Like a machine propped up and prepared for use – a telescope, a mounted weapon, or a decaying tree returning to the ground, Matthew Barney’s stainless steel sculpture Cosmic Hunt almost seems to fill the downstairs gallery of Sadie Coles HQ Davies Street, aiming up at the first floor balcony, from which you can look back into the space and straight down the sculpture from top to bottom. On its peak lies a slumped, limp and seemingly skinned grey wolf, appearing to be frozen as it transforms into some kind of celestial object. Barney’s wolf – depicted similarly in his work on paper Redshift – refers, in a general, almost pictographic sense, to animals in mythology (perhaps Greco-Roman and Egyptian) but more specifically to the Indigenous North American tradition which saw the Milky Way, or the Wolf Trail (Makoi-Yohsokoyi), as being produced by a wolf who, upon saving a starving human family and thus instigating a reciprocal level of respect, transformed into a constellation in a process of catasterism.
Barney’s exhibition Cosmic Hunt was initially an online project; his constellatory wolf was an on-screen, navigable map on whose limbs and protrusions the viewer could explore excerpts from the artist’s film Redoubt, dramatic images of the Idaho wilderness, and a series of intricate drawings which both draw on imagery from the film and act almost as props or objects from within it. The film Redoubt, which was produced before both ‘iterations’ of the Cosmic Hunt exhibition, takes as its referent a Greco-Roman myth in which the Goddess Diana (Artemis in Greek versions) punishes the intrusion of the hunter Actaeon by transforming him into a stag, leaving him at the mercy of his own hounds.
As with his stainless-steel sculpture, the artist’s film presents these tenets of mythology – stories which, through their timelessness, have existed as a constant barometer for human-animal relationships – in the context of the current state of wolf hunting in Idaho: his film is a wordless poem following a camouflaged Diana with her ‘nymphs’ as she engages in a kind of dance-like hunt with a wolf and an artist or documenter The Engraver who seems to oversee her actions, producing images in some form of etching or electroplating process.
Crucially, mythology surrounding wolves is placed into a network-like context with the current controversies surrounding wolf management in Idaho – a network where the myth and the reality become entangled in the same kind of hunt taking place between Diana and the wolf. In 1974, the grey wolf was declared endangered in the state of Idaho, prompting the population to be reintroduced into the wilderness in 1995 as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife recovery plan – subsequently becoming subject to an ever-changing and complex bureaucratic response to ‘wolf management’, involving the reintroduction of hunting and trapping for the sake of maintaining wolf numbers and preserving natural predation in the area.
Barney presents us with a species which has constantly been engaged in a tense power dynamic with humans. In Ovid’s telling of Diana and Actaeon, the fragile reversal of power from wolf as subordinate to wolf as predator is an indication of the predatorial similarities between humans and wolves; the story creates an oddly similar dynamic as that present in the Indigenous North American traditions of The Wolf Trail, which open up a strange conversation between mutual respect and dominance.
Ultimately what we are presented with is a complex and nebulous state of existence between humans and animals – particularly regarding predatorial similarities with wolves – which is described appropriately by Barney’s complex and nebulous dissemination of ideas. Heightened by pandemic induced immobility, the online exhibition, the film, and the now viewable physical exhibition seem to exist within a network, just as these myths seem ambiguously interconnected with modern and traditional hunting ideologies. The diverse methods of connectivity (visually in the online map and more subtly in the interactions between the online and physical spaces) point to the complex functionality of connectivity present today, in which both online and physical spaces can be constructed by a swirling motion of fact, history, myth and tradition.
But, importantly, there is a disconnect here. Just as Barney’s stainless-steel wolf is slumped over the end of this telescope/rifle, frozen in a state of ascension into the sky, and just as his drawing Redshift is also halted (almost pending some kind of approval to continue), the reciprocity established by Indigenous tradition appears to be frozen in time, as wolves are produced to be hunted, information is produced and disseminated, skipping round in an endless and stagnant cycle.