The best way to view—and truly appreciate—Matthew Barney’s epic and colossal Cremaster Cycle, a series of five avant-garde films made between 1994 and 2002, is in its entirety: complete, one after the other with breaks in between to take in the artist’s related sculptures, drawings, and photographs on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (through June 11th). By doing so, a better understanding of the artist’s underlying polemic and overall aesthetic will emerge, the process of creation as envisioned by a talent of staggering (in more ways than one) proportions.
Ripe with symbolism and awe-inspiring imagery, the Cremaster Cycle is named for the male cremaster muscle that “controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli.” The films progress from representations of the most undifferentiated or “ascended” state (Cremaster 1) to the most differentiated or “descended” state (Cremaster 5).
Through direct biological allusions tempered by narrative models taken from the realms of history, geology, and mythology, Barney explores the creation of form in a universe that is by turns jaw-dropping, laughable, head-scratching, infuriating… but never less than totally unique. Numerically then (but not chronologically, since the films were produced out of sequence), we have:
Above and beyond Boise’s Bronco Stadium float two Goodyear blimps with near identical lounges each populated by four bored flight attendants who casually draw on cigarillos while observing the Busby Berkeley-inspired musical revue unfolding on the blue Astroturf below. The thrum of ambient engine noise heralds the under-table movements of a stowaway (Marti Domination) who plucks grapes through a vaginal opening picked in the tablecloth as the chorus girls kick up their heels, mimicking patterns formed by the grapes that emerge through bells on her toes.
Barney’s sprawling ode to the American West features, among other things, lots of bees, a séance, a rock drum solo, glacial and Salt Lake landscapes, a French bulldog, reversing bison, the double “C” Cremaster Cycle symbol, a dazzling honeycombed saddle, the Texas two-step, Sinclair gas, #55 Brahma bull in a death row rodeo, and cultural icons Gary Gilmore (Barney himself) and Harry Houdini (played by Norman Mailer, Gilmore’s biographer), plus a couple of Canadian Mounties backed by the organ-grinding Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
“Makes Peter Greenaway look like Joel Schumacher.” Phallic symbols abound in this bum-numbing centerpiece that melds Celtic allegory with architectural conceits and Masonic initiation rites. “An hypnotic hallucination that unfolds patiently, disturbingly, and very strangely.” With sculptor Richard Serra as The Architect.
In Cremaster 4, a repetitive and not altogether successful entry, gonadal potatoes jockey for position, reverberating out of the uniforms of two motorcycle sidecar teams, one blue, one yellow, that traverse an idyllic green yet blustery Isle of Man (the creation of which is alluded to in the conclusion of Cremaster 3 when a leprechaun hurls a rock into the Irish Sea) while the Loughton Candidate (soon to be a ram) literally tap dances off the Queen’s Pier.
A poetic operetta (with ruffled pigeons) performed by Dr. No’s Ursula Andress (as The Queen of Chain) and two doting Chinese attendants while Barney climbs the stage of the Budapest opera house and underwater androgynous faeries attend to the nether regions of a differentiated being in a finale that “defers definitive conclusion.”
The Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones has called the Cremaster Cycle “the first great fusion of art and cinema since Un Chien Andalou,” no small assertion as far as film criticism/theory is concerned, and while there is no denying the complexity and surreal nature of Barney’s work, his interpretation is sometimes hampered by decisions that serve to weaken the looping “narrative.”
Although these are not silent films per se, dialogue is limited, with Jonathan Bepler’s minimalist score filling in for conversation. Towards the beginning of Cremaster 3, for example, Bepler overscores a benign sequence with an atonal sound wave of increasing intensity that bores into your brain like a hot wire through Vaseline, Barney’s signature sculpting medium. Petroleum jelly (like billowing ribbons, balls on rods, and weird footwear) provides the films with a thematic link. This white lardaceous substance, often having the texture and appearance of salt-water taffy, is used to mold the abstract, grape surrounded centerpieces of Cremaster 1; likewise, Gilmore uses it in an attempt to conjoin his two Ford Mustangs in Cremaster 2; and the red-haired, Pixie-eared satyr of Cremaster 4 crawls through a cervical tunnel filled with the sticky, icky stuff.
Barney doesn’t sculpt in a single medium, however. One piece, selected at random from the exhibit, comprises a wrestling mat, antique lace, Manx tartan, prosthetic plastic, large pearl tapioca, polyester, silicone, porcelain, sterling silver, and mother of pearl.
The writer/director also appears in his films—as serial killer Gilmore in Cremaster 2; the Diva, Magician, and Giant of Cremaster 5; and Cremaster 4‘s tap dancing fool to name a few. As auteur, Barney knows precisely what he wants and how to get it up on the screen (with financing seemingly unrestricted). However, Barney is often guilty of overstating his case. Cremaster 1, for example, is only 40 minutes in length but feels twice that due to the overly repetitive nature of the piece (Domination’s Goodyear arranges grapes in varying patterns and the dancing girls affect matching formations again and again… and again!). And Cremaster 4 (42 minutes) spends almost half its time endlessly following the sidecar teams buzzing around the Isle of Man. There’s nothing here a good editor (currently credited to Barney) couldn’t tighten up.
That said, the three-hour opus that is Cremaster 3 doesn’t seem overwhelming at all. The tightest and most significant of the films, this middle chapter is beautifully structured—much like the Chrysler Building at its center—and takes delicious time in setting up situations that don’t necessarily lead anywhere. Some of the most meticulous and imaginative sequences, including a demolition derby by five 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperials, a disturbing sequence in a dentist’s chair that recalls the two Davids (Lynch and Cronenberg), a fatal maypole dance, and a slapstick routine in the building’s Cloud Club bar, can be found in Cremaster 3.
Unfortunately, the “highlight” of this segment is a self-indulgent and, frankly, idiotic “choric interlude” filmed at the Guggenheim called “The Order” in which Barney (as the Entered Apprentice, pompom wigged and kilted, with rolled orange satin stuffed in his bloodied mouth) scales the walls of the museum’s spiraling rotunda while rock bands blare, a maintenance worker slops liquid plastic at deliberately arranged slabs of steel, and a half-woman, half cheetah (Aimée Mullins) engages the Apprentice in a erotic dance.
For the crowd that appreciates art as spectacle, Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle provides a rare opportunity to wallow. It’s hard to believe all this comes out of the head of one man.
(c) 2005 David N. Butterworth