)

To try and explain the entire premise and each individual scene would take some time, but I found an article that sums it up nicely. Check here if you’re interested in the background.


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