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Issue 238

The Beauty and Hokiness of Sport in Matthew Barney’s ‘Secondary’

At his studio in Long Island City, New York, the artist presents a multi-channel film that unspools surreally out of a 1978 NFL disaster

BY Brecht Wright Gander in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 20 JUN 23

During the 1978 NFL preseason, Jack Tatum hurtled into Darryl Stingley with such colossal energy that Stingley’s fourth and fifth vertebrae shattered, paralyzing him. Matthew Barney’s Secondary (2023) – installed in the artist’s cavernous Long Island City studio – converges around this catastrophe. Barney’s usual preoccupations are present: a priapic focus on excreta, manliness and its discontents, and iconic source material (famous people, famous things, famous events – ever the fodder for famous art).

An installation view: colorful artificial turf covers a cavernous concrete space. A three-sided jumbotron up top: a football player raises his hands toward the camera. Two screens in the background, and field floodlights
Matthew Barney, SECONDARY, New York, 2023. Photo: Dario Lasagni. © Matthew Barney. Courtesy of the artist, Gladstone Gallery, Galerie Max Hetzler, Regen Projects, and Sadie Coles HQ

An artificial turf carpets the concrete floor of Barney’s studio, with a reduced-scale jumbotron hanging at centre field and four satellite screens marking the corners of the turf. As the film begins, multichannel speakers generate an immersive sonic patterning of athletic exertion, acapella vocalizations and the clang and rasp of material production. Scenes shuttle between the screens, which are positioned so far apart that they can’t be monitored simultaneously. I felt continuously anxious that something sudden and violent might occur wherever I wasn’t looking – the feeling, I gather, of being a receiver staring up at a lofted ball, listening peripherally for an impending tackle.

A man in a black and white football uniform performing an acrobatic sequence, head on turf
Matthew Barney, Secondary, 2023, film still. Courtesy: © Matthew Barney; photograph: Jon O'Sullivan

Dancers Raphael Xavier, performing as Tatum, and David Thomson, as Stingley, execute rhythmic sequences of athletic drills, juxtaposing frozen poses with sudden leaps and transitions. Duetting the material and equipment of Barney’s workshop, they move glacially while shouldering slabs of clay, operating a chain pulley to raise or lower a gate. Suited up in their jerseys and pads, the dancers’ facial expressions remain martially stern, making them seem oddly at home in the environment of kilns and artistic debris.

Three referees stand around a woman in a glittering outfit on colorful turf
Matthew Barney, Secondary, 2023, film still. Courtesy: © Matthew Barney; photograph: Julieta Cervantes

Like the battles they symbolize, sports games are inaugurated by nationalism. Singer Jacquelyn Deshchidn, dressed in a glamorous feathered gown, delivers an unnerving anthem – an American pre-game ritual often accompanied by fighter-jet flyovers – which devolves into outright screaming. That Deshchidn is Chiricahua Apache adds ironizing force to the glittering intensity of her rendition. Drawing on Apache vocalization techniques, she unsheathes the barbarism that cleared the field for America’s sanitizing pageantry.

Two figures in football gear; one clasps the other by the head, in an industrial studio environment
Matthew Barney, Secondary, 2023, film still. Courtesy: © Matthew Barney; photograph: Julieta Cervantes

As usual, Barney assumes a leading role. Here, the artist – who was recruited to play college football at Yale – is Ken Stabler, a quarterback on Tatum’s team. We first meet him gutting a football helmet and wrapping the padding around his head, so that he looks alternately vulnerable and unhinged, like someone recuperating from surgery or a lunatic protecting themselves from big brother. Stabler relives the tackles of his past: again and again, an invisible force knocks him concussively down. But Barney’s Stabler is very much Barney. At a whiteboard, he obsesses over a Forrest Bess-like diagram – presumably a football play – as though trying to plot an escape from the gridiron of his own damaged brain. (After Stabler’s death, neurologists confirmed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in his brain.) At the diagram's centre is the graphic logo of The Cremaster Cycle (1994–2002), the best-known of Barney’s previous projects.

A kind of scary looking older man in a Raiders uniform looking to the left
Matthew Barney, Secondary, 2023, film still. Courtesy: © Matthew Barney; photograph: Julieta Cervantes

These scenes – like those showing serious-faced referees nodding to each other and communicating in a lexicon composed entirely of the word ‘hut’, ‘hut hut’ and, for variety, ‘hut hut hut’– underscore the bathos of a game that is theoretically played for fun but in which the stakes can be millions of dollars, lifelong paralysis or irrevocable CTE. Battles are fought for territory and gain, but American football is played merely for glory; depending on your sensibility, this is either dumb, beautiful or beautifully dumb. A tautological logic drives athletes and the artists towards fanaticism: since the scale of devotion required is great, the stakes are high; since the stakes are high, the cause must be worthy of devotion. The effort becomes its own justifying premise. Secondary conveys the beauty, the hokiness and the tragedy of a metaphor mistaking itself for its referent.

Matthew Barney’s Secondary is on view at Matthew Barney Studio until 25 June. 

Main: Matthew Barney, Secondary, 2023, film still. Courtesy: © Matthew Barney; photograph: Jon O'Sullivan

Brecht Wright Gander is an artist based in upstate New York, USA.