Part art-world spectacle, part opera, artist Matthew Barney’s latest work is a zombie movie musical featuring Norman Mailer, Egyptian mythology – and an oboe-playing porn star.

At five-and-a-half hours long, River of Fundament combines documentary footage of three live acts performed in outdoor environments in Los Angeles, Detroit and New York with live action cinema set in a recreation of Mailer’s apartment.

The film opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Tuesday, and is touring to Adelaide, Munich, Vienna and London. It reconstructs Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings, a hypersexual story of Egyptian gods and the seven stages of reincarnation, alongside the rise and fall of the US car industry. In Detroit, five cupolas were built to melt down iron, with 25 tons of molten iron coming out the bottom of each.

In one of the scenes from the film, John Buffalo Mailer – the late author’s son, who plays his father – has to climb into the belly of a real dead cow. Actor Maggie Gyllenhaal had a similarly bizarre experience: “We walk into the studio and there’s this decaying pig and maggots in the food. It smelled so bad I thought I was going to pass out,” she told The New York Times.

“Then we start doing the scene. There are these women singing, and the camera is going around the table, and Matthew comes in and says: ‘Can you guys be a little more natural?’ I didn’t know what he meant. Natural, as in natural, or natural for a Matthew Barney movie? After that it became some wild, crazy experience. At the time, I was also shooting White House Down, which could not be more different.”

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