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What the Heck is a Cremaster?

Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle at the Guggenheim, New York

by Gayle Snible

It was easy to ignore Matthew Barney for a while. I would see his Cremaster films in the movie listings, and I incorrectly assumed he worked in the horror genre. Halloween 3, Hellraiser 4, Cremaster 2. I wasn’t interested.

Then Cremaster 5 started showing at the Film Forum, and the publicity talked of an artist and not a director. A short while later, Matthew Barney has a show at the Guggenheim. I couldn’t miss the photographs of Barney in the media, sporting a creamsicle-colored shaggy wig and a tartan draped over his naked pale chest, his bloody mouth spewing silk cloth while his gaze stared down the camera. His work said “complicated,” “bizarre,” “pretentious,” and “spectacular.” I had to see it for myself.

After spending several hours at the Guggenheim, the adjectives still apply; Barney’s work is indeed complicated, bizarre, and spectacular. The only word I’d like to take back is “pretentious”; after all, that’s a value judgment that says a lot more about me than the artist...right?

“People have spent their careers talking about Barney,” a friendly docent told me. No doubt, there’s a lot to talk about. The Cremaster Cycle is so dense that the Guggenheim sells two-day passes to the exhibit. In addition to the 5 Cremaster films (which show in the museum’s auditorium and also on monitors throughout the museum space), there are photographs, sculptures, and drawings. Cremaster 3 was partially filmed in the Guggenheim (as well as the Chrysler Building), and the space has been reconstructed to appear as it did during the shoot. Everything is linked together; this exhibition has been in the making for ten years, and Barney knew that the culmination would be this exhibition, installed in the Guggenheim.

Simply put, a cremaster is a male reproductive muscle which “controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli.” All 5 Cremaster films are very different and also vary in length (Cremaster 3, the cycle’s centerpiece, clocks in at 3 hours). However, they are linked story-wise and narratively ascend and descend, similar to the cycle of life but based on the reproductive system and investigating other tangentially-related subject matter. Heavily-used topics, themes, and mediums include sporting events, the body, Celtic mythology, the Masons, bee drones and wax, birds, and Vaseline. Lots and lots of Vaseline. (Can you resist touching the bar counter and stools made out of Vaseline? The staff has to smooth over the work every few days.)

I watched Cremaster 1, a 40-minute musical taking place on a football field and on an airplane. While a scantily-clad female beauty writhed underneath a white table, aloof and obedient airline stewardesses sat around the table, smoking and staring off into space. A white sculpture of a sexual organ was the table’s centerpiece (vas deferens, anyone?), and grapes (alternating between green and purple) surrounded the sculpture. Slowly the writhing woman pulled grapes through a hole in the tablecloth; the grapes fell through a funnel attached to one of her stiletto heels. Meanwhile, pretty women in elegant costumes dance on the blue Astroturf of an empty football stadium while Goodyear blimps fly overhead.

The images are very abstract and unusual and although done without the use of many words (only seven total lines of dialogue appear in all five films) they’re also heavily narrative. I derived intellectual meaning from the movie, as well as the exhibition as a whole, but it failed to elicit a desired emotional impact.

Barney’s interaction with the museum is one of the most interesting aspects of this show. Since he created this exhibition with the Guggenheim in mind, every inch of the space is used to further his vision; the ledges of the spiraling walls are covered with padding, the walkway helps bring the visitor through The Cremaster Cycle chronologically, and the empty middle space is dominated by a gigantic Jumbotron which shows portions of Cremaster 3 filmed in the space last year. Sports flags (one for each Cremaster) fly from the third level, and blue Astroturf has been installed in the lobby. As the aforementioned docent stated best, “I’m not sure this is what Frank Lloyd Wright had in mind for the building, but he also didn’t know how art would change.”

The narrative centerpiece of the show (linking the space to the films) revolves around Cremaster 3’s “The Order,” a one-man (Barney) competition involving 5 distinct tasks that need to be completed in a specific period of time, measured by how long it takes for Vaseline thrown by Richard Serra to make it from the top to the bottom of the Guggenheim walkway. (Yes, that is exactly what it is.) Barney climbs up the different levels (think rock climbing wall), and he completes different tasks. The most understandable of these tasks takes place on the second level, where Barney has to work his way through a mosh pit (where Agnostic Front and Murphy's Law are performing live) to work on a puzzle.

Perhaps you’re getting confused right now. There’s a lot to this exhibition. The more you talk about it, the more absurd it sounds. The more one tries to “get it,” the less (or more?) they’ll be enamored with the piece. The Cremaster Cycle is a detailed, obsessive exhibition using heavy symbology to tell a circular, self-enclosed story. (The museum guide calls it a “self-enclosed aesthetic system.”) It’s not an easy view, and quite frankly, it’s fantastic that the Guggenheim is showing it. The art world continues to go big Big BIG—Damien Hirst’s immense Chelsea show from a few years ago barely serves as a precursor for Barney’s grandeur—and this is not a show for the uninitiated tourist (I suggest MoMA QNS for the Matisse Picasso exhibit). It’s not a show for the uninitiated person, period, although one could simply marvel at Barney’s technical prowess.

I’d recommend seeing The Cremaster Cycle, but start early in the day, see one of the films in the theater, and go on one of the free docent tours. Plan something physical after viewing the, the gym, it’s all relevant. But don’t go clothes shopping; orange and blue tartan only looks good on certain people, and everything else will look plain in comparison.

Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle is on exhibit through June 11 at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the films return in April to the Film Forum.

Gayle Snible is a freelance publicist and writer living in New York.

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