The Quarterback at Twilight: On Matthew Barney’s “Secondary”
By Samuel Fury Childs DalySeptember 27, 2023
Barney blurs the lines between sculpture, performance art, and cinema. The films have casts of thousands, and they involve vast mobilizations of people and material. He choreographs acts of creation and destruction that are almost religious in scale—several feature massive demolition derbies, one in the lobby of the Chrysler Building. Often he shows something being made, or altered—a sculpture, or a car, or sometimes an industrial process. There are elaborate depictions of electroplating and injection molding, and one features an iron-smelting sequence so epic it defies description. These are unsubtle spectacles that would be at home in an action movie, made artistically respectable by the surreal trappings that surround them. The hubris of it all is stunning.
Despite his Yale education and his patrician tone, Barney has a working-class sensibility; watch an interview with him and you’ll see someone who speaks like an academic but dresses like a teamster. This means that Barney cuts an unusual figure in the art world. He is thoroughly a jock, and his work is so unapologetically macho that describing it can sound like parody. A “cycle” of films named after part of the scrotum? A six-hour opera about Norman Mailer? This is art by, for, and about men, even though the machismo is more mottled than it might appear at first glance.
The scenes Barney stages can be so repellent that they end up being strangely beautiful (one scatological moment from 2014’s River of Fundament will be with me forever), or so reactionary that they come full circle and become radical. Barney celebrates, and seems to revel in, the rites and emblems of a traditional masculinity that is today almost universally pathologized—especially among people who tend to work in art galleries. It’s shocking how much he gets away with. In an age of hair-trigger sensitivity about cultural appropriation, he splices interludes of step teams and Native American hoop dancers into his films. He flirts with conservative themes, like gun rights (in 2019’s Redoubt), and he takes up strange causes (Drawing Restraint 9, from 2005, is, among other things, an apologia for the Japanese whaling industry). The films sometimes engage with politics, but race, class, and identity are usually sublimated (a very Barneyesque concept) into the larger pageantry. Barney himself is often the center of that pageant. Decked out in costumes or uniforms, transformed into monsters or animals, covered in mud, blood, shit, or Vaseline, he and his muscles are part of the tableau.
The Cremaster Cycle left such an impression on me that I picked up some of its tics and obsessions: the fetishization of strength, the vain love of muscle cars and other status symbols, the paraphiliac’s blurred vision of people and the clothes they wear. I’m not the only one. Occasionally, I meet others who feel the same kinship to him that I do, and nearly all of them are gay men (Barney himself is, by all accounts, straight). He has a particular appeal to us, and it’s not just because he never passes up a chance to show off his body. Barney’s work is almost always about some anguished side of masculinity. His depictions of male feelings and desires—sometimes proud, sometimes tortured—register vividly to people who have to think about their manhood all the time. Barney has always had a devoted and sometimes obsessive gay following, and now that his work has been around for a generation, there are people who have grown up with it. We now find ourselves aging along with him, and in recent years he’s started staging the spectacle of our mutual decline.
Queer interpretations of Barney’s work have fixated on his fixations: elaborate castration scenes and the decision to cast his own mother as his childhood football hero (Jim Otto, in The OTTO Trilogy) invite Freudian interpretations, and the preponderance of Vaseline leads the mind to a particular kind of sex. Anal plugs and dildos made of titanium and tapioca were important props of his early work, and look-at-me body showmanship has been there just as long. The films can be titillating and suggestive, sometimes downright homoerotic. “Barney flirts not just with a gay audience, but with homosexuality itself,” wrote art critic Bruce Hugh Russell in the October 1998 issue of Parachute, “all the more effectively to reassert his albeit perverse ‘normality.’ Just as he hides his penis from the threatening female gaze in mock-castration to transform himself into the phallus, he is penetrated to demonstrate that he is man enough to resist the nominative power of the act.” Most queer readings, of which there are fewer than you might think, have followed this vein, zeroing in on the ways his performances are like sex, as if anal penetration is the sine qua non of queer meaning.
Matthew Barney is so much queerer than the dildos might suggest. He dissects the rituals of boyhood and manhood, stripping them down to the bone so we can see how they work. Actual sex is rare, but genitalia abound. Women are never absent from the worlds he creates—they’re often the main characters, especially in his more recent work. But this doesn’t make it less androcentric. He’s more interested in maleness than in men per se, so there’s no reason why female actors or athletes can’t perform the feats of strength, skill, and endurance that he puts his players through (they perform them virtuosically, and Barney is not exactly a male supremacist). But regardless of who’s executing them, what distinguishes these tasks—most of them violent in one way or another—is that they’re all ways men have historically measured themselves against one another. Barney sets his epics in the places where men work, play, fight, and test their limits: the sports field, the shop floor, the Masonic lodge. His latest work, about football and its rituals, is the most macho thing he’s ever made—and the queerest.
This is a five-channel video installation called Secondary, which restages a grisly moment from a 1978 football game that Barney watched on TV as a child. In a preseason exhibition game, New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley had his spine broken after a gratuitously vicious tackle by Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum. He was paralyzed for the rest of his life. The moment was replayed widely, and in Barney’s telling, it was formative: rather than scaring him away from football, it galvanized his love for the game, and he became a high school quarterback. But Barney stages this incident with a twist: the six men who reenact it, including Barney himself, are old—athletic men in their fifties and sixties, roughly the age that Tatum and Stingley were when they died in the 2000s, just a few years apart.
Anxiety about the sport’s risks is perennial. Fifty years after the Stingley–Tatum incident, more is known about the specificity of those risks, principally the brain disorder called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). But it isn’t as if no one knew football was a dangerous pastime. The violence has always been there, and no amount of mitigation will change that. Secondary says aloud what NFL officials and high school coaches never would: injury isn’t an unfortunate side effect of the game to be managed away by better padding or tighter rules. The pain is the point.
Secondary isn’t a screed against football, nor against the larger violence of American life that Barney makes it a metonym for. He builds toward the moment of impact with blood-roiling Sturm und Drang, and when it finally comes, it’s staged beautifully, more dance than combat. Secondary is to football was Ernst Jünger’s World War I memoir Storm of Steel (1920) was to warfare: a clear-eyed interpretation of why men love violence, executed so well that we can forget, for a moment, the dubious morality of the phenomenon being interpreted.
Secondary is presented in Barney’s studio in one of the last remaining industrial corners of Long Island City, right at the edge of the East River. The studio is laid out like a playing field, with a Jumbotron installed in the center that displays one of the channels. The game, filmed in the same space where it’s now projected, is played on an enormous carpet of AstroTurf, emblazoned with a shape that Barney calls the “field emblem,” a kind of calling card for him. Four more screens project the other channels at the field’s corners, such that you never quite see all the action.
In the opening scenes, the players prepare protective gear out of sheets of terra-cotta, and a thick slime that one ineffectually coats his hands with. Barney himself disassembles a Riddell football helmet, wrapping its innards around his head with athletic tape, making a parodic mock-up of the real thing. In his training sequence, he throws himself on the ground heavily and painfully, which drives home how little stands between him and the blunt force of the game. Secondary is foremost a reflection on aging, and never is it clearer how the body grows old than when you’re watching one get pummeled.
Next comes a montage of abstracted warm-ups. One player molds a football out of transparent goop and tries repeatedly to throw it as it comes apart in his hands. There’s no actual ball in this game. Various substances stand in for it at different moments. They shatter, or dissolve into ooze. Most often the ball is mimed, making the plays seem ghostly and acrobatic. Barney has an abiding interest in removing balls—sometimes through castration, here through simple elision. Another character is the Raiders coach, who casts dumbbells out of molten metal and excavates a menacing-looking object (the frame of a blocking dummy?) from a pile of dirt. During the game, he watches the action from the booth with an ambiguous expression. Barney himself, playing Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, stands in front of a whiteboard, planning complicated and opaque plays. “VERTICAL GAME” he writes at the top. Aside from the six players, other characters fetishistically act out different things that happen at a football game. A singer performs a screeching anthem in which only one word (“BOMBS BOMBS BOMBS BOMBS”) is discernible, the only language in a story otherwise communicated entirely through movement. Three referees, two women and one man, make obscure whistling noises to one another. Raiders fans mill around menacingly in the background, dressed for battle.
Central to the action is a muddy hole dug into the floor of the studio. Barney’s studio sits on pilings built over the shore of the East River, and a broken pipe at the bottom of the hole fills it with water as the tide comes in. One of the Raiders players plumbs it, covering himself in mud as he boulders around, an impressive but futile feat of athleticism. The final 15 minutes of the piece consist of a real-time reenactment of the tackle, marked by a large digital countdown clock. When it arrives, Stingley’s paralysis is shocking even though you know it’s coming. It’s followed by something like a burial in the trench, now full of muddy water, although it isn’t clear who, or what, is being buried. A heavy, lacy construction made from the dumbbells cast earlier is lowered into it. When the water drains away, the muddy dumbbells look uncannily like bones. The hole looks like a grave, or maybe a trench—football mimics warfare, and Barney makes the resonance between fighting and playing explicit.
Maybe people who feel no need to reflect on masculinity aren’t moved by all this. But to gay and trans men, or maybe to anyone who has a twisted romance with manliness, Secondary is like an arrow to the heart. One way of seeing Barney’s work is as a vast anatomical drawing of the male body—The Cremaster Cycle, after all, is named for the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles. Secondary depicts that same body in decline. It asks a question that gay men have obsessed over since The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890): what’s left when the skin sags, and the muscles deflate? For those of us who consciously approach masculinity as a performance, Barney has always seemed like a guide. “Here’s how it works,” he seems to say. “These are the moving parts, and here’s how they fit together.” In Secondary, the machine starts to jam and sputter.
Samuel Fury Childs Daly is associate professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of A History of the Republic of Biafra: Law, Crime, and the Nigerian Civil War (Cambridge, 2020). He is currently writing a comparative study of why soldiers run from battle, entitled The Good Soldier: A Global History of Military Deserters.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.