Emily Harrington and the Artist's Proposal, Part 2

Continued from The Artist’s Proposal, Part 1

We were scheduled to fly out of Zurich at the end of May, so in order for me to work with Matthew Barney, all we had to do was extend our stay in Europe an extra week. For the project, I was to play the main character in a 30-minute film for Barney’s art exhibition, scheduled to show at the Schaulager exhibition space, in Basel, from June 12 through October 3. A description from the exhibition literature reads as follows:

“The female protagonist of the cinematic narrative surmounts the parapet in the Schaulager foyer and, with the aid of white handholds, scales the 28 meter-high, vertical atrium wall. At the apex of her ascent, the last hold breaks away from the wall and the young woman falls backwards into the depths. She falls in slow motion, into a pentagonal-shaped timber structure, across which is stretched a white membrane that distends and finally tears. The rise and fall of the young woman, her intrepid endeavor and the challenge of failure it implies are an analogy for the creative cycle of growth and decay”.

Emily falling into white
Emily Harrington taking the "low fall" into a white membrane stretched over boxes, for padding.

Heavy stuff, right? I had no idea what to think of all of this. And there were two crucial points I was still unsure of: acting and soloing.

Ultimately, I decided that this would be a good experience no matter what, and that as long as I didn’t fall on the solo, everything would be O.K. There would be a stunt crew to oversee the safety for the project, so I figured nothing too terrible could happen. Barney’s crew asked if I would be comfortable doing a “low fall,” from 18 feet, for the final shot and close-up. I decided that since I had already agreed to everything else; I might as well do the low fall too, adding to my list of things that I had no experience doing.

I met Matthew and his team for dinner on the first night to get acquainted and talk about the days to come. Barney, his production designer, videographer, producer, and film editor were all there. Everyone was friendly and good-natured, and I noticed immediately how tight-knit the group was; they had all been working together for at least eight years, some of them more than twenty. Having only seen Matthew dressed in elaborate costumes in his films, I was surprised at his appearance: he had a construction-worker style, sporting jeans, Nikes, and an impressive mustache. He seemed down-to-earth and reserved and had a certain coolness about him that made me like him immediately. I figured out immediately why this group seemed so amicable – they had the right leader and they treated each other like family. The light-hearted nature of that first dinner eased my fears.

Over dinner, we exchanged stories of our lives, travels, and respective hobbies. I did my best to explain climbing and my lifestyle, while everyone else recounted stories, some hilarious, of working on Barney’s various art projects. I realized how well we understood one another after sharing our experiences. The life as a professional climber seemed to make just as much sense as that of a modern artist; there is no way to fully explain our motives -- the "why" of what we do. A deeper understanding would come, I soon found out, when we were able to show one another.

Barney filming
Matthew Barney at work filming his piece "DR 17", featuring Emily Harrington.

On the first day of the project, Sam, Boone, and I went to the museum to check out the wall I was going to solo. It was tall – 90 feet. The line involved climbing over a railing, traversing along a windowsill 20 feet above the basement floor, ascending a pipe, pulling a five-foot roof, and then heading up another 65 feet to the top. Matthew himself molded the holds I’d use – pure white, semi-slopey jugs with zero texture. I was not to use chalk or wear climbing shoes for the filming. Sam, Boone, and I set the roof section because Barney was unsure about how to place the holds. We rigged a top rope and I rehearsed the climb a couple times. The route was around 5.9, and I felt confident after the first day that I would be able to solo it, no problem, but I could feel my nervousness mounting as the day approached.

I did the low fall on the second day, falling through a plastic garbage bag-like sheet and onto three layers of cardboard boxes (that’s how stunt people do all those crazy falls – cardboard boxes – go figure). It was a remarkably soft landing and I only broke through the first layer of boxes. My confidence for the solo was rising, but so was my anxiety. I did the climb the very next day, three different times, over four layers of boxes this time. I felt uneasy initially, but became more comfortable each time. Every time I reached the top and was finally safe within the lift, the crew erupted in applause. After my third and final climb, Barney came up to me with a smile on his face and gave me a hug. “Thank you,” he said, “That was so touching.” He seemed genuine and honest. I was flattered. He saw my climbing as an expression of art; I had shown him the inherent beauty in its movement.

The days that I spent acting were eye-opening. We spent some days shooting out in the countryside, where I wandered around, dug a hole, and rode on a train. Thankfully, the film is silent, so I had no lines. The entire time we were working on the film, even under the extremely tight time constraint, Matthew maintained his peaceful demeanor and a witty sense of humor.

We spent the rest of our time absorbing all that was going on around us. We met some of Barney’s friends and family who had traveled to attend the opening (including his partner, Björk, and their seven year old daughter, Isadora) and were able to check out the other installations at the museum. We went to some fancy dinners, one of which was at the home of an eccentric art collector named Ona. We even took Barney and his daughter climbing at the local gym. She took to it naturally and innocently asked, “Is this like a rope diaper?” when I put the harness on her.

Emily climbing
Harrington ascends, ropeless, the walls of the Schaulager exhibition space, four layers of cardboard boxes for safety below.

It was fascinating to be immersed in a world so contrasting from my own, yet I was beginning to feel as if I belonged. The more time I spent with these individuals, the more I began to admire and respect where they were coming from. I had no previous comprehension of what it meant to be an artist, only naïve assumptions; this experience opened my mind to an entirely different world. Art and sport are both forms of personal expression. Creativity can manifest itself in several different mediums: painting, drawing, sculpting, physical activity, music, building, there is no end... Barney’s work interweaves narratives, sculptures, films, and live performances to acheive expression. The meaning behind his complex projects is easily lost on the outside viewer, but I learned that the point is not to make anyone understand or even appreciate it, but to inspire and to initiate thought. There are no constraints or limitations in art. It is the ultimate freedom of expression, just like climbing is the freedom of vertical movement.

I will admit that I did not fully understand anything I saw and experienced during my time in Basel. But I did try to make sense of it, and since have read many articles and books on the subjects, trying to draw the connections and see the deeper meanings. Still, I am not grasping it all, which in my opinion is why it’s fascinating in the first place. In the same way, watching someone solo a building is thrilling to the viewer in part but because it’s difficult to understand the reasoning behind it. It’s the process of learning and trying to understand something that makes that thing important and interesting. If we already understood, there would be no reason to study, explore, or learn anything.

We attended the opening of the art show the night before our return to the US. There were 3,000-odd people in attendance at the Schaulager. The film I starred in was playing (and is still playing on loop through October) outside the museum on two giant LED screens, visible from the highway and the tram station. Everyone present recognized me from the film, they shook my hand and congratulated me. We ate dinner with the director of the Museum of Modern Art, among other highly prominent individuals in the art world. The owner of the Schaulager, a sweet woman named Mya, gave a speech, in which she referred to Matthew as “the greatest artist of his time”.

"DR 17" playing on the exterior wall of the Schaulager on giant LED screens.

The evening progressed as any celebration should, drinking games at an after-party in some random bar. (We finally got kicked out at 3 a.m.) I was exhausted by the time it was all over, and we had only four hours until we had to be at the airport for our flight home. At the time, I was overwhelmed and unable to absorb all that had happened, but I did know that my experiences during the previous two weeks were some of the most special and unforgettable of my life. I had no idea how this project was going turn out, but it was far more wonderful than I could have ever imagined. That night, sitting among celebrated members of the art community – their lives so different from my own and yet similar at the same time – I reflected on everything I had done and seen and the unique and passionate people I had met. At that moment, I felt incredibly thankful and lucky to have had such an extraordinary opportunity.

Our adventure had ended, I was going home.

Harrington, getting ready to perform.