Mathew Barney's version Cremaster Cycle
Ritzy Cinema in South London, November 2002
In his monumental cycle of five films, video artist/renaissance man Matthew Barney takes reality and deliberately, masterfully and endlessly creatively abstracts it. The films, made over the last deacde, and in which Barney himself performs, were shot out of sequence - 4, 1, 5, 2, 3 - and it is unclear if they are intended to be viewed in any particular order. As Barney says, "the stories themselves are somewhat interchangeable" On Sunday November 3, at the Ritzy Cinema in South London, all five films were shown in numerical sequence. I attended this mega-marathon - from 2pm till 11pm - and although I confess to still being mystified as to the artist's intentions, I was nevertheless enthralled from start to finish; for Barney's visual eye is sharp, seductive and, above all, original.
In the first offering, Cremaster 4, all of the elements are present which will be repeated, redrawn and recast in the subsequent films. It was shot in 1994 in the Isle of Man and is part sports tv (motor car racing), part musical theatre (tap dancing) and part sci-fi (a post humanoid crawls through a maze of vaseline, but more on that later). What is true of his first film seems to be true of them all. They are all self-enclosed systems of aesthetics that reference themselves over and over again. They are like a new language and as such are taught by repetition. And like all language, its origins can only partially be explained. The environment is highly stylized and tightly controlled. Baroque is a word that has often been used to describe Barney's work and it is perhaps fitting, with its excesses, elaborate interiors and detailed costuming. Satyrs, nymphs and mythical partially human figures tap dance, sing, scale interiors, race cars and perform creepy operations in
environments that are abstracted enough from reality to transport and detach.
There is little that feels familiar here, and Barney seldom lingers in any one of his many locations, for part of the seduction is the way in which his invented reality moves and responds to the stimuli of his imagination. His is a highly protean world whose meanings are not easily recognizable, if at all, and whose only tangible law, it seems, is the law of change. And for that reason it is perhaps akin to a biological system, for Barney desires to create an internal system of his own, an artistic anatomy that is as functioning as it is hidden. The title is perhaps the most obvious key to unravelling the helix of his work. Cremaster are a set of muscles that control the height of the internal male reproductive system. Muscles that are said to respond to temperature and fear.
"The five chapters of the story are about an organism that is changing, and the system that changes that form alters from chapter to chapter." That system is Barney's brain, and it is an artistic fountainhead from which sculpture, painting, installation, photography, choreography and film (in many of its genres) pours forth in a prodigious display of the power of imagination.
In lieu of any graspable narrative thread, I found myself searching for Barney's leitmotifs, for his chain of imagery, that essentially links and binds the films. Things like magic shoes and women's stockings, hexagons and pentagons, and vaseline. Like Beuys and fat; Yves Klein and that blue; Matthew Barney will surely forever be remembered in the same breath as vaseline. It is his ectoplasm, his glue. Sexual only in theory, for on the screen and in the quantities in which he uses it, the vaseline becomes industrial and horribly messy. No matter how many orifices it oozes from (that would be plenty), it remains asexual. As in fact does the entire atmosphere of all his films. In Cremaster 1, a giant vaseline sculpture of the female reproductive organ surrounded by grapes is the centrepiece in the film which takes place in two giant zeppelins. It grows, it melts, it dominates and it is carefully guarded by slickly dressed hostesses.
Other recurring images are women in multiples, or women as clones, often balled up in tight spaces and usually scantily clad. In Cremaster 4 they are mechanics and mutants. In Cremaster 1 they are a retro chorus line of dancers, being controlled from above by a mysterious woman who is squashed into a tight white space. In Cremaster 5 they are water sprites and hand maidens. In Cremaster 3 they seem lifted from an Esther Williams film, only with slightly less clothing.
There is the hexagon, which is referenced over and over again in the beautifully constructed sets. In floor tiles and iron lace, in wooden panels and bee hives. There is the pentagon, significantly portrayed by the Chrysler building, setting for Cremaster 3. These are Barney's basic units of life, his alga, emblematic of the entire cycle of his work.
There's a lot of all-Americana going on. There's the cowboy movie (2), the sports channel (athletics in 1, rodeo in 2, racing car driving in 4), boys and their cars (in 2 and 3 and 4). But as Barney says about these references to American traditions, "I don't think that by the time they've been hashed through the project they're representative of what they necessarily are in everyday life." Of course, there is nothing even remotely pedestrian or tangible in his imagery. And it is precisely because of that consistent detachment that Cremaster is both seductive and cold.
The action of the films seems to switch dramatically between opposing spaces. Often one that is locked and desperately claustrophobic, the other open and often in a domineering and majestic landscape. These seem to provide a tension, or conflict that does not exist between his characters. It's not that the characters are all in harmony, it's that they are more like robotic sculptures than sentient beings. In 4, it moves from a stifling vaseline injected tunnel to the Isle of Man. In 1, it shifts from under the table in the zeppelin to the football field (shot in Barney's hometown of Boise, Idaho). In 5 it moves from underwater shots to snow encrusted landscapes. In 2 there is the vaseline smeared interior of a mutant car and the vast space of Canadian icefields. And in 3 there is the locked interior of the elevator shaft of the Chrysler building and beyond that Manhattan.
Barney uses music/sound effects in place of dialogue and to great effect. These interior and exterior worlds are personified by the sounds that each produces. The stifling interiors of the vaseline tunnel in 4; and the zeppelin in 1, are especially overwhelming as the tight spaces are filled with the grinding noises of an aeroplane engine. Music beautifully takes the place of dialogue, but the absence of tangible narrative is more difficult to replace. It is certainly to Barney's credit that he succeeds as well as he does with as little narrative as he has. The films, in particular number 2, are hugely entertaining, and that is largely because of Barney's endlessly energetic vision. His mysteriously attired characters who perform inexplicable tasks with great purpose, his lavish and magnificently constructed sets that indicate places that seem familiar and yet are uncomfortable and uninhabitable; and the landscapes he has chosen which are as monumental as the ambition and
reach of these films.
And yet, this virtual absence of narrative is a curious thing. For the films themselves imply a narrative as well as deny one. They are films insofar as they are shown in cinemas which is an exhilarating way to experience video art, but it is precisely this context which seems to demand a narrative. Barney offers precious little. The deliberate obscurity is offset by his seductive images; and the seductive images when seen piled on top of one another are actually very entertaining. Stories are built around objects and places. The initial point of departure is an image and from that a crudely assembled narrative is pieced together. Barney says he's interested in something that "appears to be narrative motion-picture" but is clearly not.
"It's difficult to do that. It requires pulling back in ways unnatural to that form - not allowing characters to develop in ways they want to develop, or in ways a viewer wants them to be developed."
And herein lies the central frustration of Barney's work.
There has been an enormous amount of material generated about the Cremaster Cycle as it seems to have been universally greeted by critics and public alike with great excitement. You could read, for example, that Harry Houdini, who features in C2 is Gary Gilmore's grandfather, who also features in C2 and is apparently resurrected at the beginning of C3. Budapest, the setting for C5 is Houdini's birthplace. Norman Mailer, who wrote the few words uttered in C2 also plays Houdini in the film, and the book Barney quotes from here is about the infamous killer Gilmore. Richard Serra who does lots of things in C3 also throws hot vaseline on the top rung of the Guggenheim in exactly the same way as he threw lead in the late 1960s.
What all of this reveals is a small aperture into the mind of the artist. His interests, the construction of his visual vocabulary, the way in which he has stitched his films together, how each one minutely references the other, how much planning and thinking has gone into the work. But what it will not reveal is a coherent interpretation of the Cremaster Cycle. Is it about creation? Yes, it's about Barney's creative engine.
And this is as much its strength as its weakness. I wonder what will remain in the days, months and years after the initial impact of the visuals recedes, for a lack of human emotion will always ultimately provoke apathy. Especially in the final film of the sequence, number 3, which runs at just over 3 hours, and culminates in some dreadful stuff shot in the Guggenheim Museum, including a punk band that really feel like they should not be there, and stand out as being the only entirely unoriginal, pretentious element in all the films.
However, perhaps most tellingly for me is the music in Cremaster 5, which was shot in Budapest in 1997, and is more literally baroque than any of the other pieces. It is partly shot in the Budapest opera house where a character called the Queen of Chain (played by Ursula Andress) lip-syncs an aria. The words were written by Barney and he had these translated and sung in Hungarian. The singing is mournful and ornate, and from the music alone we can deduce many things. From my knowledge of Hungarian the last word sung, the last word of the entire cycle translates as, "Forgive me". Forgive me, she sings, forgive me for not explaining, I say or you could just let the visuals roll over you, and perhaps even away from you, and leave all that literal stuff for someone else.