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Matthew Barney’s Most Punishing Tour: ‘River of Fundament’

The studio of the artist Matthew Barney in Long Island City, Queens, sits amid a collection of cookie-cutter warehouses where the most infernal sight is usually a chained guard dog, no Cerberus he. But at various times over the last several years, the studio was transformed into a version of a netherworld so hellish that even Mr. Barney, who has a stomach for such things, approached his limits. There were, for example, the dead pigs being devoured by maggots. And the eviscerated cow carcass, lying in a shallow pool. “That water was really pretty nasty by the end,” Mr. Barney recalled recently.

The tableaux were created for “River of Fundament,” a movie almost six hours long that is the most ambitious undertaking by Mr. Barney since the “Cremaster” cycle, the symbol-saturated films made beginning in the mid-1990s that established him as one of the most important artists of his generation. As with those films and much of his work since the early days of his career, the new film functions on its own but also as a dynamo for spawning, shaping and superimposing meaning onto a body of sculpture. That body, about 85 works and more than seven years in the making, is on display for the first time in the United States, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The exhibition opened Sept. 13 and is to be the only American stop for the work, shown first in Munich and Hobart, Tasmania...

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