Matthew Barney’s five-film “Cremaster Cycle” is an enigmatic epic — a bizarre brew of alt fantasy-horror movies and meditative art films, Busby Berkeley musical numbers and Wagnerian opera, slapstick routine and Freudian drama all presented at a glacial pace with a total running time of over 6 1/2 hours.
It stars Norman Mailer as Harry Houdini, sculptor Richard Serra as the biblical architect Hiram Abiff, Ursula Andress as the Queen of Chain and Barney himself in myriad roles, including murderer Gary Gilmore and a tap-dancing goat boy. It was shot at the Budapest Opera House, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Boise, Idaho (Barney’s hometown). In its entirety, it has less than a page’s worth of dialogue. It took Barney eight years to make it. He named it after the muscle that raises or lowers the testicles in response to outside stimuli.
Artist Richard Serra plays The Architect in “Cremaster 3”
So has Barney created an artistic masterpiece? Or is the “Cremaster Cycle” a pretentious and self-indulgent spectacle?
Beginning today, Austin audiences will have a chance to decide for themselves as the Dobie screens Barney’s series this week. It’s part of a limited, national distribution to a couple dozen of the usual arthouse suspects in college towns and hip urban centers. It follows the closing of a major “Cremaster” exhibition at the Guggenheim, which was organized on the completion of the epic project last year.
Whether you find the “Cremaster Cycle” brilliant or simply baffling, you won’t find it easy — easy to understand, easy to explain or easy to even categorize. And that has made the 36-year-old Barney (who defines himself as a sculptor, but is often labeled performance artist and filmmaker) the indisputable “It Boy” of the art world, as much praised as maligned.
Perhaps that’s because Barney flaunts gorgeous (yet indecipherable) detail after gorgeous (yet indecipherable) detail. In “Cremaster 3″ five vintage Chrysler New Yorker Imperials careen in a choreographed tire-squealing demolition derby in the art deco lobby of the Chrysler Building. In “Cremaster 1″ two Goodyear blimps float above the blue AstroTurf of Boise’s Bronco Stadium while lovely hula-hooped chorines prance in careful formation below.
Is there a plot? Not exactly. Barney’s private mythology involves, among other images, Celtic giants and fairies, Masonic initiation rituals, a harness race of vividly rotting horses, a beautiful double amputee who cuts potatoes with blades attached to her prosthetic Plexiglas legs, a flock of Jacobin pigeons, some buffalo — and oh yes, lots and lots of Vaseline.
So what does it mean?
Some argue that Barney’s work should be experienced, rather than dissected. “It’s not important if we understand or ‘get’ it, but rather that we be open to fantastic new worlds, ” says Sue Graze, executive director of Arthouse, an Austin organization that promotes contemporary art. “It’s a unique and quite personal vision that takes leaps of faith and much risk.”
The man behind that vision was anointed by the New York Times’ chief art critic Michael Kimmelman as “the most important American artist of his generation” even before he’d finished the “Cremaster Cycle.”
Barney’s road to niche acclaim is a charmed one.
As a high school football star in Boise, he was introduced to the art world by his artist mother, who had moved to New York after divorcing Barney’s father. With his all-American good looks, he put himself through Yale modeling for J. Crew and Ralph Lauren.
After graduating with an art degree in 1989, he wowed critics with a video of himself climbing naked up a pole and applying dollops of Vaseline to his orifices. His gender-bending, body-centered, idea-heavy conceptual work meshed perfectly with the gender-bending, body-centered, idea-heavy conceptual art world zeitgeist of the early 1990s. By 1991, he made the cover of the prestigious journal Artforum and had one-person exhibitions in both New York and Los Angeles. Museums began collecting his work.
Matthew Barney as Goat Boy
Barney’s girlfriend is Icelandic pop star and actress Bjork. The two had a baby girl last fall. He refuses to talk about his personal life and grants only a few interviews. And though he appears in four out of his five films, he shapeshifts through so many characters that his face is unrecognizable to most even in the art world.
But his work is definitely in the spotlight — even if not all that many people have actually seen any of the “Cremaster Cycle.” Most recently, the monumental Guggenheim exhibition of sculpture, props, stills and other material from all five “Cremaster” films drew rave reviews and crowds who stood mesmerized in front of flat-panel screens that showed footage of the “Cremaster” films. Barney’s films now sell for upward of $500,000 each on DVD in limited editions of 10 each, and only one U.S. museum — the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis — owns all five. The Dallas Museum of Art recently purchased a Barney sculpture, “The Cloud Club, ” for a reported $750,000 to $1 million. (It will go on view in September.)
Of course not all of the Barney buzz is flattering. Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik has accused Barney of “babbling in tongues.” And J. Hoberman of the Village Voice wrote that Barney “gives ridiculous a bad name” and that his work was “migraine inducing.” Last month, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast lampooned Barney’s exhibit, depicting a confused visitor wandering through a confounding blur of all things “Cremaster.”
Dana Friis-Hansen, executive director of the Austin Museum of Art, has followed Barney’s career since including him in a 1993 exhibition in Tokyo and remembers Barney’s rudimentary explanation of his upcoming “Cremaster” project. “I recall being dumbstruck with the complexity of the project, the ambition, the strange poetry of it all. He knew where he was going right from the start.”
If you choose to “experience” the entire “Cremaster Cycle” during its Austin run, you’ll be part of an elite group. Ever since the first of the five films was completed in 1994, (he filmed them out of sequence starting with “Cremaster 4″) the individual segments have been shown, in limited runs, at prestigious international art venues in large cities. (Here in Austin, the Austin Museum of Art screened “Cremaster 5″ in 1999 for one night only.)
So back to the initial question: What is the “Cremaster Cycle” about?
Consider the cycle’s defining metaphor — the cremaster muscle. Barney’s especially interested in the fact that during the first eight weeks of pregnancy, a fetus exhibits neither male nor female characteristics. Such a state of gender in-betweenness, Barney has said, represents “a condition of pure potentiality” — a singular stage in life when a being is struggling to define itself.
Allusions to sexual ambiguity abound in “Cremaster, ” though it would be wrong to say the work is about sex. Forms continually evolve into other forms, yet there’s no resolution. Initiation rituals and challenges are thrown at various characters.
Indeed, Barney gets to display his ex-football player prowess as he ascends the proscenium of the Budapest Opera House, among other astounding physical feats. Yet it’s not always clear what he conquers.
In the end the “Cremaster Cycle” is one massive, opulent, episodic, florid, confusing, ambiguous creation myth that is circular rather than linear.
But that’s just one critic’s possible explanation. And it may have to do for right now.