‘Stress and failure’: Matthew Barney on his film about the sports accident that traumatised America

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The superstar of the avant garde has revisited a notorious football tackle that left one player paralysed. He talks about violence, ageing and how the US empire is in decline

There aren’t many people in the world who could produce a literal river of excrement and be hailed as a genius. But Matthew Barney, the 57-year-old US artist whose maximalist work often features sex, violence, testicles and shit, is one of them. The New York Times, back in 1999, called the sculptor, film-maker and performer “the most important artist of his generation”. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones has described The Cremaster Cycle, Barney’s most famous work, as one of the most “brilliant achievements in the history of avant-garde cinema”. Kanye West, more recently, called Barney his “Jesus”.

When I arrive at Barney’s New York studio on a grey spring day, the first thing I see isn’t the son of God but a snake. Or rather, a snakeskin – the creature itself is hiding in its tank. Its name is Hardeen, Barney tells me, after Harry Houdini’s brother. It is not a pet. The snake made an appearance in Barney’s 2014 film River of Fundament, a six-hour opera loosely based on Norman Mailer’s rewrite of the Egyptian book of the dead. It features Mailer’s spirits, in various incarnations, crossing a river of sewage. “Hardeen,” Barney jokes, “is a retired actor.”

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