Willful Perversity

Cremaster 3 possesses many of the populist elements that assured the success of classic drive-in fare: zombies, giants, cheetah girls, mobsters, demolition derbies, buff young bodies in bitchen fashions, awesome SFX makeup, slapstick, gore, and rock & roll. It also brings to a spectacular completion one of the most complex, generous and subversive artworks of the last decade.

Since the rise of Andy Warhol, artists have wanted to be rock stars. Unfortunately, most artists take this too literally, and wind up embarrassing themselves by making either lame rock music or fawning groupie art. The only artist who’s come close to the necessary mixture of youth, glamour, overt sexuality, and dazzling candy for the senses is Matthew Barney, the 36-year-old sculptor–performance artist–filmmaker with the massive retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, a recently completed five-part cinematic bildungsroman, “The Cremaster Cycle,” and a 6-month-old daughter with one of the few rock stars to successfully approximate being an artist — Björk. In spite of the high degree of celebrity charisma at play in Barney’s life and art — he was a high school quarterback and a J. Crew/Ralph Lauren fashion model while a student at Yale — the general public has been slow to tweak to Barney’s peculiar brand of glam.

Photo by Max S. Gerber

With only a two-week engagement at a single Los Angeles venue — the Nuart — before they disappear back into the murky depths of the art world, how best to spark the public’s interest in Barney’s gorgeous, kinky movies? Perhaps by cataloging the erotic fetishes on display in Cremaster 3, the final installment in his made-out-of-sequence cycle: In addition to such run-of-the-mill objects of paraphilial obsession as hair, shoes, car crashes, furry animal costumes, assorted bodily orifices, baby clothes, and amputated limbs, as well as his longstanding personal interests in plaid, Vaseline and braiding, Barney manages — over the course of three hours — to eroticize potatoes, dental trauma, rotting horseflesh, and the architecture of the Chrysler Building and the Guggenheim Museum. It’s a something-for-everyone kind of experience.

But don’t rush to the theater expecting a Russ Meyer–style child’s garden of perversities. Although Barney’s color palette is frequently reminiscent of that softcore auteur’s hypersaturated visual style, the similarities end there. For one thing, Meyer’s rapid-fire cutting packs in about 10,000 edits for each one of Barney’s. The same ratio holds true for verbiage: Cremaster 3’s single word of spoken dialogue (excluding Gaelic song lyrics and hardcore punks chanting Masonic rituals) occurs just before the two-and-a-half-hour mark — and it’s not in English. And of course there’s no actual sex. Are you sold yet? Maybe I should repeat the introductory comments made by a publicity drone at the press screening I attended: “You may notice a high-pitched electronic screeching during the first 40 minutes or so. That is intentional. We’ve had some audience members who couldn’t take it, but if you have to get up and leave, please just hang around the lobby for a few minutes and check back in, because it does end.”

Aimee Mullins, with Barney

While he is probably the contemporary art world’s biggest star, Barney doesn’t seem to inspire a lot of confidence in his potential for crossover success — after this opportunity to see “The Cremaster Cycle,” interested parties will have to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for the limited-edition video. (The first installment — Cremaster 4 — sold in an edition of 10 at 200 G’s a pop in 1995!) Which is a pity, because Cremaster 3 possesses many of the populist elements that assured the success of classic drive-in fare: zombies, giants, cheetah girls, mobsters, demolition derbies, buff young bodies in bitchen fashions, awesome SFX makeup, slapstick, gore, and rock & roll. It also brings to a spectacular completion one of the most complex, generous and subversive artworks of the last decade.


Barney’s meteoric ascension to koi fish in the art-world guppy farm began during his undergraduate years at Yale. The son of a Boise, Idaho, food-services businessman and an abstract painter, he paid his way through college with modeling fees. Barney’s schoolwork — a bizarre blend of references to jock culture, cross-dressing and formalist art — created a buzz, first in the influential Yale graduate community, then in Manhattan. Shortly after his 1991 solo debut (at Regen Projects in L.A.), he was featured on the cover of Artforum and almost instantaneously anointed, at the age of 24, as the polymorphously perverse savior of the deflated post-’80s art scene. That’s quite a load to be saddled with, but Barney — no stranger to hubris — rose to the occasion. Producing startling installations and video works for the 1992 version of the influential German artfest Dokumenta and the 1993 Whitney and Venice biennials dealing with up-to-the-minute themes like gender, biological sciences and narcissism in a formal visual language that was as accomplished as it was idiosyncratic, Barney swept across the crabby academic art world like a tidal wave of pent-up kundalini juice.


Shaving, coloring and dippity-dooing his hair, dressed in rock-climbing gear, wedding dresses or garish men’s fashions, prosthetically altered to be a goat-man or satyr, Barney inserted himself into his art in a way more compelling and artificial than anyone before. His sculptures employed such unlikely materials as refrigerated Vaseline, cast tapioca, self-lubricating plastic and human chorionic gonadotropin, and he always left room for himself to perform some vigorous athletics. (The finished pieces usually included videos of Barney clambering through his installations.) The following year he embarked on the project that was to consume the better part of a decade and bring him a whole new unexpected audience: the impossibly ambitious “Cremaster Cycle,” consisting of drawings, photographs, sculptural objects and installations — and five increasingly elaborate, mythically charged motion pictures.

Richard Serra as the master architect

Cremaster 3 was completed and briefly shown just over a year ago, but is only now beginning to make the rounds of the art-house circuit. Like its predecessors, it’s a complex and dreamlike allegorical phantasmagoria steeped in arcane spiritual and kitschy pop-cultural references. The main narrative — and please bear with me — is a recasting of the central mythology of Freemasonry (the martyrdom of Hiram Abiff, builder of Solomon’s Temple) in 1930s New York during the construction of the Chrysler Building by Irish immigrant labor. One such worker, played by Barney himself (as the protagonists of all but one of the “Cremaster” films have been), ascends the uncompleted Art Deco edifice by climbing up an elevator shaft, wreaking peculiar havoc (disaligning the tower by filling an elevator car with cement) and suffering peculiar consequences (invasive Cronenbergian periodontics) before finally confronting the master architect himself, played by one of the few remaining icons of Modernist sculpture, the indefatigable Richard Serra.

Now, interjected within this narrative are two related sequences — a zombie horse race at Saratoga Springs culminating in another (or maybe the same) dental ordeal, and The Order, an elaborate summation of the main plot (and the entire “Cremaster” cosmology) as a sort of video game spread over Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling interior of the Guggenheim. To simplify: Player 1 has to pass between the legs of the Rockettes (here, playing the Masonic Order of the Rainbow for Girls); assemble a giant set of bagpipes made from prefabricated parts that include a whole plastic sheep; and acquire a set of tools from a hole in the floor in between dueling hardcore punk bands, which he uses to defeat his half-cheetah female alter ego (played by double-amputee athlete and model Aimee Mullins) before the molten Vaseline hurled at the wall by Serra (now playing himself and parodying one of his signal works) oozes down the ramp to the lobby of the museum. Oh yes, and split into two sections bracketing the whole cryptic caboodle is a lush retelling of the tale of legendary Irish giant Finn MacCool, shot on location at Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

And that’s just part of it. Obviously, this isn’t your normal multiplex fare, or even the kind of moving pictures most art-house cinephiles are used to. Nevertheless, I sat completely engrossed through the full three hours, marveling at the depth and complexity of the non-verbal narrative, and basking in the wealth of visual and aural pleasures from which it is assembled. There’s a class of film directors — Kubrick, Fellini, Ken Russell, Derek Jarman, David Lynch, Nicholas Ray, Tarkovsky — who are occasionally capable of producing images so arresting that they oblige the films to reorganize themselves around the symbolic potency of these brief visionary flashes. Barney’s originality as a filmmaker lies in his ability to construct a narrative entirely from such glimpses. A large part of this depends on his knack for inspiring and nurturing a collaborative community of gifted artists who have contributed substantially to the entire cycle — videographer-editor Peter Strietmann, composer Jonathan Bepler, and makeup-effects artist Gabe Bartalos, who also worked on that other notable cinematic pentalogue, Leprechaun 1–5.


What is it about Barney that draws these artists to him? How is he able to coax wary celebrities like Serra (or Ursula Andress and Norman Mailer, who appeared in Cremasters 5 and 2, respectively) into exposing themselves for his art’s sake? In person, Barney is friendly but a little reserved; after a while, however, you begin to sense that behind his soft-spoken manner lurks an intense determination. When I meet with him at the Chateau Marmont, he seems at ease — dressed in comfortable street clothes, sporting a little stubble, laughing often, and taking his time to work out his answers before loosing them on the world.


Barney’s filmmaking adventure, he says, came about more or less accidentally. “I never really thought of them as movies per se, that that is the way they would be delivered — in an art-house cinema. Originally, in fact, the idea was that Cremaster 4 would be shown on television. And that never happened. The story of Number 4 takes place on the Isle of Man where there’s this T.T. [Tourist Trophy motorcycle] race that happens every year. So we went there in the spring and shot the piece, and the intention was to have it broadcast at the time of the following year’s T.T. so that it would be basically like a false sports broadcast. But no one was interested in showing it. So we went back to New York and set up a projection in the Public Theater and had the trouble with video projection that one inevitably has — trying to maintain the [color] saturation that that piece has, and getting pretty frustrated by it. And I ended up making a transfer to 35mm, and that opened up the possibilities with theaters. So it sort of happened organically. It was never the intention to think of these as movies. It was just a continuation of what I was doing already, which was making sculpture, basically.”

Barney returns repeatedly to the inextricable nature of the films and the rest of the “Cremaster” material — the sculptures and drawings installed at the Guggenheim through June 11, including such “props” as the mirror-faceted Hungarian sidesaddle from Cremaster 2 jutting from a miniature glacier cast from solar salt and epoxy, for example, or the cast Vaseline saloon bar from Cremaster 3. As he worked on the films, did Barney modify the original idea that the films function primarily as an element of a larger, encompassing sculptural work?

“Oh yeah. To see them operate on their own as films was exciting,” he says. “It sort of upped the ante each time, to ask the piece to function both with its original intention as a text that could generate sculpture and also for it to work out on its own in the cinema as a film. So that ambition kept changing, and kept increasing, I think, whereas the other ambition — the ambition for it to function as an element of this sculptural system — didn’t.

“I guess that I’ve always considered the notion of making installations where there’s a system of objects, and the space between those objects becomes part of the work. The ‘Cremaster’ project set out to make that on the scale of an earthwork, to connect five places and to connect them with a narrative thread that would be part of this single form. And those narrative threads ended up being these films.”

Most people, I remind him, have only experienced the classic earthworks — Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, for example — through documentation. Was this an influence on how he approached film and video?

“Yeah. A lot of the works I was most influenced by as a student were performance pieces I never saw. I’d see a single frame of something and imagine what had happened, or see an object extracted from that performance, a couple of pictures, and you’d put the pieces together, and that excited me — thinking about how those secondary forms could be the work.”

Aimee Mullins

The films are densely packed with information, much of which — autobiographical stuff, art-world in-jokes, esoteric symbols — won’t be readable to a lot of people. How important is it, I ask Barney, to be able to identify and sort through all these references?

“At the end of the day I think I’m making these as much for myself as for anybody else. I would like it as a language to communicate, but I also am learning a lot in making it. And doing this is the only access to get to these places inside of me. I guess I’m determined for it to be both, to have both.”


Getting things to work in two (or more) ways at once is something Barney does well. His work is both superficially glamorous and psychologically deep. It functions simultaneously as an elaborate intellectual puzzle and an immersive sensual ritual. “The Cremaster Cycle” can be seen to tell a story spanning millennia and crossing continents, or, per Barney, as a brief act of resistance to sexual differentiation in a developing fetus (the source of the one-word title, which refers to the muscle controlling testicular retraction, corresponding to the path along which the sexing of embryonic genitalia occurs). Or as a mythological recasting of Barney’s autobiography, and of its own creation. This last bit of sleight of hand is particularly adept — for even if Barney is ultimately crucified for the self-indulgence of his work, it merely reinforces the mythic coherence of his storytelling — which culminates in the presumptuous artist being cast down for his hubris.


Chronologically, the “Cremaster” films chart a journey from a football stadium in Boise (the setting of Cremaster 1) to the highest point in Manhattan (the Chrysler Building at the time of its completion). In the climax of Cremaster 3, the apprentice Barney is humbled big time for having the balls to assume the mantle of Master Architect, as the architectural lead character — the skyscraper itself — penetrates him in the pineal gland. You ain’t been fucked in the head till you been fucked in the head with 180 feet of Nirosta steel. Hard act to follow.

Terrie Gillespie as Cloud Club Bar Man

Like that of the cryptic proto-pop painter Jasper Johns, whose sudden rise to fame in the late ’50s has been compared to Barney’s, the work contains a tremendous tension arising from the suspicion that there is nothing of substance behind the layered veils of hermetic, self-referential symbolism. Maintaining this ambiguity may well be Barney’s primary objective. But, also like Johns, even if it is a fake, it’s a fake that’s better than the real thing.

Given that the Finnegans Wake–like minutiae of “The Cremaster Cycle” is the stuff that future dissertations are made of, the question remains: Is this guy on the level? Is “The Cremaster Cycle” a shell game, toying with our appetite for arcane experience, or does Barney believe that the layers of symbols he assembles — along with the hard-wired formal devices of color, composition and sound — produce something that doesn’t necessarily need to be interpreted to be meaningful?

“I do believe that that person can have that experience, for sure,” he says. “Whether or not they’ve invested in those symbols or narratives in a really concrete way, I do believe the experience can happen in any number of other ways. I grew up watching my mom paint and believing that visual language was a viable way to communicate. Definitely. And an exciting option. It’s a big question. I guess it’s to do with what you believe art can do. And I’m a believer.”


Cremaster 3 opens at the Nuart on Friday, May 16, and continues through May 22. Cremaster 1 and 2 screen May 23–25, followed by Cremaster 4 and 5, May 26–28. Cremaster 3 returns for two shows on May 29.

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