Matthew Barney, Back in the Game

This hit, which happened 45 years ago, shook the world of football. Then the people went ahead just as fast. But not Darryl Stingley, the New England Patriots’ receiver who bore down on a head-on charge by Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders. Stingley was awarded quadriplegia. Tatum, a defender known as “The Assassin,” notoriously never apologized.

Artist Matthew Barney was 11 years old in Idaho at the time and recalls the event from frequent slow-motion replays on television. He was just taking himself seriously in the game, and the Tatum-Stingley collision, though shocking, didn’t deter him. Violence was included in football training, he recalled. He used to get addicted to it.

Barney related the departure, editing “Secondary”, in an interview in March, saying “that was my entrance, head banging and what you feel in your body”. He enjoyed the drill drills, where he and the other boys were ordered to hit each other at top speed, he said. “You’ll be gone, and you’ll be seeing the stars.”

Barney became an elite high-school quarterback, but changed course during his years at Yale University, emerging from there in 1989 into the New York art world, where he found immediate success. The physical pressure from the “drawing restraint” projects was immediately prominent in his work, for example, he would harness himself and attempt to draw on the wall as well as the walls and ceiling of a gallery.

The football served as an allusion to the “Jim Otto Suite” that Barney created in 1991–92, one of the earliest works that established his distinctive approach to combining performance, video, and sculpture. Its inspiration was Otto, a Raiders player whose multiple injuries caused his body to be filled with prosthetic materials. Otto’s story demystifies resilience and destruction, and artistically opens the horizons of performance and sculpture.

But the game itself would take a backseat in Barney’s work, to countless other themes – sexual discrimination, reincarnation, cars, sewers and excrement, among many others – and to the epic scale and baroque staging of his “Cremaster Cycle” (1994–2002). is surrounded. Films “River of Fundament” (2014). (The Metrograph, a movie theater in Manhattan, is showing “Cremaster” movies this month and next.)

With “Secondary,” which is open through June 25, Barney is pulling on a loose end that goes back to his childhood. From a place of physical and intellectual maturity, he is examining a sport – and a country, because football is quintessentially American – that may or may not change. Now 56, he is taking stock of himself and an uneasy nation.

“There’s a way that violence in our culture has become so exposed everywhere you look,” he said. “I feel my connection to that heritage is through my experience on the football field. I wanted to create a piece that looked more than one way.”

The new job brief for Barney is brief. It runs for an hour, the clock time of a football game. Six of the principal cast of 11 played players in the 1978 game, including Barney as Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler. It was filmed at Barney’s Warehouse Studios in Long Island City near the East River. And it’s now showing the public the same location — its last use of the space before moving to a nearby facility.

Last fall and winter, the studio served as a simulated football field, a movement lab, and a film set. When I visited, the principal cast – including David Thomson, who plays Stingley and is the project’s movement director, and Rafael Javier as Tatum – were walking through a few episodes that tell the story in an indirect sequence. .

Strange things were also going on. Extras around the sidelines wore all-black costumes of devoted Raiders fans, who roamed around like camp horror figures; Some were actors, but others were members of the Raiders New York City fan club. Some were being filmed inside trenches that had been dug into the studio floor, showing pipes, dirt and water.

An artist’s studio, Barney said, is characteristic of the stadium. “It’s a kind of organizing body for this story,” he said, adding, “I wanted my place of work to be a character.”

Digging the trench, he said, revealed rotting pipes and how the tide flooded and moved under buildings. “I wanted the infrastructure to be highlighted, both as an expression of Stingley’s broken spine, but also as the crumbling infrastructure within my studio within New York City,” he said.

For all its connotations, the “secondary”—the title referring to the back line of defenders on the football field, the cornerbacks and safeties whose job it is to shadow the wide receivers and break up any passing plays—takes the Tatum-Stingley phenomenon as its Contains narrative and moral core.

It is rich and also has sad content. Stingley died in 2007 at the age of 55; Tatum, 61, died three years later. All his life after the hit, Stingley wanted an apology that never came. Tatum argued that the hit was just part of the job, even though he also claimed that his style of play pushed the line. Since then a flood of research has confirmed the toll of the game. Stabler, whom Barney played in “Secondary,” contributed to this knowledge posthumously when his brain was shown to have advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

I asked whether Barney, the former quarterback, had come to worry about his own health. “Honestly, yes,” he said. He was glad, he added, that he stopped playing when he did.

“Secondary” has a staccato format, amplified by its staging: a jumbotron-like overhead device shows one video channel on three screens, while four other channels play on monitors around the studio. The hits start early, but most of the subsequent action returns to buildup – players warm up, fans get hyped. Play sequences roughly make up the last third.

The point was never the literal treatment, said Thomson, director of the movement and a close collaborator of Barney’s on the project. “This is not a docudrama,” he said. “I’m not trying to be stingy, a guy I don’t know. We’re not representing his life, we’re representing a moment.

Still, Thomson said, from studying real-life athletes, he picked out traits that explained how he worked with the actors who portray them. Stingley, he said, was earnest. Tatum, angry. Grogan, Tech. Each feature, he said, “became a touchstone to go back to without much flourish, and see what resonates from that space.”

In their research, Barney and Thomson read biographies of Tatum and Stingley and watched hours of football highlights and practice reels. Video of the hit — which came in a pre-season game that featured no competitive betting — is grainy and sparse. The camera follows the ball behind Stingley’s outstretched arms, so that the hit is at the edge of the frame. There weren’t dozens of camera angles available like today.

This opened up space for improvisation, and for Barney to introduce the sculpture that the players interact with. (Barney has always said he is a sculptor first and plans to show these works in future exhibitions.)

Dancer Xavier, who plays Tatum, had to contend with a pile of wet clay dumbbells that ripped and broke while he was carrying them. “I’ve worked with props before, but they were solid,” he said. “But the soil was alive.” This forced him, he said, to explore the vulnerability, even tenderness, inside a character he remembered from his childhood as an aggressive, even soccer player. .

In fact, the main players in “secondary” are middle-aged men negotiating the memory of the culture in which they grew up – and of their own bodies. Even the stylized, football movements included in the piece are not comfortable or easy for men in their 50s and 60s.

Barney “specifically wanted older bodies, which I appreciated,” Thomson said. “What are the limits that hold back bodies that may have a different resonance, a different visual narrative?”

But “secondary” encompasses other perspectives because it points to a broader, contemporary American social landscape. The referees are a mixed-gender contingent. Jacqueline Deschidon, a musician, experimental singer and member of the San Carlos Apache Nation, performs a highly distorted version of the national anthem.

“As an Indigenous person, this was something I was excited to take on,” Deschidan said. They also became drawn to the environmental aspect of the work, spending breaks on the set walking around in damp ditches. “It brought up the imagery of bones and burials, and repatriation work — the kind that really have institutions built over our bones.”

Barney is an art-world figure (whose fame only grew during her decade-long relationship with Icelandic pop artist Björk), but he prefers a low profile. On set, he cut a work appearance with his close-shaven look tucked under a hat. In “Secondary” the cast stated that his work ethic was intense but his approach was open. While some of the people on the project are longtime collaborators of his, such as musician Jonathan Bepler, many are new to his world.

With “Secondary” there’s a sense that Barney is turning a page—certainly with studio moves, after some 15 years on that site, but also in a somewhat personal way. When I asked if he felt his age – our age, as we are contemporaries – he said yes.

“In a good way,” he said. “It’s a great relief to let go of being young.”

Compared to their earlier work, “Secondary” strikes a more concise and collaborative note. “It’s more connected to the world,” he said. “It’s a piece that’s thinking through the environment within which it was created. In my 20s, I was trying to figure out ways to assign a physical language to what was inside me. It The piece is different in that way.

“Secondary” may take its cues from 1978 and invite its players into a kind of memory work through its body – but the structure of the work, with its emphasis on the buildup everyone knows is coming , activates it with Premiere.

It ends in an elegiac vein, with the final shot sweeping the city. “It felt important to pan from the specific to the general,” Barney said. “As much as the studio is a kind of micro frame, the larger the city and the country we live in. I want there to be some kind of legibility to read those different scales – for them all to be there.”