Friday, April 23, 2004
J. Kelly Nestruck
THE CREMASTER CYCLE
In 2000, a reporter from Artnews, an industry magazine for art collectors, called up a cross-section of art-world professionals to discuss what Village Voice art critic Jerry Saltz calls the "I-Don't-Get-It-Aesthetic," contemporary art that is inaccessible and bewildering to the vast majority of viewers. Unsurprisingly, video-art superstar Matthew Barney, known for his petroleum jelly sculptures and being the father of Bjork's baby, was the most frequently mentioned artist. Of the impenetrable male ingenue, Robert Rosenblum, curator of 20th-century art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, said, "I'm passionate about Matthew Barney's films, but I would have a hard time, as someone whose business it is to write and lecture on art, to articulate what his work is about."
So don't feel bad if you don't understand Barney's Cremaster Cycle, a pentalogy of art films that have their Canadian premiere this week at the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto. No one does. Not even the curator at the museum where his films had their North American debut.
Named after the muscle that regulates the position of the testicles, Barney's five Cremaster films are crazy, hallucinatory dreamscapes where satyrs tap dance underwater off the Isle of Man, chorus lines are controlled by the movement of grapes, Celtic giants fight mighty hobbits and everyone wears really cool shoes. Unfortunately, they are also devoid of any coherent meaning or narrative and, for the most part, they're boring as heck. Barney is so in love with the weird scenarios and sculptures he creates that he keeps them on the screen for about five times the length of even the most hearty attention span.
While that won't get you a cup of coffee in L.A., it's fine, dandy and perhaps even a prerequisite for entry into the art world. The Cremaster Cycle isn't multiplex fare; it's video art to be projected on antiseptic white gallery walls and accompanied by the rustle of dozens of chins being stroked in unison by the beturtlenecked ponderati who have pronounced Barney one of the most original artists of his generation.
Cremasters 1 through 5 were filmed out of sequence over the course of a decade by Barney, a medical-school dropout who was once a varsity football player and a male model. Cremaster 4, which features Barney as the aforementioned hoof-tappin' satyr, came first in 1994. Cremaster 3, which reimagines the construction of the Chrysler building with Barney as the architect's apprentice and a zombie demolition derby in the lobby, was completed in 2002.
The films, ostensibly, are a dramatization of the process fetuses undergo at seven weeks, when the sexual organs either ascend to form a female or descend to form a male body. To the casual observer, however, the seven-and-a-half hours of The Cremaster Cycle seem to be about two things: Barney, who is an avid mountaineer in real life, climbing unusual urban landscapes, i.e. elevator shafts and the Hungarian State Opera House; and Barney creating sculptures out of Vaseline and prosthetic plastic.
While Barney has done an excellent job of critic-proofing his epic, rarely deigning to give interviews or explain his work to anyone, this hasn't stopped some from joyously denouncing its semantic emptiness. Charlie Finch, co-author of the book Most Art Sucks, hates Barney's work so much that he called him one of the dirtiest names in the art world: Ronald Reagan. "[Like the former American president], Matthew Barney is incapable of sustained coherence over any appreciable amount of time," Finch wrote in an article for Artnet magazine after the 2003 Guggenheim exhibition. "But, like Ronald Reagan, Matthew Barney has a large, cult-like claque of enthusiasts who applaud his every move."
While Reagan was hailed as the Great Communicator, however, communication is Barney's greatest weakness. I suspect this, rather than a desire to cultivate a reclusive mystique, is why he speaks so infrequently about his work.
His inability to communicate is most apparent in Cremaster 2, the most jumbled of the five films. A retelling of the story of murderer Gary Gilmore, it stars novelist Norman Mailer as Harry Houdini. Near the film's end, Houdini has a conversation with an enigmatic woman walking her lapdog, which is a huge deal considering there are no more than two dozen lines of dialogue in all five of the films. The clunky dialogue sounds straight out of a science-fi ction B-movie or an art film parody:
Queen Bee: "Would this man like to end his life a drone?"
Houdini: "Madam, what exactly is your discipline?"
Queen Bee: "I am Queen. As Queen, I preside over a society of drones. This arouses my interest in your capacity for metamorphosis."
While Barney may speak gibberish, his visuals are undeniably stunning. This isn't conceptual art that, like Warhol's Sleep, once described need not be seen.
The most visually imaginative of the five in the cycle is Cremaster 3, which unfortunately is also the most difficult to sit through, clocking in at an inexorable three hours and featuring a score composed by Jonathan Bepler that literally had me sticking my fingers in my ears.
The first half of it goes a little like this: A female corpse digs her way out of the basement of the Chrysler Building and is placed in the back seat of a Chrysler Imperial New Yorker in the lobby. Five Chrysler Crown Imperials begin battering the makeshift hearse, until is is reduced to the size of a large potato. Then, the condensed car is brought up to a dentist's office on the top floor and fitted into the Apprentice's mouth. This causes the Apprentice's intestines to fall out of his rectum. He then excretes his teeth, which melt and resolve into an ivory rod.
While this is jaw-droppingly inventive, it is also pretty darn well meaningless. Nancy Spector, who curated Barney's big Guggenheim exhibition, writes that, "In his work, Barney is transcribing a new post-Oedipal myth for our contemporary culture." But, frankly, that don't wash with me: I just watched a man put a car in his mouth and shit out his teeth.
This isn't a question of whether or not the emperor is wearing any clothes: Matthew Barney is decidedly post-clothes. More than one art critic has said that Barney's work will be studied a hundred years from now, and this could well be true. But, for the most part, I suspect art history students of 2112 will find him as tedious as most do now and try to buy their essays about him online. This is never going to be something that connects with the larger public.
What the Cremaster Cycle does and does well is introduce startling images that will likely make their way into the visual vernacular over the next 20 years. The average person, even the average gallery goer, won't sit through more than one of the Cremaster films in its entirety. But filmmakers and artists will sift through Barney's rubble and uses his bricks and mortar to build something exciting, new, coherent and meaningful in the future.
Rating: The Square Root of a Negative Star.
posted by J. Kelly 7:09 AM