This is a story about opportunities. Specifically, an opportunity presented to me this past April while I visited Antalya, Turkey. I was there for a month-long climbing trip sponsored by The North Face. I was excited, motivated to climb, and ready for an adventure. After Turkey, Sam Elias, Boone Speed and I planned to visit central Europe for another month: Slovenia, Austria, Italy, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and wherever else we decided to go. Then, one afternoon in Turkey, I received a strange email.

Matthew Barney with Emily Harrington
The artist Matthew Barney, with Emily Harrington back and left. Photo: Peter Strietmann

The email was from an artist named Matthew Barney. He’d come across my name a few times on the Internet and thought I would be a good fit for a new short film he was directing in Basel, Switzerland, in early June. In the email, he directed me to some of his websites and biographies, so I could get an idea of who he was. I checked him out, and, at first, I couldn’t help but think that he was a total nut job.

Modern art, in general, is something I’ve never understood. I was of the opinion that “anybody could do that.” When I see drawings or paintings that look simply like scribble, or like someone had been shooting a canvas with a paintball gun, I’m convinced that they lack any intelligent or meaningful message. I suspect that such artists have somehow convinced a bunch of wealthy people that their work is “important” because it’s “modern” and “progressive” --iIf you don’t understand, well, then you just aren’t refined enough. Uh huh…

Harrington takes a leap of faith
Harrington at the intersection of art, climbing, and curiosity in the Schaulager exhibition space, Basel, Switzerland. Photo: Peter Strietmann

Still holding on to this preconceived notion, I watched some of Barney’s film trailers. They didn’t do much to change my mind: just a bunch of elaborate costumes, creepy music, and random, grotesque imagery. Still, I could tell that the guy had a wild imagination. (For reference, check out the trailer for one of his feature length films, “Drawing Restraint 9”, in which Barney and his girlfriend, Björk, are the lead roles.) The clips left me confused and a little freaked out.

With no idea what to think of Barney’s proposition, I took it to the committee:

“Hey guys,” I announced to the house of climbers, “Has anyone heard of Matthew Barney? He’s some sort of an artist, and I just got an email from him. He wants me to be a part of a film he’s doing in Switzerland. But he seems a little strange.”

Harrington climbs for the Drawing Restraint series
Harrington demonstrates the art of climbing for Mathew Barney's "Drawing Restraint 17." Photo: Peter Strietmann

“What?!” shouted Boone Speed, an accomplished climber, photographer, and the son of a renowned Western artist. “Matthew Barney? You have to do it. He’s, like, big.” Boone looked like I just told him I’d been invited to be in a Steven Spielberg film. Little did I know, this request wasn’t far off.

I was intrigued by Boone’s reaction, so I did some more research. I found nothing truly unusual about Barney’s past, but a few things stuck out:

  • A child of divorce, Barney grew up in Idaho and frequently visited New York City, where his mother lived and where he was first introduced to art.
  • He was an avid football player in high school and earned a scholarship to play at Yale. However, his interest in art and a career in modeling took football’s place and, by the time he graduated in 1989, Matthew had already created six of the current eighteen Drawing Restraint works (the project I worked on was “DR 17”). The ongoing series was derived from Barney’s athletic past, with a focus around the idea that growth occurs only through restraint: Athletes use resistance to break down muscle; muscle then heals and grows stronger than before. This idea (as well as many other, more in-depth concepts) is expressed throughout the series via various media, such as drawing, sculpture, documentary (video), photography, and narrative (film). (For more on this series, go to: and click on “Path” in the center of the right icon)
  • Since the late 1980s, Barney has risen to become an art superstar. In addition to the Drawing Restraint Series, he produced and directed the CREMASTER Cycle, a set of five films that make up seven hours of complex visual references to historical events and characters, mythology, and autobiography. The film was released in 2002 has since received enormous praise from the art world.
  • Matthew’s partner is the singer and song-writer Björk, and they have a seven-year-old daughter together.


After learning all this about Barney, and with Boone’s encouragement, I agreed to participate. The whole idea was beginning to intrigue me. I had zero reason not to do it. Since I’d hadn’t received any formal art education beyond high school, I had no idea what to expect from the world I was about to enter. I tried to put all my assumptions aside and jump in with an open mind. I came to find that the art world is utterly fascinating, enlightening, and, yet, strikingly similar to my own small world of climbing.

 "High art"
Harrington becomes high art in the Schaulager. Photo: Peter Strietmann


This is part one of a two-part post from Emily Harrington. Check back soon for part two.