PRINT September 2002


This June Matthew Barney’s long anticipated Guggenheim exhibition opened—at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. Organized to coincide with the debut of Cremaster 3, the final installment of Barney’s five-film epic, the survey unites the complete cycle of films and the corresponding sculptural work. Contributing editor Daniel Birnbaum looks beyond the scheduling flap to assess the artist’s nine-year effort.

All that the world most needs today is combined in the most seductive way in his art—the three great stimulants of exhausted people: brutality, artificiality, and innocence. . . .
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner (1895)

BAYREUTH CAN WAIT: Matthew Barney’s CREMASTER cycle is a Wagnerian vision for the new millennium. It started, in CREMASTER 4, 1994, with a tap-dancing freak—half glitzy performer, half goat—dressed in white. With great care, the soft hands of three monstrous muses attached prosthetic gadgets to his elegant shoes—not since the early Andy Warhol has an artist spent so much energy on footwear. And it’s not only shoes in the traditional sense that play a central role in Barney’s work, it’s strange devices attached to the feet, tools for ritualistic practices and occult communication. In CREMASTER 3, 2002 (the recently debuted, last-to-be-realized installment of the pentalogy), a woman with crystal legs is suddenly transformed into a cat-like creature, possibly in heat; a lovely lady with blades on her feet dices a roomful of potatoes, for reasons that will remain forever obscure; an elderly enchantress secretly lifts ceremonial instruments with her toes. Surely one way to enter Barney’s work is through the rich world of fetishism.

“The occultist draws the ultimate conclusion from the fetish-character of the commodities,” Theodor Adomo writes in Minima Moralia (1951). It may be quite logical, then, for Barney to be attracted to esoteric ceremonies and rituals. In fact this tendency has been there all along, and in his most recent works the artist has included scenes and imagery from the worlds of Mormons and Freemasons, the latter an especially rich source of hermetic symbolism. But the fetishistic desire so.obvious in his productions relies on neither the charged objects of classical psychoanalysis nor the commodities analyzed by Marxism. This is a more confusing world of mutating materials, a fluid cosmos of energies and hallucinatory processes rather than stable things. Humans transform into animals, organisms blend with artifacts. What’s offered up to us is nothing less than a perverse mythology for our times, one that seems to me decidedly American but which has many precedents, literary as well as philosophical. Here is just one, more than two thousand years old, from the writings of Lucretius: “You would see monsters coming into being everywhere. Hybrid growths of man and beast would arise. Lofty branches would sprout here and there from a living body.”

Barney’s CREMASTER cycle, the tremendously ambitious series of films he has made over the past nine years, has finally reached completion, and we can now see that the vicious circle thus brought into being is a one of a kind found in other mythological systems. This dazzling serpent not only chases its tail (as the character of the Kid does in Barney’s early video Drawing Restraint 7, 1993) but devours large parts of its body. Chewing, digesting, and excreting its own revolving essence, it represents a closed system in which each element seems to refer to other parts internal to the cycle. Each film creates its own universe equipped with its own fables, which are related to the site of production, be it the Isle of Man, Budapest, or Manhattan’s most glittering architectural phantasm, the Chrysler Building. Yet the separate episodes feed into each other, often in inscrutable ways. The works are linked in a kind of metabolic chain. Forms don’t take on life, says Barney, until they are “eaten” by the narrative.

Everything, it seems, has followed a plan, exact and grandiose. After finishing the first film, CREMASTER 4, Barney outlined, in an interview with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve published in these pages in 1995, the entire sequence in advance: “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.” The fully what? The artist has often explained his master scheme, for example on German television recently: The cremaster muscle controls the position of the testicles, which varies with temperature. If it’s cold, as it is on a glacier, they are drawn into the body. If it’s warm, as in a Hungarian bathhouse, they reach the “fully descended state.” It’s as simple as that.

It’s not just the movement of the testicles that interests Barney, though; more crucial, perhaps, is the prenatal morphology of the still sexually undifferentiated fetus. The itinerary described by Barney’s cinematic “Ring” is not only the way up and the way down but also the way from sexual ambiguity to gender identity. In other words, he has updated the old Platonic myth of the sexes to fit our times, with our gender politics and our high-tech biology and prosthetics. More important, he has realized his ideas in quite amazing imagery. His ironic sophistication notwithstanding, Barney is a believer in the “meaning of meaning”—in the possibility of sense and of objects and actions to carry it. His charged substances and ritualized sequences may be ambiguous and his universe one of unrestrained dissemination, but he is a master of sense—complex, multilayered, exciting sense. He makes the kind of art that cries out for interpretation.

There are other artists of around the same generation who similarly fabricate closed systems of private mythology—think of the installations of Jason Rhoades or the paintings of Neo Rauch. But in the world of the moving image Barney appears to be a loner. Contemporary artists working close to cinema, such as Pierre Huyghe and Douglas Gordon (do these two and Barney really belong to the same century?), are often suspicious of meaning as it is produced through narration; indeed they could be said to introduce caesuras of nonmeaning and blankness into the thick web of sense. Barney’s works convey another message. The elaborate biology of sexual differentiation in the fetus, the religious system of the Mormons, the infinitely convoluted esotericism of Freemasonry and of the ancient Irish myths—it’s all so blatantly meaningful. In fact Barney is a myth machine, to the point where, it seems to me, most writers have fallen into the hermeneutic trap, losing themselves in the idea of hidden layers of signification. (No doubt Barney will in due time get his own Arturo Schwarz—who may already have appeared, in the guise of Neville Wakefield.)

The work is full of references to musicians, athletes, and curious practitioners like Harry Houdini, but who are the important predecessors in the field of art? The zeitgeist has changed, and so have the materials and technologies, but if I were to pick just one strong precursor it would have to be Joseph Beuys. In a characteristic moment of pedagogical zeal, Beuys declared, “The totalized concept of art, that is the principle that I wanted to express with this material, which in the end refers to everything, to all forms in the world. And not only to artistic forms, but also to social forms or legal forms or economic forms. . . . All questions of man can be only a question of form, and that is the totalized concept of art” (as cited by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh in “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol” [Artforum, January 1980]). Barney isn’t trying to render politics aesthetic, and he isn’t claiming a whole society as a work of art (nor has he founded any political parties), but his search for form is just as broad and general, and his sources are just as far-reaching: not only human constructs of all kinds—architecture, athletics, apiculture—but the processes and materials of the natural world, whether biological, geological, crystalline, or in any intermediate state between fluid and solid.

In the end it’s about sculptural sensibility, we are told. Walking through the installation of Barney’s objects at Cologne’s Museum Ludwig, where the exhibition of the complete CREMASTER cycle, 1994-2002, organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, is making its first appearance, I ponder the relationship between film and sculpture made thematic in the exhibition architecture itself: the cinema to the right of the entrance hall, the sculpture to the left. This duality also cuts through the display of the three-dimensional works, because the films are shown not only in the theater but on screens inside the exhibition, reminding us of the objects’ roles in the narrative.

Is this the right way to view them? Barney has said that he sees his cinematic work as a kind of sculptural practice, which seems to me to mean that in the films he treats the objects seriously as objects; the ritualistic and operatic atmosphere of his movies charges his sculptural objects with energies that make them appear somewhat larger than life. Displayed in the museum, though, they cannot quite live up to this quality; In fact, when juxtaposed with the films, most of the sculptures look more or less like props. I remember being irritated by this at previous Barney events, such as the premiere of CREMASTER 2 (in my view the most successful of the five films) at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in 1999, where the installation seemed to me a lot like a souvenir shop. At the Museum Ludwig that sense of cheapness is gone; the show has developed into something clearly beyond the souvenir. What we walk through here is Planet Barney, a world of its own, a cosmos of intricate connection between images and objects, materials and grotesque fantasies. But even so, as I look at the sculpture, I find myself searching for Barney’s now familiar protagonists. I want to see the Loughton Candidate crawl through the claustrophobic passage that opens close to the floor in the CREMASTER 4–related sculpture The Isle of Man (1994–95); still more, I hope to get a glimpse of Goodyear, the gorgeous blonde from CREMASTER I, 1995, who I’m certain used to linger under the table in Goodyear Field, 1996. The disappointment I feel when they don’t turn up seems to me to prove that these objects are part of a stage set after all, no matter how ambitious they are.

The first item the viewer encounters in the Ludwig installation is from CREMASTER 3: the Vaseline version of the bar in the Chrysler Building’s Cloud Club. This is an engaging sculptural work, but the general dilemma, more apparent than ever in this “final” film in the cycle, is that the objects as seen in the films manifest convincing sculptural qualities whereas the objects in three dimensions refer back to the films. The presence of Richard Serra in CREMASTER 3, in the role of Hiram Abiff, the Architect, no doubt reminds one of certain passages in sculpture—and indeed, toward the end of the film, he no longer seems to represent some fictional persona but simply himself, the sculptor Serra, who reperforms one of his early pieces using Vaseline instead of molten lead. To some extent the whole film is about sculptural objects in space, from the magnificent skyscraper to the esoteric tools and gadgets. Somehow cinematic space lends these objects a dignity in comparison to which their appearance in the museum can only be a disappointment. Thus Barney’s most interesting creations can be said to take place in a space between genres, a zone of ambiguous cross-reference. This transgenre predicament has been called baroque, an adjective quite relevant to Barney’s production: As a narrative, CREMASTER 3 is a monster, packed with indelible and even shocking imagery yet also burdened by monotony. Many scenes are painfully long, which, when they work, turns one’s attention to aspects having little narrative cogency—the beautiful and brutal dance of the Chrysler Imperials, for example, which is again about sculptural force. I can’t say the same for the sequences in which two rock groups perform in the Guggenheim. They’re just long and loud. The film may be an allegory of Masonic initiation, but it’s not exactly The Magic Flute.

Twenty-odd years ago, the Guggenheim’s “dimly lit” rotunda was steeped in a “gray and moody twilight” (as Buchloh described it) and given over to the art of Joseph Beuys—perhaps the perfect backdrop for his mythology’s unfolding. Discussing that show in his influential Artforum essay, Buchloh inquired, “What mental semi-trance are we supposed to enter before we are allowed to embark on wandering down the spiral of 24 Stations (whose martyrium, whose mysterium)?” The glamorous, lurid, noisy scenarios presented toward the end of CREMASTER 3 as “The Order,” all staged in that same iconic architecture, have nothing to do with the twilight of the idol but raise the same question: Whose martyrium, whose mysterium? Things are different today: The Guggenheim has outsmarted itself in its attempt to be a major player in the global economy, and fetishism seems to have a firm and universal grip on all aspects of creativity. Yet the brutality and hallucinatory artificiality of Barney’s myth machine can put us in a trance. There are breathtaking moments in the new film, like the radiant silver needle of the Chrysler Building, festooned with colorful ribbons, piercing the clouds; more shocking, the skinny zombielike body (Gary Gilmore returning as a woman?) that emerges from the mud in a tunnel beneath the building and is carried to the lobby, where it is placed in the backseat of an Imperial New Yorker. The creature seems prehistoric yet not quite dead, and she is definitely impossible to forget.

What’s wrong with Wagner, or with the ambition to produce a Gesamtkunstwerk for our times? I’m no friend to operatic mystification, and Barney’s wordless cosmos of music and ritual certainly has mystification to spare—but it also has something else: remarkable imagery. No one makes a stronger case than Matthew Barney for visual art today; CREMASTER 3 is proof of this. All that the world most needs today is combined in the most seductive way in his art: Barney’s work is brutal and highly artificial, as Nietzsche came to think Wagner’s was, yet it also offers up the pure joy of the beautiful—which is, I think, not unrelated to what Nietzsche meant by “innocence.” Did I say Bayreuth could wait? I should have said it’s already here.

“The CREMASTER Cycle” will be on view at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, through Sept. 1, 2002; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Oct. 10–Jan. 5, 2003; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Feb. 14–May 11, 2003.

A contributing editor of Artforum, Daniel Birnbaum is director of the Städelschule art academy and its Portikus gallery in Frankfurt.