THOUGH HE COMPLETED his five-film “Cremaster” cycle less than a decade ago, then topped off the whole project in 2003 with a museum-spanning exhibition of sculptures and installations at the Guggenheim, Matthew Barney has quickly become a figure from a seemingly distant, more ostentatious age—the art-world equivalent of a stretch Humvee. The cycle’s theatrical revival this year will hardly undermine his status as the epitome of a certain kind of celebrity-artist, a value lesson in what happens when the manufacture of fame in the service of increasing the monetary value of artificially rare products overtakes the art itself, which devolves into nothing but placeholders for this process. Even the distributor of the films’ current run makes pains to reinforce the moneyed-class crudity that mere scarcity equals worth. The cycle “is not now, nor will it ever be, available to consumers on DVD,” the organization’s press release warns, with overtones of the Disney vault. “The only place it can be seen is on screen in theaters, making this re-release a welcome return to true theatrical repertory programming.” By this Barnumesque logic, Barney might as well be the Feejee Mermaid.
Of course, rareness has its function in cinema programming as in the art world, but to different ends. The cinephile indeed craves obscurity—the only extant print, the never-distributed title—but doesn’t assume that the hard-to-see film is necessarily good. A slapdash movie of notable provenance might pique her interest as much as the long-thought-lost masterpiece of a great director. The Barney effect, however, depends on the notion that an inverse ratio of fame to access will magically invest his movies with the aura of true art. But the very possibility of this system, for audiovisual media at least, has dissolved. Despite awkward Hollywood-style efforts at reducing copies (this critic had to submit a signed statement that he wouldn’t duplicate the digitally watermarked preview DVDs provided for review), multiple torrents of the Cremaster films have long been available on The Pirate Bay and elsewhere for anyone who’d like to view them. In the digital era, nothing famous can be inaccessible. True cinematic rarities remain beyond the reach of the downloadable, elusively unseeded, and barely Googled. Ryan Trecartin, notably, emerged from the world of YouTube, not in defiance of the tide.
Even considered on their own, with historical distance from the financial context of their making, the films constitute an epic fail unto themselves. Barney never grasped the value of editing, structuring his work in a clumsy back-and-forth between parallel actions whose unproductive tedium sabotages any spectacular value of his shopwindow production numbers. The destroyed luxury cars in Cremaster 3 (2002), the football-stadium kick lines in Cremaster 1 (1995), and even the aerial shots in the relatively low-budget Cremaster 4 (1994) prove unable to evoke feelings of majesty and profundity, coming off instead as just showy. Seen in 2010, one cannot but help hear a Project Runway voice whispering behind every shot: “It looks expensive!” Unsuccessful on the terms of their own medium, the films actually undermine Barney’s true talents as a sculptor and photographer. He has an undeniable eye for the striking image, in his best moments marrying symmetrical elegance with corporeal ooze, but these deluxe shock effects grow wearisome without an advanced or even competent temporal structure. Thus his deployment of numerous systems of arcane symbolism—Masonic, Mormon, Gaelic, biological, or otherwise—seems a desperate move, as if he hopes piling on more and more stuff will grant some deeper meaning through the force of nothing but acquisition and accumulation.
Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle plays May 19–June 3 at the IFC Center in New York. Barney will appear in person with curator Richard Flood on Thursday, May 20 at 7 PM. For more details on screenings, click here. For the cycle’s official website, click here.