The hit, 45 years ago, shook up the football world. Then, just as quickly, the people moved on. But not Darryl Stingley, the New England Patriots receiver who was attacked head-on by Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders. Stingley was paralyzed. Tatum, a defender known as “The Assassin,” notoriously never apologized.
The artist Matthew Barney was an 11-year-old in Idaho at the time and recalls the incident of constant slow-motion replays on television. He himself was just getting serious about the sport and the clash between Tatum and Stingley, while shocking, didn’t stop him. Violence was inculcated during football practice, he recalls. It was also addictive.
“That was my gateway, feeling that blow to the head and what that feels like in your body,” Barney said in an interview in March while editing “Subordinate”, his new five-channel video installation that takes that 1978 event as its starting point. He enjoyed practice drills where he and other guys were instructed to crash into each other at top speed, he said. “You’d walk away and you see stars.”
Barney became an elite quarterback in high school, but during his years at Yale University, he changed course and stepped out into the New York art world in 1989, achieving almost instant success. Physical coercion immediately stood out in his work, from the “Drawing restraintprojects in which, for example, he strained and moved along the walls and ceiling of a gallery, trying to draw on the wall.
Football served as the impetus for the ‘Jim Otto Suite’, which Barney created in 1991-92, one of the early works that captured his distinctive approach to combining performance, video and sculpture. The inspiration was Otto, a Raiders player whose numerous injuries led to his body being loaded with prosthetic materials. Otto’s story collapsed resilience and destruction and artistically opened the horizons of performance and sculpture.
But the sport itself would disappear in Barney’s work, awash in myriad other themes – sexual differentiation, reincarnation, cars, sewers and feces, among others – and the epic scale and baroque staging of his ‘Cremaster Cycle’ (1994-2002) and Films from ‘River of Fundament’ (2014). (Metrograph, a movie theater in Manhattan, is screening of the ‘Cremaster’ films this month and next.)
With “Secondary”, that is open until June 25, Barney is pulling at a loose end dating back to his childhood. From a place of physical and intellectual maturity, he examines a sport – and a country, because soccer is quintessentially American – that may or may not have changed. Now 56, he takes stock of himself and an uneasy nation.
“There’s a way the violence in our culture has become so visible everywhere,” he said. “I think my relationship with that legacy comes from my experience on the football field. I wanted to make a piece that looks at that in more than one way.”
The new work is concise for Barney. He walks for an hour, the clock time of a football match. Six performers, from a main cast of 11, reprise the roles of players in the 1978 game, including Barney as Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler. It was filmed at Barney’s warehouse studio in Long Island City near the East River. And it’s now on public display in that very location – its last use of the space before moving to a nearby facility.
Last fall and winter, the studio served as a simulated soccer field, motion lab, and film set. When I visited the main performers were – inclusive David Thomsonwho plays Stingley and is the project’s motion director, and Raphael Xaveriusas Tatum – went through some episodes telling the story abstractly, in an indirect order.
Weird things were also going on. Additional performers on the sidelines donned the all-black costumes of devoted Raiders fans and walked around like camp horror figures; some were actors, but others were members of the Raiders’ fan club in New York City. Some were filmed in a trench dug into the studio floor, exposing pipes, dirt and water.
An artist’s studio, Barney said, has features of the stadium. “It’s sort of an organizing body for this story,” he said, adding, “I wanted my workspace to be a character.”
Digging the trench, he said, revealed rotting pipes and how the tide overflows and recedes beneath the buildings. “I wanted that infrastructure exposed, both as a manifestation of Stingley’s broken spine, but also as crumbling infrastructure in my studio, in New York City,” he said.
For all its allusions, “Secondary” — the title refers to the backline of football field defenders, cornerbacks and safeties whose job it is to shadow the wide receivers and interrupt every passing play — sticks to the Tatum-Stingley incident as its narrative and moral core.
It’s rich and also tragic material. Stingley died in 2007 at the age of 55; Tatum, 61, died three years later. All his life after the hit, Stingley wanted an apology that never came. Tatum argued that the hit was only part of the job, even though he also boasted that his style of play pushed the boundaries. Since then, a deluge of research has confirmed the sport’s toll. Stabler, who plays Barney in “Secondary,” contributed to this knowledge posthumously when his brain was found to show advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
I asked if Barney, the former quarterback, was starting to worry about his own health. “Honestly, yes,” he said. He was happy, he added, that he stopped playing when he did.
“Secondary” has a staccato format enhanced by its staging: a jumbotron-like overhead device shows one video channel on three screens, while four other channels run on monitors in the studio. The hit is called out early, but much of the ensuing action returns to the build-up – players warming up, fans getting hyped. The playback sequences make up about the last third.
The point was never a literal one, said Thomson, the movement director and Barney’s closest collaborator on the project. “This isn’t a docudrama,” he said. “I’m not trying to be Stingley, a person I don’t know. We don’t represent his life, we represent a moment.”
Still, Thomson said, from studying the real athletes, he distilled traits that informed how he worked with the actors portraying them. Stingley, he said, was sincere. Tatum, angry. Grogan, technical. Each trait, he said, became “a touchstone that one goes back to without too much flourish, and see what resonates from that place.”
During their research, Barney and Thomson read Tatum and Stingley’s autobiographies and spent hours watching football highlights and practice rolls. Video of the hit – which came in a preseason game, with no competitive stakes – is grainy and sparse. The camera follows the ball past Stingley’s outstretched arms so that the hit occurs at the edge of the frame. There weren’t dozens of camera angles available like today.
This opened up space for improvisation and for Barney to introduce sculptural props for the players to negotiate. (Barney has always stated that he is primarily a sculptor and plans to feature these works in future exhibitions.)
Xavier, the dancer who plays Tatum, had to contend with a pile of wet clay dumbbells that expanded and broke when he carried them. “I’ve worked with props before, but they were solid,” he said. “But the clay was alive.” It forced him, he said, to seek vulnerability, even tenderness, in a character he remembered from his own childhood as an aggressive, even mean, football player.
Indeed, the protagonists in ‘Secondary’ are middle-aged men negotiating the memory of the culture they grew up in – and of their own bodies. Even stylized, the football moves in the play aren’t instinctive or easy for men in their 50s and 60s.
Barney “mostly wanted older bodies, which I appreciated,” Thomson said. “What are the limitations that those bodies have that can have a different resonance, a different visual story?”
But “Secondary” offers other perspectives as it points to a broader, contemporary American social landscape. The umpires are a mixed gender crew. Jacquelyn Deshchidna composer, experimental singer, and member of the San Carlos Apache Nation, delivers an extremely deconstructed version of the national anthem.
“As an Indigenous person, I was excited to take it on,” Deshchidn said. They were also drawn to the environmental aspect of the job, spending breaks on set staring into the damp trench. “It brought up images of bones and burials and repatriation work — the way institutions are really built on our bones.”
Barney is an art world celebrity (whose fame only grew during his more than a decade-long relationship with Icelandic pop artist Björk), but he prefers a low profile. On set he made an everyday impression with his clean-shaven appearance under a cap. Performers in “Secondary” said his work ethic was intense, but his demeanor was open. While some of the people on the project are his longtime collaborators, such as the composer Jonathan Bepler, many are new to his world.
There’s a sense with “Secondary” that Barney is turning a page – certainly with the studio moving, after some 15 years at that location, but also in a private way. When I asked if he felt his age – our age, as we are contemporaries – he said yes.
“In a good way,” he added. “It’s a great relief to let go of being young.”
Compared to his previous work, “Secondary” strikes a more concise and collaborative tone. “It’s more connected to the world,” he said. “It is a piece that thinks about the environment in which it was created. In my twenties I tried to think of ways to assign a material language to what was inside me. This piece is different in that way.”
“Secondary” may be based on 1978 and invites its players to a kind of memory work through their bodies – but the work’s structure, focusing on the lead-up to the bad everyone knows is coming, energizes it with foreboding .
It ends in an elegiac vein, the final shots broadening to the city. “It felt crucial to move from the specific to the general,” Barney said. “While the studio is sort of a microframe, there’s a bigger one that’s the city and country we live in. I want there to be some kind of readability to read those different scales — so they’re all in there.”