PRINT May 1995


MATTHEW BARNEY IS THE MYTHOGRAPHER of our closing millennium, of a world less recognizably human—which isn’t such a bad thing. Like a Victor Frankenstein breast-fed with a dose of David Cronenberg, Barney is assembling an ever-permutating organism of extending limbs (performance, video, sculpture, installation) that has much to say about a world of growth and reproduction fervently at odds with the human condition as we know it. In Barney’s universe, hard masculine football-playing bodies are as prone to penetration and transformation as the protean landscape of the fairy tale. And familiar objects (bench presses, vehicles, tools, bodies, various sorts of gooey, metamorphosing substances) appear only to be reborn, reanimated within an elaborate esthetic/genetic cosmology that, yes, attempts to tell stories of gender and generation differently.

Barney recently premiered a new video, Cremaster 4, at the Public Theater, New York, and Artforum asked me to talk to him about it. So there we were in a restaurant—me and this guy whose work had kind of entered my system like some mad virus, once injected I’d never be the same. He had the affability I’d read about (“sweet,” “unassuming”), but it was sweetened by a bona fide sense of wonder, a sort of childlike absorption in his own mad mythography. It was also tempered by a total control.

Where do such qualities come from? The biographical key-words in the Barney bibliography are already stale from overcirculation: “Yale,” “football,” “pre-med,” “male model,” “24-year-old art star” (that was four years ago). I am forced to confess to my fatigue with these kinds of questions, to my resistance to tying meanings down, to my happiness in giving in to the work’s allure minus its personal genesis. In any case, where the biography may lead one to think of a certain privilege (protection, shelter, the body unscathed), this art seems to be about the dents and fissures in a male body—privileged, maybe, but also scarred and challenged.

The video Radial Drill, 1991, opens with a filmy-white silent screen. Enter Barney, dressed in bra, panties, and high heels, running, in slow motion, for a football pass. All I can think is, He must be gay. (My own boundaries, assumptions, prejudices, have grown like horns over the years.) Then Barney again, in an elegant black gown, gloves, smooth skin, beautiful , pushing a Vaseline-covered bench press. He is dancing a gorgeous dance, not so much of envy of or affinity with the female as of—. . .? The final image: high-heeled muscular leg leaping, gown flowing back . . . jump, slow motion . . . into the air . . . suspension.

And so I remain mesmerized by Barney’s Houdini-like escape from the rigidifying determinations of sexual difference. In my own history, gender has been a boundary so taut it threatened at times to strangle me: once upon a time, I knew a woman who thought me so “femmy” she was shocked when I appeared one day on a bicycle. Never wanting to do that to another, I give in to the ambiguity, the hope (my innocence here) that there’s something important about not drawing the line. Like Barney, I want a world of satyrs and mutating character forms that are about another myth of sex and sexual configuration. A world where we’re ever mutating; a world of potential.


MATTHEW BARNEY: Have you ever seen a bullfight? There’s this passage when the bull’s head gets heavy and tired and it bows down to the bullfighter. The bullfighter cocks his hips and walks toward the bull, exhibiting his crotch. They call it “showing sex,” I think that’s the translation.

THYRZA NICHOLS GOODEVE: And it occurs only at the moment when the bull is overcome?

MB: Fatigued but not overcome, and it’s amazing what happens between the bullfighter and the crowd. If he’s not precise, they heckle. In other words, the minute something goes wrong the support shifts to the bull. Everything has to be done right. If it’s not done right then it’s wrong.

TNG: Precision, control—you’re interested in Houdini, who’s all about escaping from extreme self-imposed controls, slipping through resistance, defeating physical limit.

MB: Houdini knew how to pick a lock that hadn’t even been invented yet. I’m interested in the physical transcendence that kind of discipline proposes.

TNG: But it seems your work is less about transcendence than about the activity of the struggle to transcend—the working through of perpetually unresolved proposals, tasks, rituals.

MB: It’s actually about something between those things—not so much about transcendence as about an intuitive state with the potential to transcend, and about the kind of intuition that is learned through understanding a physical process. Back in school, I was working on these drawing projects that were about the relationship between resistance and creativity. I was interested in hypertrophy, how a form can grow productively under a self-imposed resistance, so I wore a restraining device to make drawings. They were linked to my interest in how a muscle can grow under the resistance of a weight.

TNG: Athletics and particularly football are constants in your work. What do you like about that game?

MB: I like the way order can be made out of a completely confusing field of people moving in opposite directions. I think it’s really beautiful how—eventually—a puncture is made in that haze.

TNG: The world you fabricate is itself that kind of labyrinthine complex field. Each piece has its own resonance, yet also a whole series of other levels when seen in relation to the larger organization of the whole.

MB: I always think of those videos as only a possible narrative of what might have happened in that space; rather than being truths, they’re proposals. For me it’s like that Caspar David Friedrich painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, where a man with his back to the viewer is standing in an exaggerated contrapposto on a rock looking out over a valley. The painting is in a state of suspension—you know eventually he’s going to have to turn around and activate the proscenium, but for the moment he’s trapped in the state of potential. There’s something about classical contrapposto—it’s quivering on the threshold between hubris and some kind of real but repressed omnipotence. All these amazing things can happen on that threshold, these powerful internal narratives.

TNG: It’s been said that internal space, the interiority of the self, is both diminished and exaggerated by contemporary technologies that dissolve the boundary between the body and the machine. I feel a return to some kind of intuitive but violated internal landscape in your work; there’s this wild, dreamlike stuff coming out, inflected through machines and technology—like in Drawing Restraint 7_, where you have the satyr being swallowed by the car, or becoming part of it.

MB: Yes, part of it. In the closing sequence, while the two satyrs in the back seat align their Achilles tendons and flay one another, the upholstery in the front seat is flayed and torn as well.

TNG: What’s the significance of the satyr to you—the myth? The part-human, part-animal quality?

MB: I was interested in the fact that “Pan” is the root of “panic.” It’s because Pan leads you to Bacchus—he gives you the moment of unease before you let yourself go. Ottoshaft took on the form of the bagpipe, which comes from the panpipe—they added a bag to maintain the drone. But I thought it would be interesting to go deeper, which I did in Drawing Restraint 7, with the satyrs. The satyr Marsyas challenged Apollo to a musical competition and was flayed for his hubris. All those things informed the use of the satyr.

TNG: What about the car—cars are important to you, aren’t they?

MB: Vehicles are. I’m making an installation in September called Pace Car for the Hubris Pill. Its elements, which I’ll take from other projects, will all have to do with vehicles, or with the trajectory of narrative.

TNG: In the sense that narrative takes you somewhere, like a car you ride?

MB: Yeah. But a show like this is about trying to make clear, or at least to think about, the space between projects rather than the clarity of what’s going on in one project.

TNG: None of your pieces is about completion; there’s the feeling of an endless production of a cosmology. Does each piece raise questions that you carry on through the characters in the next?

MB: It’s like a game of add-on. The pieces have become more about storytelling: “character zones” are created for a given project, and as they reach their limit of development (or lack of it), the remaining, unarticulated aspects of that zone become the outline for the next set of characters.

TNG: Forms too move through your work—things from wrestling mats to hydraulic jacks to tapioca break free of their received meanings to become semantic bits in narratives that run from piece to piece. There’s also a recurring symbol, a capsulelike field with a line or bar across it. It’s in almost everything you do.

MB: That came out of drawing, out of this notion of an opening into an organism and its self-imposed closure, whether it be a blindfold, a titanium screw, or whatever. The piece Field Dressing, where a chunk of Vaseline was frozen into that field form and then used to fill and close off the various orifices in the body, also relates to that idea.

TNG: You’re a performance artist who performs in private: for an exhibition in 1991, for example, you videotaped a climb around the gallery’s walls, with ropes and pitons, before the opening. Does this combination of a private experience with a public view also arise out of that idea of a simultaneously open and closed field?

MB: It has to do with a lot of things—one is my reticence about theater, and about that kind of relationship with the audience. But it also has to do with how an action can become a proposal, rather than an overdetermined form. A taped action in an installation can float. It doesn’t really have to declare itself, or even to answer to gravity. It wasn’t that that video made sense of the evidence of the climb that was left on the gallery ceiling: there was the possibility that it was all an imagined activity, that it never happened.

TNG: You’ve said you’re less interested in formal relationships than in the idea of developing a cosmology (you were talking about Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman), but you’ve developed a very articulate visual language, and you once said that Jim Otto, the former football player who appears in different ways in your work, is ultimately just a form to you—the double O’s of his number and his name become orifices/anuses, and the two T’s of his name resound with the shape of the goalpost. The meaning of “Jim Otto” as a person matters less than his use as form. Do you see yourself as a formalist—developing forms into language—or more as a mythographer and storyteller?

MB: The forms don’t really take on life for me until they’ve been “eaten,” passed through the narrative construction.

TNG: That metaphor is interesting, because the word that keeps coming to me about your storytelling, which clearly isn’t linear, is “metabolic.” And in your new video, Cremaster 4, you cover one structure with padded vinyl, like a skin.

MB: Yes, but I’m less interested in skin than in fascia—connective tissue. Have you ever dissected something? Fascia is the filmy stuff that connects organs, the thing that gets punctured in a hernia.

TNG: You studied medicine in college? The title of Cremaster 4 is also a corporeal image, isn’t it?

MB: I was pre-med briefly. The cremaster muscles are the muscles that control the height of the testicles, which usually varies with changes in temperature. If it’s cold outside they’re drawn into the body so they stay warmer.

TNG: Is that why you used a freezer in your installation Transexualis [1991], so all the guys who come in—

MB:—Get back to the seven-week stage of pregenital experience? [laughter]

TNG: Your work can easily be discussed in terms of a critique of masculinity, but it’s actually more about trying to produce this other . . . myth, really. You’ve set up this elaborate system about a hard-to-describe gender—not neuter, certainly not female (football, testicles—these aren’t part of a traditionally defined female world), but not traditionally male, either.

MB: The notion of a pregenital model shows up over and over again in the stories. In Cremaster 4, for instance, the yellow motorbike-team, the Ascending Hack, is essentially in that ascended state, or, in its movement on the course, is attempting to maintain that state. The blue team is interested in a downward, developmental movement. The Loughton Candidate and the Loughton Ram are the third pole, in that they have either four sockets in their head, like the Candidate, or four horns, like the Ram, so that together they’re about the maintenance of both states.

TNG: The Laughton Candidate is the character who’s tap-dancing near the film’s beginning, the Laughton Ram is the red four-horned sheep who shows up later on. Where the Laughton Candidate has sockets in his head, are his horns lost or are they in a state of potential?

MB: They haven’t grown. He’s a candidate to become the Laughton Ram.

TNG: They look almost like wounds. There’s a gentleness to the way you reveal them, parting the hair and displaying them to the viewer.

MB: It’s about that field of undifferentiation, where the horns draw a system in both states simultaneously. The story comes from the possibility that a single organism can endlessly fracture itself into different aspects. They’re all part of the same form. So the story has nothing to do with the relationship between them—they’re never in a duality with something outside themselves.

TNG: So the video’s final image, that extremely strange crotch shot, is again about not resolving but maintaining that tension? Just as the Friedrich painting shows the scene of perpetual edginess—the state of threshold?

MB: That image is a kind of drawing of the conflict between the yellow, ascending team and the blue, descending team in terms of the state of those organs. On the yellow bike the organs rise from a set of slots, but on the blue bike they descend down across the thigh onto the ferring, the sidecar passenger’s fiberglass tray. The two teams want to keep it that way. Each has its own interest in the organs that are in the center of that frame.

TNG: I don’t think I’ve ever seen work that’s testicular as opposed to phallic [laughter]. Also, even if your work is inflected with a horror-movie veneer, it doesn’t seem based on a fear of a monstrous female, as a lot of horror movies are. And when you dress up in drag, it’s not about, Gee I want to be a girl. How does “woman” appear in your work?

MB: The characters in the black gown and the white gown in Ottoshaft were called “the feminine Jim Blind.” I would call that aspect of the narrative “she,” but I wouldn’t call it a representation of a woman. I would just say that at that point the piece went into a more feminine field. The idea of the organism being one sex or the other, or even one of three possible sexes, is limited: it could have a million different zones of sexual articulation.

TNG: There’s this kind of hush around sexuality in the Barney criticism; one writer has said, “The artist’s sexuality is not of importance.”1 Yet sexuality is everywhere in your work, or both everywhere and nowhere. How important is your sexuality, or sexuality in general, to this mythological system of a pregenital being? You are trying to get away from normative ideas of sexuality?

MB: Well, I guess for me if it’s erotic, it’s autoerotic.

TNG: Again the single organism—you don’t need another person.

MB: I don’t know if it’s about whether or not I need another person, but that the form is in dialogue with itself. I used to think about a three-phase diagram: Situation, Condition, Production. Situation was a zone of pure drive, useless desire that needed direction, needed to be passed through a visceral disciplinary funnel, which was the second zone—Condition. The third zone, Production, was a kind of anal/oral production of form. It gets more interesting if Production is bypassed: at that point the head goes into the ass, and the cycle flickers between Situation and Condition, between discipline and desire. If it goes back and forth enough times something that’s really elusive can slip out—a form that has form, but isn’t overdetermined.

TNG: Is there any reproduction in this autosexual world?

MB: It’s more of a digestive model.

TNG: Is that where tapioca comes in? Little balls that melt and turn into something else?

MB: I started using tapioca when I was making these pieces to do with a metabolic transfer between a complex carbohydrate and glucose. Ottoshaft ended up as the clearest manifestation of those works. In Pace Car for the Hubris Pill, the hubris pill is a glucose tablet.

TNG: Literally?

MB: It’s actually a prehubris pill—glucose is in the state of prehubris. In Ottoshaft, Otto and Al Davis try to take this glucose pill through the metabolic change from glucose to sucrose to candy to petroleum jelly to tapioca to meringue and then to pound cake. If they could just get it to pound cake—its state of hubris—then the bagpipe would play “Amazing Grace.” But it never gets there; it gets trapped in meringue.

TNG: Where’s the pound cake?

MB: Behind the pace car there’s an eight-foot pound cake that sits on the floor. It’s divided in the center, where that notch is in the pill.

TNG: [laughter] There’s humor here, visual puns?

MB: You mean in the forms themselves?

TNG: Yes, objects become funny—funny but also moving. In Jim Otto Suite, when you’re on the balancing bar with the hydraulic jack, it’s completely beautiful, melancholy and erotic. But when the jack reappears in Cremaster 4, at the fairies’ picnic, it’s dressed in tartan [laughter], with ribbons and all. I don’t know what you’re doing but there’s a marvelous humor to it, and also the memory that the jack has a history in your world, is part of this other moment when it was almost going into your body, when it was both sexual and dangerous.

MB: Then it gets dressed up and taken to Sunday school. It doesn’t really want to be there.

TNG: So what is its role in Cremaster 4?

MB: It’s another vehicle, another device of a drawn movement—the rise and fall of the hydraulic shaft. As the thermos, the centerpiece of the fairies’ picnic, it becomes the form that’s pitched in the triple option they execute—whether this form is going to be kept, pitched, or passed out of play. The Ascending Fairy pitches it to the Descending Fairy, who isn’t interested in accepting it.

TNG: And why is that?

MB: Because when that two-ball form is sitting up at the picnic, it’s in the descended state. The Ascending Fairy wants the balls to ascend, and the Descending Fairy wants nothing to do with that. Meanwhile the Loughton Fairy is playfully creating interference. Then, in the pit stop, the Descending Fairy is trying to prop up the bike in order to enable the migrating organs to get down farther into the passenger’s tray. So the same jack is used to prop up the bike.

TNG: The pit stop is also where the fairy puts the fleshy wheel with the two balls on the bike?

MB: She fits and rotates it and then puts the proper tire back on.

TNG: Obviously if that form was put on the wheel, it wouldn’t turn?

MB: Right.

TNG: As in the “vehicle” of sexual differentiation, you’re stuck going one way or another. The Ascending Hack gets sidetracked by water and has to turn around; that doesn’t happen to the Descending Hack, the blue team. No boundary or barrier obstructs it.

MB: That’s because ascent is the more difficult path.

TNG: Cremaster 4—why 4?

MB: There are actually five of them.

TNG: You made five?

MB: No, I’m going to. I just made number four first. I’m going to do number one this summer in a stadium in Idaho that has blue Astroturf. Cremaster 2 is on a glacier, like an ice cap. Cremaster 3 is in the Chrysler Building in New York, Cremaster 4 was shot on the Isle of Man, and then Cremaster 5 is in a bathhouse—the fully descended state.

TNG: The name of the Isle of Man, which is in the Irish Sea, is obviously important, but did anything particularly interest you about the island’s history and myths?

MB: There were myths I read while I was there, particularly about fairies and their general relationship to the island, which is a sort of sketchy contract. There are certain bridges that you can’t cross until you pay your respects to the fairies. If you don’t, they’ll turn on you.

TNG: And how do you pay respect?

MB: You stop your car and you say hello to the fairies and then you go on.

TNG: Did you see people doing that?

MB: Oh yeah, people get in cabs and the cabs won’t move until everyone in the cab pays respect and then the cab takes you to the airport.

TNG: And the fairies’ lovely gowns—did you sew those costumes?

MB: No, I worked with an incredible woman, Michel Voyski. We looked at pictures and took ideas from different periods, though we tried to stay in the 1910–20 period—post-Victorian. I wanted to place Cremaster 4 in the period of the “physical culture” in which Houdini and these other performance artists took on the Victorian ideal of how physicality should be expressed.

TNG: That also relates in a way to the time delay in your work—the fact that in the videos of your gallery feats it’s as if you’re showing us a memory of what happened, a history, and then when we walk through the space of the gallery it becomes a field of evidence—suggestive, unresolved. There’s a moving, melancholy feel to it.

MB: The most memorable thing anyone ever said to me about my work came from this guy who had a custodial job in a hockey rink. He’d go there at five in the morning every morning and turn the vapor lights on, and he’d sit down in the front row behind the Plexiglas at the edge of the empty rink. Those lights go rose and then green and then they start to get cool and go whiter and whiter. He described my work as like watching that artificial sunrise—the melancholia of experiencing something in a state of potential.

Cremaster 4 can be seen at the Public Theater, New York, until May 6.


1. Francesco Bonami, “Matthew Barney: The Artist as a Young Athlete,” Flash Art, January/February 1992, p. 104.