To create images that have never been imagined before, much less seen, is no small thing. Matthew Barney, who burst onto the art scene in 1991 at the tender age of 24, has made hundreds of them, and for the past decade he’s kept those with a taste for adventurous art in thrall with a gargantuan multimedia project titled Cremaster. A series of five films exploring themes of confinement, transformation and freedom, the Cremaster films are baroque in appearance, primal in tone and impossibly complex. It won‘t necessarily help you decode the work, but just for the record, cremaster is the muscle that pulls the testicles up into the body, and is an indicator of male gender in the fetus; Barney interprets it as a metaphor for things in the state of suspension that exists just before they coalesce into their final form.
Barney’s latest installment, Cremaster 2, which plays at the Nuart February 18 through 21, could be described as an experimental western. Loosely based on The Executioner‘s Song, Norman Mailer’s 1979 chronicle of the life and death of Gary Gilmore, the convicted murderer who was executed by a Utah firing squad in 1977, it features Barney in the role of Gilmore, Mailer as Harry Houdini, and musician Patty Griffin as Gilmore‘s girlfriend, Nicole Baker. The film also features synchronized equestrian maneuvers staged at the Bonneville Salt Flats at Wendover, Utah; an 1893 performance in Chicago by Houdini; the taming of a Brahma bull; an actor portraying Johnny Cash, who supposedly telephoned Gilmore shortly before his execution; and a virtual Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The films have been shot out of sequence, and Cremaster 2 was actually the fourth completed. The first in the series takes place in a football stadium in Boise, Idaho; the fourth revolves around a sidecar race on the Isle of Man; and the fifth episode (which was seen at the Nuart in 1998) was shot in the baths and theaters of old Budapest.
”The stories in all five episodes will be more coherent when the films are seen together in the proper sequence, but the piece isn’t about narrative,“ says Barney. The remaining film, Cremaster 3, will be set in a room at the top of the Chrysler Building in New York, and is slated for completion by the end of next summer. Each episode is inextricably tied to the symbol-laden landscape in which it takes place, and the episodes chart an eastward arc from Boise, where Barney grew up, to Budapest, where Houdini was born.
How does Gary Gilmore fit into the Cremaster universe? ”During the planning of Cremaster 2, I went to Alberta, Canada, to look at the Columbia Ice Fields,“ says Barney. ”I felt I wasn‘t getting enough of a story out of the Canadian Rockies to attach the piece to, so I’d taken The Executioner‘s Song to read, knowing it was set in the lower Rockies and the Mormon basin where I grew up. I felt I needed to bring the piece back down into territory I knew, and as I read the book I discovered Gilmore’s relationship to Houdini.“ (Gilmore is rumored to have been an illegitimate descendant of Houdini.)
”Houdini personifies the idea of freeing oneself of restraint as a creative act,“ adds Barney, who portrays a a Houdini character in Cremaster 5. ”I‘ve used him in several different ways, focusing sometimes on his vaudevillian side, and other times on the hermetic quality he had. He’s a character who just keeps giving to this project.“
A recurring motif of the Cremaster films is confined space. ”I suppose you could say that‘s an aspect of sculpture making I’ve held on to,“ says the artist, who focused on sculpture at Yale. ”Confined spaces are largely about the pressure of the interior on the object, and I find that useful in how I think about the characters and environments in the films. These characters are conceived to evoke the notion of arresting character development at the point just before it really defines itself. I write them that way to free them from having to deal with issues of gender, biology, destiny and mortality. It‘s about freedom, I suppose, but I’m hesitant to say it‘s about freedom from biology or any other condition, because it’s simpler than that. It‘s about freedom in general.“
Because Gilmore’s mother was Mormon, Barney hoped to shoot a scene in the Mormon Tabernacle, but says ”preliminary inquiries about how the choir takes on commissions didn‘t go anywhere. So we created a digital choir and worked with an original piece of music, then built a 30-foot model of the tabernacle.“
More icons: The beehive is the state symbol of Utah, so the film includes several scenes involving bees. ”It’s not easy to contain them, because they get everywhere, but it was surprisingly easy to get them to go where we wanted them to go,“ says Barney. ”You can control them with a queen bee in a little vial. You can use pheromones or honey, and you can use light to get them to cluster.“
Stranger than Barney wrangling bees is the fact that this anti-commercial film includes several staples of pop culture: a sex scene (depicting Gilmore‘s conception), a faux rock video, and a song performed by a female country vocalist.
”Working with [musician] Jonathan Bepler has changed the way the pieces are being made, and music is becoming increasingly important to them,“ says Barney. ”Initially, I hadn’t planned to cast anyone as Gary‘s girlfriend, Nicole, but I did plan to use a female country & western voice singing over the top of a scene. Patty Griffin’s voice came to mind, so I went to see her perform, and I felt she had a presence that had something to do with Nicole, so I asked her to be in the film.“
As for his own terse portrayal of Gilmore, Barney says, ”I don‘t consider what I do in the pieces acting — ’activating‘ might be a better word for what I do — and it depends on who I’m talking to whether I refer to the Cremaster pieces as films.
“In the end, I don‘t define them as films, because I consider myself an abstract artist and believe that the narrative and figurative aspects of my work all cancel themselves out at a certain point. Ultimately, the pieces end up being about abstract qualities,” adds Barney, whose mother, an abstract painter, often works on his films.
Barney completed Cremaster 2 for $1.7 million and, not surprisingly, he’s had some overtures from the film industry. “That‘s something to think about for the future if the projects keep getting bigger, but for the time being, I’m happy working this way,” he says. “Other than distribution, it hasn‘t really limited what I’m doing. Moreover, I have no idea if the films could handle a broader distribution, or if they could play at multiplexes in the Midwest. I‘m always surprised either way it goes. I’m surprised when lots of people show up, and I‘m surprised when nobody shows up.”
Barney himself will show up at the Nuart to introduce the film on February 19.