Attempting to sum up the scope of Matthew Barney’s epic in a few words is like trying to shove the history of existence through a scrotum-shaped pinhole. Like a magic lantern tapped directly into the obscure struggling crevices of Barney’s brain, The Cremaster Cycle allows the psyche to reign over a legion of evocative icons-in-action — all captured in a series of films named after a muscle that protects the testicles, and causes them to retract when provoked.
In Latin, cremaster means “to suspend.” And taking after its namesake, the series hovers over and incubates sexual ambiguity like a fetus developing in the womb during the first eight weeks, when nothing is definite. This is a strange parade. Whether or not you’re into a tap-dancing red-haired satyr, a vicious cheetah girl, Scottish giants, an ex-Bond girl mouthing arias, grape-eating stewardesses, fairies with six-packs or Gary Gilmore, in Barney’s football-and-fine-art-fed mind, they all illustrate a biological process that never quite completes itself. For almost a decade, The Cremaster Cycle has been enchanting art connoisseurs from around the world; it could prove itself to be a paradigm in the evolution of art.
Barney, now 36, has been the boundary-pushing darling of the art world ever since his New York debut in 1991, when he presented a video of himself scaling the walls and ceiling of the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, naked. He’s won the prestigious Europa 2000 award at the 45th Venice Biennale and the Guggenheim Museum’s Hugo Boss Award, among myriad accolades for his work. “The most important American artist of his generation because his imagination is so big,” raved New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman in a 5,000-word profile that hailed Barney’s range without ever succinctly summing him up.
In addition to writing and directing all of the films, Barney acts in all but one, and has produced a Cremaster catalogue of books, drawings and sculptures, a project he’s worked on for almost a decade. The guy has cooked up a wicked international stir with instant recognition, praise and success hurled at him and his “Marlboro Man” good looks. A living dream? Björk seems to think so. She and Barney are a couple made in aesthetic heaven. In the scope of avant-garde rock, Björk is another adored artist of outstanding originality, and she gave birth to Barney’s child last year, on the crest of daddy’s fame.
Although some of the films have made it here before, for the first time in Detroit the entire Cremaster Cycle will be shown this weekend. With a combined running time of just under seven hours, these five films communicate almost entirely in image, music and movement with next to no dialogue. They’ll be shown in numerical order, not in the order they were made (4, 1, 5, 2, 3). As you pick and choose how to divide your free time, keep in mind this is an experience not to be ignored, even on Halloween weekend. The Cremaster Cycle is more than just a muscle-inspired cluster of hermetic islands speaking in metaphoric tongues. They feed into and rely on each other, stronger as a whole, although damned intriguing by themselves, beginning with Cremaster 1.
Hovering over the tips of two goal posts in a football stadium are two Goodyear blimps. Everything is bathed in stadium lights that remove shadows so that objects seem to float. On the striking blue field, there are smiling showgirls in shiny pink swirling dresses — like upside down double-cupped flowers. As the girls move in formation on the field to a sort of dreamy elevator music, the camera cuts to two airborne lounges up above, somewhere, maybe inside the blimps, permeated by a lulling, amniotic engine hum. Each lounge has its own set of stewardesses who gather around a table of grapes (one room with green and one room with red), and each table has a uterus-shaped Vaseline sculpture in the center.
In each lounge, under the table, under the white tablecloth, crouches a platinum blond woman on a white plastic platform; in these womb-like cramped quarters she pulls grapes down through a hole in the tabletop, onto her chest. Somehow, the grapes come out of the bottom of her shoe as if she’s a human fallopian tube, and pretty soon the grapes begin to signify ova (or human eggs). By the time this platinum blonde makes it to the ground wearing her own swirled white-metallic dress, she and the two Goodyear blimps she holds onto — with a cord in each hand — become the personification of the womb and ovaries — a universal place of creation. And there the 40-minute-long movie ends.
As with all of the films, translating Cremaster 1 (1995) into words is a disservice to the elevating intensity and intrigue communicated through sound and imagery.
After watching a few of these movies, and letting them sink in, you quickly get hip to the Cremaster tools: white plastic devices, pearly white balls, and Vaseline — which turns into a sort of biomorphic glue, connecting, filling, splattering against and covering choice objects and fissures. Associations we have with old genres — like Busby Berkeley musicals, sporting events and half-time spectaculars — are added on top of this new genus of film (and associations) Barney conjures up by shaping together fresh images both provocative and electric. And while these wild juxtapositions might bring the long tradition of surrealism to mind, the term isn’t quite appropriate. In Barney’s eyes, these images are all quite reasonable, alive in their own reality, with their own rationales.
And it doesn’t take long before visual connections between associations become darker and more complex. The camera moving across horizontal white lines on the blue football field in C1 clicks into the intense gothic horizontal lines of church pews in C2.
Cremaster 2 (1999), the fourth made, strays furthest from the Cremaster formula, in part because there is dialogue (the other films are void of spoken words — although some are sung), and because of the film’s dependency on a historical figure, Utah murderer Gary Gilmore, who in 1977 became the first American to be executed in 10 years as America re-embraced the death penalty.
It helps to know some things about Gilmore in order to really dive into C2, for instance that he owned a blue Mustang but lusted after a white truck (which he bought but couldn’t afford the payments on), that his affectionless mother Bessie intimated that Houdini was his grandfather, and that his brutally abusive father Frank initially christened him with the first name Faye — the same name as Frank’s mother, Gary’s grandmother, a spiritual medium — before Bessie changed it to Gary.
The imagery in C2 is a plague of ice, bees and restrictions, such as outrageously tiny-waisted corsets and confined spaces that frustrate and imprison. Gilmore, played by Barney, sits on the front seat of a Mustang at a service station. Soon you realize that the Mustang’s interior is connected to another Mustang’s interior (one blue, one white) in an otherworldly constructed tunnel, the shape of which is reminiscent of a honeycomb. Gilmore fidgets on the seat. He attempts to pry off and bend together pieces of the interior, but his Vaseline fails to glue the connections. Gilmore’s eyes turn bloody red in frustration. As his rage builds, death metal sung by a man overlaps a melancholy country ballad crooned by a woman — until Gilmore is driven to violence. Barney later parallels Gary’s liberation from prison through death with a death-defying metamorphic escape by Houdini (portrayed by Norman Mailer, whose The Executioner’s Song chronicles Gilmore’s life).
It’s safe to say that Cremaster 3 (2002) (his longest — running at 182 minutes) is Barney’s Cremasterpiece, completely standing on its own with substantial narrative ebb and flow, yet intricately tying into the other films while referencing back on itself. Although framed within Barney’s comic version of the giant-ridden Scottish myth behind the creation of the Isle of Man, C3 very quickly takes a horrific, magnificent turn.
A woman crawls up through the earth, skin just covering her bones; she’s marked with the colors of decomposition. At the same time, a man (Barney as the Entered Apprentice) in a fedora and leather apron fills in the Chrysler symbol (just one side shy of a honeycomb) on the front of numerous cars with cement. The woman collapses when she reaches the surface, and her eyes ooze blood, and her flesh drops to the floor as she’s placed (apparently dead) in the interior of a car (her hands placed in a white plastic loop) alongside an eagle fidgeting on the seat. Five cars back toward the death car in a formation mimicking the Chrysler symbol, then proceed to crush the car with the woman and eagle inside — the car harboring things of the earth — demolition-derby style.
Eventually, the Chrysler Building becomes the colossal phallic center of a pagan maypole dance orchestrated by sculptor Richard Serra as the Master Architect: Men in white gloves, business suits and fedoras interbraid pink and green ribbons in and around the building.
Barney has said that he considers the film series an extension of his “sculpture practice.” With a sculptor’s attention to every possible detail, Barney has given each film its own symbolic emblem, a coat of arms of sorts, with the same underlying shape: a rounded rectangle (like the shape of a plane window) merged with an intersecting squared-off thin bar. It’s as if Barney has created his own Western version for the yin-yang symbol to build his layered mysteries on. And because of the general stoicism and silence of the characters, other aspects within the films — confining conditions, jump cuts, shapes, as well as their variations, and even buildings — begin to carry emotion and narrative with equal emphasis.
So just why did Barney make the films out of order? Maybe “The Order” (the last section of C3) can give us some insight. As the Entered Apprentice, Barney is clad in blue argyle socks and a pink plaid kilt with pink shako to match, as he climbs the spiraled tiers inside the Guggenheim Museum. Fashioned as a sort of high-profile sports-spectacular obstacle course, the Apprentice’s path is far from linear; he has to move back and forth between levels before mastering them. (If you managed to make it to the Barney show at the Guggenheim this past summer, you could have watched “The Order” projected on multiple screens at the top of the very place it was filmed. In other words, you could participate in your own strange spiraling of realities.)
Throughout the films, and especially in C3, the camera is an all-seeing eye, able to take on any perspective, and more often than not moving — slow and brooding to record a process so personal, it’s universal. Watching Barney as the Entered Apprentice continually riding on the outside tops of the elevators, and later climbing on the outside of the building to reach its pinnacle seems to allude to his career in fine art, traveling outside the corporate status quo yet reaching a pinnacle spot in the public eye.
The first film shot in the series, Cremaster 4 (1994), was originally filmed to be broadcast as a fake sporting event, but it never made it to TV. Three incredibly strong fairy-god-fairies, played by women bodybuilders (without breast jobs), guide and watch over the progress of the Loughton Candidate (a red-haired, white-suited satyr played by Barney). The satyr tap dances through a white plastic floor into the ocean, as two motorcycle teams race in opposite directions around the Isle of Man.
Somehow, Barney managed to get semi-retired former Euro-bombshell Ursula Andress for Cremaster 5 (1997). As the Queen of Chain, Andress, clad in black, walks on shoes with flared white plastic soles. She mouths mournful arias while looking through a hole fashioned like a white plastic anus. Barney, the Magician, hurls his naked self into dark waters in a Houdiniesque spectacle, with his hands and feet trapped in white plastic loops by white plastic gloves and his toes clutching white plastic balls — objects connecting him to the destructive aspects of masculinity swimming through C3. This final film culminates in a sumptuous, red-marbleized fleshy scene, unfolding lush myth through the commingling of an operatic love of tragedy with underwater nymphs of nebulous sexuality. Reminiscent of the maypole dance in C3, doves hover about, connected by ribbons to the Magician’s ambiguous genitalia, finishing the cycle inside a bathhouse in Budapest (the birthplace of Houdini).
Is it really finished? It seems that Barney would like it to be. He’s not doing interviews on Cremaster any longer, as he’s claimed to be eager “to move on to the next stage of his career.”
But looking at his biography suggests some clues about his work. The tension between sports and arts on the screen seems to reflect the different genders his parents represent. They split when Barney was 15, and he divided his time between his dad in Idaho (where Barney avidly played high school football and quarterbacked his team to a state championship) and his mom, an abstract painter in New York City. He’s said that since he wasn’t tall enough to hope for a professional football career, he went to Yale intent on becoming a plastic surgeon. But he wound up transferring to the art department and worked his way through school as a male model. (How many other artists have posed for Ralph Lauren?)
Whether or not his films reflect a hesitation to pick one love over another, The Cremaster Cycle whirls in a symbol-strewn sea of objects and beings that embody a confounding gender-blending.
Barney’s fearless determination to realize his cinematic sculptures on such an enormous scale puts most of us to shame. In Cremaster 2, Houdini states that within metamorphosis, he digests the lock to become a part of the cage that contains him in order to break free of it. As in art and dreams, The Cremaster Cycle speaks in a language of symbols, archetypes and metaphor, refusing to yield to, and refusing to work within, the limitations and confines of rational reality. Barney somehow manages to digest that reality we all know and gives birth to a fantastic land steeped in processes from biology to geology to mythology to biography.
For at least a little while, we can all break free and allow ourselves to live inside a vital playground of free associations, where a simple everyday shape can hold complex histories that never settle on being a he or a she.
At the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit). Call 313-833-3237. Cremaster 1 -2 show Friday, Oct. 31, at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Cremaster 3 shows Saturday, Nov. 1, at 7 p.m. only. All five films show in a Sunday, Nov. 2, marathon with Cremaster 1 -2 at noon, Cremaster 3 at 3 p.m., and Cremaster 4–5 at 7 and 9 p.m. See movie trailers, stills and more at cremaster.net.Anita Schmaltz writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org