Matthew Barney

Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen

Matthew Barney opened this survey of his work from the past five years to spectacular effect—with an elaborate costume parade featuring the complete cast of characters from his films and videos. This event, which drew a crowd that overflowed into the museum’s courtyard, served both as a prelude to the exhibition inside and as a trailer for the screening of Barney’s latest film, Cremaster 1, 1995. His entire repertoire was represented in the parade—from the “anal warrior” of Mile High Threshold: Flight with the Anal Sadistic Warrior, 1991, coach Al Davis and football hero Jim Otto of OTTOshaft, 1992, to the double-horned ram and fairies of Cremaster 4, 1994—all moving across and around a catwalk to music supplied by kilted bagpipers and an oversized sound system. Seen in the flesh, these characters inevitably lost some of their mythical aura. Creating an atmosphere at once comical and glamorous, their precisely orchestrated movements, their elaborate costumes and makeup, parodied the studied theatricality of an haute-couture fashion show.

Barney’s newest film, the second of five planned under the Cremaster title, represents a more oblique elaboration of his fascination with competitive sports as a means of both asserting and arresting sexual differentiation, of establishing a rigid order always threatened by dissolution. This time the backdrop is a bright-blue Astroturf football field on which a cast of chorus girls holding large blue balloons perform a half-time extravaganza. The film’s star, a pale blond resembling the kind of plastic figurines that adorn birthday cakes, is shown inside two dirigibles simultaneously, both of which hover over the field. Hiding like a secret goddess underneath a table, which is filled with either purple or green grapes (the color changes to indicate the camera’s cut from one interior to the other) she directs the movements of the women below by arranging the grapes into various formations. At the film’s climax, Barney’s protagonist mysteriously appears on the field herself, having harnessed the blimps to two ropes, pulling them down and dragging them behind her while the chorus releases its balloons heavenward. This grand finale seemed inspired at once by the Depression-era escapism of Busby Berkeley musicals and Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, 1936. Like the whole project, it formed part of a complex allegorical system in which the fate of an ever-present spheroid—a blimp, a balloon—stands for ovarian or testicular formation.

The high-energy physicality that was evident in both the costume pageant and Cremaster 1 was largely absent from the exhibition itself, which consisted of careful reconfigurations of the objects and materials found in Barney’s films and videos, as well as monitors that played the videos themselves. The exhibition’s layout followed a linear though nonchronological progression, so that the viewer was led through a series of rooms, the first housing a large construction built from the sidecars, canvas, mats, and prosthetic plastics used in Cremaster 4. The final room—a small, rosette-shaped corner space—held the last part of a tripartite installation taken from OTTOshaft. While the first several rooms were generally overlit and sterile, this last installation, consisting of a group of four glass jars holding bits of a satyr’s tail/umbilical cord that were suspended over the doorway, and three monitors placed in a tight, triangular arrangement, necessitated an immediate, physical confrontation.

Throughout Barney’s work one finds a seductive conflation of formal elegance, obscure symbolism, and hints of Dionysian abandon checked only by an almost surgical precision. Seeing this broad selection of his art brought together in one place, one was impressed not only by the sheer energy and ambition of his projects, but also by their perplexing beauty.

Elizabeth Janus