PRINT October 1997


On the 24th of this month, Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 5, the concluding segment of the artist’s five-film-cycle-in-progress (episodes 1 and 3 are still to come), opens at New York’s Film Forum. Contributing editor David Frankel takes a crack at Barney’s symbolic tableaux, shot on location in Budapest. Discovering a world that is as densely coded as it is visually ravishing, he concedes that “Barney’s allegory-making mindset will always have a jump on us.”

THAT WACKY MATTHEW BARNEY. Writers aren’t meant to admit such things, but I often feel, looking at his work, that I have no idea what he’s doing—or, rather, that whatever meanings I might find in or bring to the work have correlatives in extraordinary and incalculable systems of Barney’s own. Oh, there’s always research, and the Barney hermeneutical corpus, including a certain amount of explication by the artist himself. You can consult his groundbreaking analyses of the properties of tapioca, muse on just how internally lubricated plastic gets that way, play with the palindromic possibilities of football player Jim Otto’s surname—all rewarding and even necessary explorations, given the work’s materials and forms. But you’d better recognize that Barney’s allegory-making mindset will always have the jump on you. For one thing, although his stories often link up through not only ideas and themes but images, narrative tropes, and even physical objects, each new one has its own dense detail and individuality—its own peculiarity, in the sense of both specificity and strangeness. For another, allegory depends for its readability on the audience’s access to a certain lore. That lore may be commonplace, as in the allegories of medieval Christianity, or cultic, as in Mozart’s coded freemasonry, or wholly individual—as in Matthew Barney. Fascinating as his films and videos, installations and objects may be to anyone stumbling on them in innocence, we will always be somewhat dependent on the artist himself to understand the correspondences and data to which they are attuned.

Take tapioca—please. A substance encompassing solid, liquid, and a gelatinous, mucus-y continuum between, it can easily be understood as a sign for the kind of transformative process that Barney seems often to have somewhere in mind. Actually, though, the process he is thinking of is more particular: “a metabolic transfer between a complex carbohydrate and glucose.” Of course! It’s a common art theme of the ’90s. In a typical Barney exegesis, in fact, the artist told Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, in a 1995 Artforum interview, that this same metabolic transfer constituted the inner narrative of an entire group of his earlier works:

In Pace Car for the Hubris Pill, the hubris pill is a glucose tablet. . . . 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 [perhaps slightly stunned]: 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.

Minute, lucid, yet delirious (delirious because so minutely lucid), such explanations, even as they help you out, tend to leave you feeling that you can’t get there by yourself. Add in that Barney’s is an extremely carefully imagined world in which everything is intricately connected to everything else—the bagpipes mentioned here, for example, being linked, as versions of panpipes, to the god Pan, and thence to the satyrs of Drawing Restraint 7, 1993, or to the Loughton Candidate of Cremaster 4, 1994—and it seems safe to say that while Barney is surely doing something quite precise in the latest film of his “Cremaster” cycle, Cremaster 5, many of the film’s viewers, certainly including me, will have only the most general idea what it is.

How much does this matter? To whatever extent it remains opaque, Cremaster 5 is a ravishing stretch of cinema. All of the “Cremaster” films so far (and presumably the two still to come, given their announced locations, on a glacier and in the Chrysler Building) have quite disparate visual textures. Cremaster 4, the first Barney made, takes place on the Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea, and has a heathery ocean-and-moorland air, with Victorian-England interpolations. Cremaster I, the second, from 1995, melds the vaguely threatening architecture of an Idaho football stadium with Busby Berkeley–style choreography and the ’30s-moderne-ish cabins of a pair of blimps. Cremaster 5 Barney shot in Budapest, which he again renders as a temporal throwback. Unmarked by its recent Eastern-bloc history, Barney’s Budapest is defined by a pair of lavish nineteenth-century interiors—the Hungarian State Opera House and the Gellert baths. There are outdoor scenes too, but since these are mostly set at night on a bridge across the Danube, they leave the modern city invisible. So folk come and go on horseback. They wear—is it Elizabethan clothes?—with tunics and swollen pantaloons and ruffs (some of these made of lilies). Much of the movie’s sensory quality derives from the fabrics of these costumes—from the feeling of silk and satin and velvet, in rich reds, blacks, and whites. There’s also the simultaneous formality and extravagance of both the opera house and the baths, the one with its ordered yet opulent ranks of seats and balconies, the other with its tessellated vaults of greenish tile. And then there are the remarkable settings of flowers, the ribbons, the white-plumed birds, the naked underwater nymphs, the pearlescent, nay, tapioca-like globules of plastic. . . . These are the film’s visual determinants, and Barney orchestrates them gorgeously.

“Orchestrates” is in fact the apposite word, for Cremaster 5 is set up as an opera. The first of these films to include any kind of text or language, it has a libretto, written by Barney, and sung in Hungarian (of course!) to an orchestral score by Jonathan Bepler. Actually—think about this for a moment—Cremaster 5 is an opera starring Ursula Andress. Memorable as the Bond girl who thirty-five years ago emerged from the waters in Dr. No, Andress here plays the Queen of Chain. Dressed in deep black, she is first seen ascending to her box in the opera house, in the company of a pair of Asian maids, or ushers, bearing white birds called Jacobin pigeons—birds with a natural ruff of feathers, echoing the ushers’ ruffs of lilies. (Is the relation of these pigeons to the ushers anything like that of the Loughton Ram—the literal ram who stands sheepishly in the road in Cremaster 4—to the Loughton Candidate, with his embryonic horns?) The Queen’s seat is mounted on a kind of pillowy upholstered dais punctured by orifices that somehow give onto the Gellert baths. The flower-ruffed ushers insert the feather-ruffed pigeons into the orifices in the pillowy dais. And we’re off.

The action that follows charts the Queen of Chain’s interactions with three figures, all played by Barney: the Diva, the Giant, and the Magician. Of these, the most important to her emotionally (novel to see a romance in a Barney film) is the Magician, a black-cloaked man seen brooding, brooding, on the Danube bridge—the Lánc-híd or Chain Bridge—before manacling himself à la Houdini with internally-lubricated-plastic chain and diving into the waters. Unfortunately he does not emerge from them. The Diva, too, seems to come to a bad end: it is his performance the Queen watches at the opera house (she and her ushers, incidentally, are the only audience in the enormous theater, the performance seeming staged at her command), and his art involves climbing, Jack-and-the-beanstalk-like, a flowering vine that runs all the way around the high proscenium arch, a feat of daring—a feat of hubris!, that key word in the Barney lexicon—that he does not appear to survive. (In the past, of course, Barney himself has done gallery-based work featuring this kind of indoor mountaineering.) The Giant’s progress is perhaps more auspicious. A Neptune- or river-god-type figure with orthotic-plastic mustache extensions, he wades into a pool at the baths, while the naked underwater nymphs frolic around his feet. Then they clip ribbons to his rather strange-looking crotch. The Jacobin pigeons are tethered to the other ends of the ribbons, and they flutter about; it is some sort of apotheosis. Just where it leads, though, is unclear, for we do not see the Giant again. And for all the other main characters—including the Queen—the film seems to end in death.

Call it the Apotheosis of the Descended Scrotum, for, as Barney has explained, the cremaster muscle after which these films are named alters the height of men’s testicles, moving them closer to or farther from the body to control their temperature. If the testicles, when fully ascended, are functionally absent, the “Cremaster” films become allegories of sexual differentiation—though I don’t think Barney is interested in male and female roles in any conventional sense; the Apotheosis of the Descended Scrotum is far too peculiar for that. I have to say that it is also beautiful. Barney is aiming high here—he’s talking about transcendence (the dailiness of attaining gender identity here having complex and rhapsodic freight)—and although the scene is on some level a giggle, it achieves a certain undeniable gloriousness. The element of humor is in any case frequent enough in Barney’s work that we can assume it is risked knowingly.

Yet much in Cremaster 5 is dark and mourning. If Cremaster 4 is a tale of passage through a symbolic slew of difficulties toward an antic yet ultimately postponed rebirth, Cremaster 5 sees that rebirth realized but finds in it mainly endings. Transformation is risky business. It is a powerful theme for Barney, and, in correspondence with a period of almost crisis-level tension around sexuality and the body, is specifically not only psychic or spiritual but corporeal: hence his many human/animal hybrids, his ambiguously gendered supernatural communities (the family of brawny Manx fairies in Cremaster 4, the water sprites here), and his interest in the advanced physical capabilities of jocks and of performers such as Houdini. Hence, also, the several underwater scenes in these films, the body overcoming its limitations and breathing H₂O.

Or not. Watching these scenes—particularly those of the drowned Magician, lying in a riverine garden, kissed by nymphs—I think of Shakespeare’s lines “Full fathom five thy father lies/Of his bones are coral made/Those are pearls that were his eyes/Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange.” Cremaster 5 shares something with those lines and with The Tempest generally, in the beauty of its texture, its magical atmosphere, and its harmonizing of transformation and loss. Meanwhile the film is also rich and quite, quite strange itself.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.