PRINT Summer 1999


As Matthew Barney completed the final cut of Cremaster 2, the second film in his epic quintent—episodes 1, 4, and 5 are behind him; no. 3 is still to come—art historian and critic Katy Siegel met with the artist in his New York studio for an early peek. Her preview anticipates the film’s July debut at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center.

IT’S MILDLY ANNOYING that so many reviews and articles about Matthew Barney’s work begin in a confessional mode, with a ritual throwing up of hands. (Aren’t critics supposed to use their expertise to help us engage difficult work?) But it’s also understandable. The “Cremaster” series layers biology and history, multiplies and divides; like any thick, opaque text, it drives the critic either to wax vaguely lyrical or to perform iconographic contortions, numerology, advanced exegesis. But beneath all these spectacular particulars (and with work like this, you always run the risk of the artist rolling his eyeballs at your “insights”), the art revolves around a fundamental conflict.

Matthew Barney is better than you—and he’s sorry. His studio feels like a high school woodshop, and he dresses down, not in the worker drag of the artist flaunting his machismo, but rather in the T-shirt-and-jeans camouflage of the seriously above-average guy. Writers often note, with varying degrees of suspicion, his aw-shucks reluctance to claim the public sphere, to play the part of the great artist in either the sullen or the glamorous mold. Barney is elaborately nice, despite the fact that he is much better looking than you, much more successful, a much better artist with a much more interesting life (inner as well as outer, apparently). At the same time, he obviously has a riotous urge to excel, to succeed, to play and act in the world. The clash of these contrary impulses—reticence and self-assertion—is central to his work.

But the role of this “real world” psychic conflict may not be apparent at first glance; you have to tease the opposing personality traits out of an elaborately allegorized, primal drama of sexing. Barney makes no secret that the series’ raw subject matter is the ascending and descending of the testicles, a process controlled by the cremaster muscle. As prosaic as it seems, this tension between up and down, between pregenital versus genital physicality, is the initial biological register of sexual difference. In the beginning, we all have the same equipment; when the testicles are fully descended, the subject becomes fully male, fully itself. For Barney, the physiological process is reconfigured at a decidedly more complex (and ambiguous) level, as social difference, the chasm between individual and group identity. Again, the subject fights (for and against) its final form. These struggles frame the series’ large, loose narrative: a perfectly homogenous system in Cremaster 1 follows a path of differentiation through the first four episodes, until, in Cremaster 5, an individual entity breaks away from the larger organism and self-destructs.

Along the way, we catch glimpses, prefigurations of this ultimate self-definition. When I spoke with Barney recently, he articulated a strain of autobiography connecting the new Cremaster 2 and the (projected) Cremaster 3, which take place, respectively, in the American West and in New York City. The sequence echoes his own move east, his own rejection of and by his origins (he hints that the completed project will extend this autobiographical line). But for the most part, whatever is personal in these elaborate visions is figured in the form of a more general emotional dynamics. You could say that Barney makes art about the reluctance to occupy the role of the individual adult male in the modern world, a role destined for friction. In his fantasy world, the body eludes rigid form, finessing the boundaries between genders and even species with the aid of liberal lubrication. This fluidity promotes what Sigmund Freud (and Norman O. Brown) called polymorphous perversity: a sexuality diffused throughout the body, directed at no particular object, channeled into no particular activity.

In escaping final definition, the individual body not only refuses to be pinned down, but often retreats into the frictionless collective. Barney fills his work with scenes of organized group activity: the football field, the chorus line, and in the new work the prison, the church, the beehive, the riding team—all are versions of the mass ego, from which no one element protrudes. He also repeatedly treats us to the spectacle of twins (most notably the Rha sisters of no. 5), threesomes (the redheaded fairies of no. 4), and quartets (the icy Robert Palmeresque hostesses of no. 1). Juxtaposed with these models of synchronization are various stars and superheroes: football MVPs, a giant, a diva, Houdini, and more than one queen.

The original site of conflict between the one and the many? The family, of course, the subject of Barney’s latest work. After sitting with the artist and watching Cremaster 2, with all its references to parents and progeny, my first question was obvious: How would he explain it to his own father? “The relation between the geological recession of a glacier and the backward movement of tracing a family genealogy.” He means it quite literally. The period of the piece alternates between 1977, the year Gary Gilmore came to national attention, and the 1890s, when, according to family legend, Gilmore’s grandmother Fay met Harry Houdini—a longstanding Barney obsession—and conceived Gilmore’s father Frank. The action unfolds amid the Rocky Mountains, the product of said glacier, moving between and linking the United States (Salt Lake City) and Canada. Cremaster 2 is Barney’s first talkie, and also the first of the series to borrow from a specific history and text. Recommended reading: Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979). For those too young to remember, Mailer’s deadpan masterpiece offers a minutely detailed account of Gilmore’s murders and his quest to be executed for them. In real life, Mailer ended up playing an almost paternal role to the coldblooded killer; in Barney’s film, the author reenacts the part, taking on the role of Houdini, Gilmore’s purported grandfather.

The lushness of Cremaster 5 oozed romantic tragedy; Cremaster 2 lands squarely in the genre of gothic Western, with an austerity born of the still, barren landscape (itself an important character in the film). A scene of mountains reflected in water follows and mirrors the shape of a glamorous saddle in the work’s opening shot (the sidesaddle from Cremaster 5 covered in mirrorlike sterling-silver tiles). These parabolic forms are echoed by the wasp-waisted ladies of the first scene, in which Fay performs a séance with her son and daughter-in-law. We cut away to buzzing bees, a reference to Utah (the state insignia is a beehive) and to the Mormon Church, which uses the hive as a metaphor for its own promised land. In a stylized but graphic sex scene, in which Gilmore is conceived, the head of his father’s penis is a beehive—a typically radical Barney makeover.

As always, Barney takes his cues from many different sources, which leads to references so eclectic they often seem arbitrary. In Cremaster 2 the bees take us to a recording studio where Dave Lombardo, the drummer from Slayer, appears; in real life, Johnny Cash made a phone call to Gilmore in jail. This is no pat allegory. The operative trope throughout is metonymy, not metaphor; we are led along, led astray, by proximity, coincidence, and rhyming (this looks a little like that, that was near this). From the moment of conception, we fast-forward to Gilmore’s gas-station murder and ensuing incarceration; his execution is represented in a rodeo scene that unfolds in a salt ring (shades of Smithson). Barney interests this story line with flashbacks to Houdini at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. In between, this wild Western hosts Mounties, speed metal, buffalo, two-stepping, synchronized horse teams, even bronco busting (the rider is a stunt double, not Barney himself—a rare case where the artist admits his limitations). How do we put it all together?

It helps to return to the one thing everyone seems to know about Barney—he played football. Is it any wonder he’s fascinated by bizarrely structured, closed orders that barely intersect with reality? Gilmore spent most of his life in prison; when he was “rejected” by the system, sent out into the real world, it killed him. This makes Gilmore a perfect “vessel” for Barney’s interests. Barney, of course, creates his own fantasy realms or systems in the “Cremaster” works. They are idiosyncratic inventions, chockablock and only intermittently accessible to outsiders.

These works of genius are full, exquisitely realized, but somehow never quite “perfect.” The artist’s original vision inevitably runs aground on the final results. This he readily admits. The scale model of the Mormon Tabernacle that Barney built in his studio (after being denied access to the real thing) is a miniature monument to the creative will, falling as it does just a little short of perfect illusion. He digitally inserted a choir into the set for the film, a rare instance where he falls back on the computer. Barney challenges himself with this insistence on analog filming, making things harder rather than easier, much as in the earlier works emerging from the performance tradition—such as the “Drawing Restraint” pieces—which demanded acrobatic feats. He is still surprisingly invested in material process, and he gets genuinely excited speaking about the making of Cremaster 2, about recording the organ music at Riverside Church or finding the female riders used in the horse sequence. Strangely, what he resists, what seems to embarrass him, is the idea that the final objects, the films and videos, are unusually finished, excellent, fantastic. Despite their flaws, and his self-deprecation, Barney ultimately succeeds in exerting his will, with all the Rand-y, fascist associations the phrase implies—not a fashionable concept in an era of abjection and low-key ironies.

We expect various things of art (to reflect the world, to perfect the world) and of the artist (to be one of us, to be better than us). The modern social dialectic of the one and the many forged the classic artistic posture of alienation and superiority. But the critique of conformity skirts the fact that being too much oneself can be just as oppressive as being a face in the crowd. Barney manages to inhabit both voices, me and us, idealizing neither. At a deep psychological level, he presents the struggle for self as well as the loss this entails—though his extravagance of means can at times make even the human predicament seem hopelessly remote. There is something specifically male about Barney’s version of the dilemma, but also something universal. It’s not just that it’s lonely at the top, or that it’s lonely out there, but that it’s lonely in here, gendered, conflicted, as we are, each of us.

Katy Siegel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.