Is this the fear that holds the universe? Is pain the fundament? All the rivers veins of pain? The oceans of my mind awash? I have a thirst like the heat of earth on fire. Mountains writhe. I see waves of flame. Washes, flashes, waves of flame.

Thirst is the rivers of the body. The rivers burn but do not move. Flesh – is it flesh? – lies beneath some heated stone. Lava rises in burned-out fields […]

Is one human? Or merely alive? Like a blade of grass equal to all existence in the moment is torn? Yes. If pain is fundament, then a blade of grass can know all there is.

– Norman Mailer, Ancient Evenings
Source material for Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament

With these opening lines, Mailer makes it clear: pain is fundamental to life in the Ancient Evenings universe. Pain is not a product of consciousness, but is inseparable from consciousness; it is acutely present at every creature’s birth and death and fills all the spaces between, flowing through every life, giving urgency and meaning to each moment. If, as the passage above suggests, a blade of grass plucked from the ground feels the same kind of sensation as a person whose limb is torn from her body, then every living thing is bound by a capacity for pain. Subsequently, to numb ourselves against pain is to move closer to death on a spectrum where life is throbbing at the other end.

Barney and Bepler’s film is an extension of Mailer’s universe and adheres to the same law. In order to push us toward the living end of the spectrum, the film heaps us with an overabundance of beauty as well as an array of subtle torments: the challenge of piecing together an a-linear narrative, the tedium of sitting still, and stew of affects that include discomfort, dissonance, repulsion, confusion, controversy, and oversaturation. As I took in the film I could feel my capacity to tolerate these sensations being repeatedly tested; each time my threshold was reached, I had to ease that threshold back an inch. After an hour or so I noticed I was alternately resisting and submitting to the film’s offerings – interacting with the pain. This dance gave me a role to play in the unfolding drama.

From the blade of grass to the human spectator, we all rail against injury, infection and perversion (or images of these) in order to preserve ourselves as we are. But we humans have the unique ability to deny this preservative instinct if we so choose, allowing fresh horrors to penetrate our armor for the sake of transforming ourselves into stronger and more complex beings. This, for me, is the sacred function of art: to change us, even wound us, compelling us heal into a different shape.

While watching River of Fundament, you will encounter moments of rapture that will coax you to open up to the film. These are interspersed by moments of pain that compel you to retreat – to seal your sensory orifices with clay, if I can borrow another image from Mailer. My advice is to observe your mind carefully as it draws these occasional barriers against the imagery and sound. Acknowledge your resistance and move past it, submitting to your transformation.


Katherine Irving

Manager and Assistant Programmer of Film and Video

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston