utorak, 21. siječnja 2014.

Matthew Barney - Cremaster 1-5, Drawing Restraint 9, River of Fundament

Dok novi, 5-satni Barneyev film River of Fundament obilazi posvećene dvorane, a veza s Björk je pukla, svih 5 dijelova njegova svetog/spolnog grala dostupni su masama, kao i Drawing Restraint 9.


Cremaster Cycle
Cremaster 1
CREMASTER 1 (1995) is a musical revue performed on the blue Astroturf playing field of Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho - Barney's hometown. Two Goodyear Blimps float above the arena like the airships that often transmit live sporting events via television broadcast. Four air hostesses tend to each blimp. The only sound is soft ambient music, which suggests the hum of the engines. In the middle of each cabin interior sits a white-clothed table, its top decorated with an abstract centerpiece sculpted from Vaseline and surrounded by clusters of grapes. In one blimp the grapes are green, in the other they are purple. Under both of these otherwise identical tables resides Goodyear (played by Marti Domination). Inhabiting both blimps simultaneously, this doubled creature sets the narrative in motion. After prying an opening in the tablecloth(s) above her head, she plucks grapes from their stems and pulls them down into her cell. With these grapes, Goodyear produces diagrams that direct the choreographic patterns created by a troupe of dancing girls on the field below. The camera switches back and forth between Goodyear's drawings and aerial views of the chorus girls moving into formation: their designs shift from parallel lines to the figure of a barbell, from a large circle to an outline of splitting and multiplying cells, and from a horizontally divided field emblem (Barney's signature motif) to a rendering of an undifferentiated reproductive system (which marks the first six weeks of fetal development). Gliding in time to the musical score, the chorus girls delineate the contours of a still-androgynous gonadal structure, which echoes the shapes of the two blimps overhead, and symbolizes a state of pure potential.

Cremaster 1 (40 min, 1995) is a Busby Berkeley-influenced musical revue shot on the bright blue Astroturf of Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho (where Matthew Barney played football as a boy). The 50-yard-line is marked with the Cremaster field emblem (an oval bisected by a line) and the endzones are emblazoned with, “C1”. Two identical Goodyear Blimps float above the stadium. Metaphorically, this episode represents the state of total ascension of the cremaster muscle and sexual undifferentiation. Cremaster 1 is the only film in the series in which Barney does not appear (he has the starring roles in Cremaster 2-4, and appears as three different supporting characters in Cremaster 5).
        Cremaster 1 begins with shots of the stadium, the blimps and the chorus girls. The soundtrack is bubbly and bouyant, unlike the forboding music in later episodes of the Cremaster Cycle. After the title credits, the camera moves inside the cabins of the blimps. The interiors of the blimps are nearly identical -- futuristic white airline-chic with a large white table in the center. Atop each table is a large centerpiece sclupted from Vaseline (resembling a reproductive system) surrounded by mounds of grapes. On one blimp the grapes are green, on the other they are red. There are four hostesses on each blimp (wearing uniforms designed by Isaac Mirahi). At the start of the film, the four hostesses join hands across the table.
        Goodyear (played by Marti Domination, a performer Barney met at a New York drag club called Jackie 60) lies underneath the two tables. The tables are covered with white tablecloths that form a cocoon around her, hiding her from the hostesses (there are actually two layers of tablecloths -- one over the table and one covering the base and underside of the table). Goodyear wears an elaborate platinum-blonde hairdo (the balls imbedded in her wig are actually bells, but their sound was not included on the final soundtrack), white satin lingerie, stockings with garters, and clear plastic high-heeled Manolo Blahnik shoes (one shoe has a funnel attached to the sole). Goodyear lies on a platform built under the table and puts her hands and feet on protrusions that sprout from the underside of the table. During filming, duplicate copies of Goodyear’s outfit were kept on hand so that she would always appear wrinkle-free.
        Goodyear makes a tear in the tablecloth(s) above her head and pins the fabric back with her hairpins. She begins to work a small hole in the tabletop. Once the hole is large enough, she reaches her fingers through and pulls grapes from the tabletop into her lair. At first she can only pluck one grape at a time, but gradually the hole widens and she can gather entire bunches of grapes.
        Goodyear collects grapes, and eventually they start to fall through the silver funnel on her shoe and form patterns on the floor. As the first grapes fall, the chorus girls appear on the field. The chorus girls wear hoop dresses (they can flip the hoops up to reveal an orange lining) and white hats that mimic Goodyear’s hairstyle. They twirl accross the field, replicating the patterns made by the grapes. At times these patterns resemble a barbell, the Cremaster field emblem (Goodyear moves the grapes to make a full emblem turn into a half-emblem), cells splitting, and the reproductive system.
        The hostesses on the blimps smoke cigarettes and watch the action on the field through the windows. At one point, Goodyear reaches her arm through the hole in the tabletop and spins the centerpiece (surrounded by red grapes) 180 degrees. She pulls her arm back into the cocoon and her hand is covered in Vaseline. She daubs the Vaseline on the grapes on the floor.
        At the close of the film, Godyear appears on the field amidst the chorus girls and releases two baloons upwards towards the camera. She is now simultaneously in both blimps and on the field. On the field, she wears a white gown with a rigid plastic ruffle around the neck. At one point, she is shown holding the two blimps in tow, at another she rides on a large white throne (the seat of the throne is shaped like football goalpoasts, which resemble an undifferentiated reproductive system). The closing credits are superimposed over a white behive pattern - the dominant motif of Cremaster 2.

Cremaster 2

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CREMASTER 2 (1999) is rendered as a gothic Western that introduces conflict into the system. On the biological level it corresponds to the phase of fetal development during which sexual division begins. In Matthew Barney's abstraction of this process, the system resists partition and tries to remain in the state of equilibrium imagined in Cremaster 1. Cremaster 2 embodies this regressive impulse through its looping narrative, moving from 1977, the year of Gary Gilmore's execution, to 1893, when Harry Houdini, who may have been Gilmore's grandfather, performed at the World's Columbian Exposition. The film is structured around three interrelated themes - the landscape as witness, the story of Gilmore (played by Barney), and the life of bees - that metaphorically describe the potential of moving backward in order to escape one's destiny. Both Gilmore's kinship to Houdini (played by Norman Mailer) and his correlation with the male bee are established in the séance/conception scene in the beginning of the film, during which Houdini's spirit is summoned and Gilmore's father expires after fertilizing his wife. Gilmore's sense of his own doomed role as drone is expressed in the ensuing sequence in a recording studio where Dave Lombardo, former drummer of Slayer, is playing a solo to the sound of swarming bees. A man shrouded by bees with the voice of Steve Tucker, lead vocalist of Morbid Angel, growls into a telephone. Collectively these figures allude to Johnny Cash, who is said to have called Gilmore on the night of his execution in response to the convict's dying wish.
      Barney depicts Gilmore's murder of a Mormon gas station attendant in both sculptural and dramatic forms. Inferring that Gilmore killed out of a longing for union with his girlfriend, Nicole Baker, he represents their relationship through two conjoined cars: the blue and the white 1966 Mustangs that they coincidentally both owned. In the murder sequence, Gilmore shoots his victim in the back of the head. This act sets in motion the trial and verdict that will condemn him to death, a sentence he embraces despite all efforts to overturn it. Barney stages the judgment of Gilmore in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Gilmore welcomes death, refusing to appeal his sentence and opting for execution by firing squad, in a literal interpretation of the Mormon belief that blood must be shed in order for a sinner to obtain salvation. His execution is staged as a prison rodeo in a cast-salt arena in the middle of the flooded Bonneville Salt Flats. Gilmore is lowered onto a bull and he rides to his death. In Barney's interpretation of the execution, Gilmore was less interested in attaining Mormon redemption than in performing a chronological two-step that would return him to the space of his alleged grandfather, Houdini, with whom he identified the notion of freedom through self-transformation. Seeking escape from his fate, he chose death in an act of ultimate self-will. Gilmore's metaphoric transportation back to the turn of the century is rendered in a dance sequence featuring the Texas two-step. The film ends in the Columbian Exposition hall where Houdini is approached by Gilmore's grandmother Baby Fay La Foe who will seduce him, an act that sets in motion the circular narrative of Cremaster 2.

Cremaster 2 (79 min, 1999) was the first project Barney shot on HDTV (all of the Cremaster “films” are shot on video and then transferred to 35mm film for theatrical projection). The film cost about 1.7 million dollars to produce. An enormous amount of footage was shot -- estimates range from 17 to 30 minutes of tape for every minute used in the final edit (Hollywood films usually shoot at a ratio of 12:1).
        The story of Cremaster 2 is loosely based on the life of Gary Gilmore (played in the film by Barney). Gilmore, born a Mormon, was sentanced to death for killing two men in Utah (a gas station attendant and a motel clerk) while on parole from a 12-year armed robbery sentance. Gilmore’s execution was the first in the US in a decade and attracted a lot of attention in the media. He did not appeal his death sentance, choosing instead to face execution by firing squad. Gilmore’s execution was a public relations nightmare for the Mormon Church: although both men he killed were Mormons, by choosing to make a “blood atonement” for his crimes Gilmore was absolved of his sin and entitled to all of the benefits of his Mormon baptism. Barney says he was drawn to Gilmore’s story because it, “was like a version of the whole ‘Cremaster’ dilemma, of a character in conflict with his destiny.” Gilmore’s story was the subject of Norman Mailer’s book The Executioner’s Song (Mailer, himself, appears in the film acting the role of escape artist Harry Houdini), parts of which form the foundation of Cremaster 2.
        Within the Cremaster Cycle, Cremaster 2 represents the next first stirrings of gender difference. The idea of conflict between the sexes is explored using the metaphor of the queen bee and her drones (the beehive is also a symbol of Mormonism, signifying the importance of the collective over the individual, and appears on the Utah state flag). Another important motif in Cremaster 2 is the two-step. The dance is used as a metaphor for doubling back, Gilmore moving back through his own conception to Houdini’s metamorphosis.
        Cremaster 2 is the only episode with substantial spoken dialog (much of which was apparently added by Barney to make the film more comprehensible). The lyrics to the songs in the film are taken from letters written between Gary Gilmore and his girlfriend Nicole Baker while he was in prison awaiting execution.
        Cremaster 2 opens with a close-up of a saddle which has been covered in squares of mirror like a disco ball (the saddle, which makes several apperances in the film, was based on one that Barney saw hanging above the bar at Denim and Diamonds -- a line-dancing club in midtown Manhattan). Beacause of the extreme close-up, the saddle at first appears to be a mountainous landscape. The saddle is filmed upside down with the stirrups pointing upwards, which makes it resemble a reproductive system. Next, Barney presents a number of landscape shots filmed in the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Columbia Ice Field. In prehistoric times, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah were covered by a lake whose source lay in the present-day Columbia Ice Fields in Canada -- the glacier that formed during the ice age is now performing a “two-step” and melting backwards towards Canada. After several minutes of landscape shots, bees fly towards the camera and the “C2” logo appears dripping with blood.
        The story begins with a seance held between Baby Fay La Foe (Gilmore’s grandmother), her son Frank, and Frank’s wife Bessie (Gilmore’s parents). They are trying to raise the spirit of Houdini (the real-life Baby Fay La Foe was Gary Gilmore’s grandmother, a mystic who claimed to have had an affair with Houdini -- if this is true, Houdini would be Gilmore’s father). The room features a hexagonal beehive motif. The three figures wear stiff corsets (wasp waist) and sit at a bizarre table. The tabletop is split in two with a hoop attached a few inched below. The chairs have hexagonal seats and curved backs that fit into the Gilmores’ corseted waists. The corsets to signify the high level of control that is exercised in the Gilmore family.
        During the seance, it appears at times that Baby Fay is alone with Frank or Bessie, sometimes in a different room containing an enormous beehive. They perform a series of strange rituals including running a white hook along the hoop under the table and Frank rubbing polen (a stalactite of which grows under the table during the seance) on Bessie’s leg. While she is alone with Bessie, Fay places her toes on a silver bell and lifts the table with her knee. The motion of the table (and the design of its legs) mimic sexual intercourse.
        The seance represents the sexual union of Frank and Bessie and the conception of Gary Gilmore. The seance is intercut with close-ups of Frank copulating with Bessie (who is wearing a clear corset) and scenes of Houdini’s metamorphosis at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (the “Chicago World’s Fair”, here imagined in the Columbia Ice Fields) . At the moment of sexual climax, Frank withdraws from Bessie and we see that the head of his penis resembles a behive. A bee flies out of his penis, symbolizing the conception of Gary Gilmore and the death of Frank (since drones die after maiting). Barney uses this scene to show that Gary has been born a drone and destined to follow his father’s path.
        Following Gary Gilmore’s conception, the film cuts to a recording studio where Dave Lombardo, drummer for the speed-metal band Slayer, plays a frenetic drum solo accompanied by the buzzing sound of a swarm of bees. A behive in the shape of the Cremaster field emblem is built into one wall of the studio. A man wearing a Raiders football jersey (with the voice of Steve Tucker, lead vocalist of the metal band Morbid Angel), growls into a telephone while covered in bees. The dark tone of this scene fortells the violence about to occur and the buzz of the bees serves to identify Gary Gilmore’s role as a drone. This scene also alludes to Gary Gilmore’s wish (supposedly granted) to speak with country singer Johnny Cash on the telephone on the eve of his execution. The band is listed in the credits as “Johnny Cash” and, like Cash, wear all black. Preparatory sketches indicate that Barney had originally intended for Rick Rubin, the man who produced Cash’s final records and has a somewhat foreboding appearance, to play the role of the man on the telephone.
        The film moves to a Sinclair gas station in Utah at night. Two blue and a white 1966 Ford Mustangs are parked at the gas station facing in opposite directions. These cars are meant to symbolize Gary Gilmore and his girlfriend Nicole Baker (both owned ‘66 Mustangs, and at the time of the murders the couple had just broken up). A gas station attendant named Max Jensen slowly tends to the cars, checking the oil, washing the windows, etc.
        The front seats of the cars are connected by a tunnel that resemebles both Goodyear’s coccoon under the tablecloths in Cremaster 1 and the Loughton Candidate’s tunnel in Cremaster 4 (although its hexagonal-shapeis in keeping with the beehive motif of Cremaster 2). The tunnel, like the corsets worn by Gary Gilmore’s ancestors during the seance, symbolizes confinement. Gilmore spent most of his life in jail and never really integrated into society.
        Gilmore appears to be trapped inside the cars and looks ill. He picks at the upholstery, finding that it is stuffed wih Vaseline. He bends two pieces of the car interior into loops and connects them with a piece of wire. He attempts to sculpt a mountain range over the wire using Vaseline. However, he can’t get the Vaseline to stay and looks progressively sicker. He changes out of his prison uniform and into jeans and a t-shirt (revealing a tiny, malformed penis) and reaches into the glove compartment for a pistol.
        Max Jensen pulls his squeegee over the driver’s side window on Gilmore’s car, and the window slips down a couple of inches. Gilmore leaves the car and forces the attendant into the gas station. He robs the register, then shoots the attendant twice in the head in the bathroom. Jensen collapses in a pool of blood on the tiled floor (a Goodyear logo can be seen through the windows behind Jensen’s dead body).
        The film moves to the hall of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (in fact, a 1/8 scale model with a computer-animated choir). The Mormon Tabernacle in many ways resembles a beehive and also is a symbol of the body for Mormons. The gigantic organ that dominates the hall is significant as both an “organ” (ie a vital part of the body) and as an instrument that produces a “drone” (a long sustained tone). This scene represents the judgment of Gary Gilmore. He accepts his death sentence without appeal. This blood atonement will, according to Mormon doctrine, allow Gilmore into Paradise and guaruntee his immortality.
        Gilmore’s execution is envisioned in a prison rodeo arena made of salt in the middle of the flooded Bonneville Salt Flats. Four large white beehives crown the arena. The execution begins with a parade of mounted troopers moving in a series of formations, much like the chorus girls in Cremaster 1. The troopers carry ten flags, each representing one of the lost tribes of Israel. There were originally twelve tribes -- the two that were not lost were the tribes of Judah and Joseph. The descendents of Judah became the Jews and the descendents of Joseph became the Mormons. Harry Houdini, born Ehrich Weiss, was a Jew; Gary Gilmore a Mormon.
        Gilmore is presented with an ornate belt buckle (marked with the dates 1893 and 1977, the years of the Columbian Exposition and Gilmore’s execution, respectively) and is escorted to the arena. He wears a suit of prison stripes, a cowboy hat, and chaps. He is mounted on a Brahma bull and wraps the reins around his hand (the walls of the bull’s corridor have a beehive pattern). The bull bucks viciously, but Gilmore remains astride. Then the bull slows and collapses -- both Gilmore and the bull are dead (a fake bull with a pump inside to simulate breathing was used to film this scene). During the death scene, the film cuts back to Houdini being shut into a hexagonal case by Canadian mounties at the Columbian Exposition. Houdini is locked into a hexagonal chest by Canadian Mounties. The mounties smear Vaseline on the beehive-shaped ends of the chain that secures the chest. At the Salt Flats, Bison appear and circle around Gilmore’s fallen body, symbolizing Gilmore’s salvation within the Mormon faith.
        Music plays, and we see the mirrored saddle again. Two dancers perform the Texas two step iside a room with beehive patterns embossed on it’s metallic walls. The shape of the room is based on a drawing of the universe made by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. The film then doubles back (two-steps) from the Bonneville Salt Flats to its source, the Columbia Ice Fields; from Gilmore’s execution to Houdini’s exposition. Everyone has left the exhibition hall except for Houdini, who is wrapping things up amidst melting ice sculptures (another symbol of metamorphosis). Baby Fay La Foe makes her way through displays of taxidermied animals and surprisingly modern-looking snow mobiles.
        Fay finds Hodini and announces herself as the Queen. She asks if he wants to transcend his place in the hive and experience true metamorphosis. He informs her that with every escape he goes through a metamorphosis, becoming one with the locks that hold him. The Queen is worried by one of Houdini’s tricks where he would “change gender” by switching places with his wife Bess while shackled inside a cage. She is worries that by transforming into a female Houdini could transcend his position as a drone and attempt to usurp her power. If she can seduce him, she can neutralize his threat. She takes his hand, dropping her pug dog, who runs out of the hall.
        Houdini has accepted the Queen’s invitation, but the viewer is left not knowing what, other than the eventual birth of Gary Gilmore, will be the result of their union. The film closes with landscapes shots of the Columbia Ice Fields, eventually moving down a deep crevice. The mirrored saddle appears one last time and the credits roll. The film ends, but Gary Gilmore will return in Cremaster 3.
- cremasterfanatic.com/Synopsis2.html

Cremaster 3
CREMASTER 3  (2002) is set in New York City and narrates the construction of the Chrysler Building, which is in itself a character - host to inner, antagonistic forces at play for access to the process of (spiritual) transcendence. These factions find form in the struggle between Hiram Abiff or the Architect (played by Richard Serra), and the Entered Apprentice (played by Barney), who are both working on the building. They are reenacting the Masonic myth of Hiram Abiff, purported architect of Solomon's Temple, who possessed knowledge of the mysteries of the universe. The murder and resurrection of Abiff are reenacted during Masonic initiation rites as the culmination of a three-part process through which a candidate progresses from the first degree of Entered Apprenticeship to the third of Master Mason.
     After a prologue steeped in Celtic mythology, the narrative begins under the foundation of the partially constructed Chrysler Building. A female corpse digging her way out of a grave is the undead Gary Gilmore, protagonist of Cremaster 2. Carried out of her tomb by five boys, she is
transported to the Chrysler Building's lobby. The pallbearers deposit her in the back seat of a Chrysler Imperial New Yorker.  During this scene, the camera cross-cuts to images of the Apprentice troweling cement over carved fuel-tank caps on the rear chassis of five 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperials, each bearing the insignia of a Cremaster episode.  Packed with cement, these caps will serve as battering rams in a demolition derby about to begin. The Apprentice then scales one of the building's elevator shafts until reaching a car resting between floors. Using this cabin as a mold, he pours cement to cast the perfect ashlar, a symmetrically hewn stone that symbolizes moral rectitude in Masonic ritual.  By circumventing the carving process to create the perfect ashlar, the Apprentice has cheated in his rites of passage and has sabotaged the construction of the building.
     The ensuing scene in the Chrysler Building's Cloud Club bar is a slapstick routine between bartender and Apprentice. Almost everything goes wrong; and these humorous mishaps result in the bartender playing his environment like a bagpipe. The various accidents leading up to this are caused by a woman (played by Aimee Mullins) in an adjoining room, who is cutting potatoes with blades on her shoes and stuffing them under the foundation of the bar until it is no longer level - a condition that echoes the corrupted state of the tower. This interlude is interrupted by a scene shift to a racetrack, where the Apprentice is accosted by hitmen who break all his teeth in retribution for his deception. Back in the Cloud Club, he is escorted to a dental office, where he is stripped of his clothes, under which he is wearing the costume of the First Degree Masonic initiate. An apron of flesh obtrudes from his navel, referencing the lambskin aprons worn by Masonic candidates as a symbol for the state of innocence before the Fall.
     The Architect confronts his opponent in the dental suite, fitting the compressed remains of the Imperial New Yorker into the Apprentice's mouth like a pair of dentures. At that moment, the Apprentice's intestines prolapse through his rectum. This ceremonious disembowelment symbolically separates him from his lower self. For his hubris he is simultaneously punished and redeemed by the Architect - whose own hubris, however, equally knows no bounds.
Returning to his office, and anxious about the tower's slow progress, the Architect constructs two pillars that allude to the columns, Jachin and Boaz, designed by Abiff for Solomon's Temple. Meanwhile, the Apprentice escapes from the dental lab and climbs to the top of the tower. The Architect uses his columns as a ladder and climbs through an oculus in the ceiling. The next scene describes an apotheosis, the Architect becoming one with his design, as the tower itself is transformed into a maypole.
     At this point in the narrative the film pauses for a choric interlude, which rehearses the initiation rites of the Masonic fraternity through allegorical representations of the five-part Cremaster cycle, all in the guise of a game staged in the Guggenheim Museum. Called “The Order,” this competition features a fantastical incarnation of the Apprentice as its sole contestant, who must overcome obstacles on each level of the museum's spiraling rotunda.
In the ensuing scene, which returns to the top of the Chrysler Building, the Architect is murdered by the Apprentice, who is then killed by the tower. Both men have been punished for their hubris and the building will remain unfinished. The film ends with a coda that links it to Cremaster 4. This is the legend of Fionn MacCumhail, which describes the formation of the Isle of Man, where the next installment of the Cremaster cycle will take place.

Cremaster 3 (182 min, 2002) was the last film in the cycle to be completed and is the longest film in the series. As the midpoint between the two reflected halves of the Cremaster Cycle, the main themes of Cremaster 3 are Narcissism and hubris. The Architecht, the Apprentice, the Novitiate, and the Chrysler Building can all be seen as “reflections” of one another. In keeping with the Narcissitic theme, Cremaster 3 directly references all five films in the cycle in a number of scenes: the demolition derby (each car represents a different film), the harness race (each team wears silks bearing the logo of a different installment), the Order (each level of the Guggenheim Museum presents a challenge related to a different Cremaster film), and the closing scene atop the Chrysler Building (the Architecht holds five bouquets, whose flowers symbolically refer to the five films).
        The bulk of Cremaster 3 is set in New York during the construction of the Chrysler Building in 1930. At the time, the Chrysler Building and the Bank of Manhattan Building were both vying to be the world’s tallest skyscraper. The Bank of Manhattan Builiding was designed to be 927 feet hign - two feet taller than the Chrysler Building. Shortly before its completion, a secret 18-foot Nirosta steel spire was raised atop the Chrysler Building, making it the taller building. Much of the labor used in the construction of the Chrysler Building was provided by Irish Laborers, many of whom were also Masons. Organized crime (the “Syndicate”) was heavily involved in New York City’s construction industry.
        Barney intertwines the story of the erection of the Chrylser Building with Masonic lore and rituals. Candidates for Masonic initiation must pass through three degrees: Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. At the culmination of Masonic initiation, Masons reenact the murder, burial, and resurrection of Hiram Abiff, the Biblical architect of the Temple of Solomon. Abiff constructed two massive brass pillars at the entrance of the temple and was thought to be the keeper of cosmic secrets. According to Masonic legend, Abiff was killed by three apprentice stonemasons who were trying to get him to divulge the secret name of God. When he refused to tell them, they killed him with a blow to the forehead from a maul (a club-like masonry tool). When Abiff’s body was discovered, King Solomon embraced him with the grip of the Master Mason, bringing him back to life. Revived, Abiff whispered the words “Maha byn” in King Solomon’s ear, a phrase now used by the Masons to symbolize the divine knowledge lost with Abiff’s death.
        Irish symbolism is present throughout Cremaster 3. The film begins and ends in Ireland, and Barney’s character (and the artist, himself) are of Irish descent. The Cloud Club is modeled on a traditional Irish pub and the bar is eventually thrown out of allignment by wedges cut from potatoes, a vegetable closely identified with Ireland. The lyrics to the film’s score (which narrate the construction of the Chrysler Building) are sung in Gaelic by Irish tenor Paul Brady. The dominant colors of the film are orange and green, the colors of the Irish flag. Moreover, the symbolism of the Irish flag -- green for the Catholics, orange for the Protestants, and white for peace between the two -- directly relates to the Cremaster Cycle’s exploration of the potential for equlibrium between two opposing forces.
        The film begins with a prologue recounting the Celtic legend of Fionn and Fingal. The setting is two coasts flanking the Irish Sea -- Fingal’s Scottish cave on one side and the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland on the other. The unusual geology of the area - the coast is made up of large polyhedral columns of rock (generally either hexagonal, echoing the beehive motif of Cremaster 2, or pentagonal, the dominant shape of Cremaster 3) - is explained by the legend Barney depicts. Fionn carries large rocks to sea, building the Giant’s Gauseway so Fingal can cross the water to Ireland for a fight. However, as Fingal approaches, his footsteps shake the ground, making it clear that he is much larger than Fionn. Fionn’s wife Oonagh suggests that he disguise himself as a baby to hide from the Fingal. Fionn bakes loaves of bread with white plastic wedges inside (in the original legend he uses cast iron skillets) and lies in wait for Fingal.
        The film then moves to 1930 New York, deep underneath the Chrysler Building (whose construction is in progress). A female corpse (shot in the heart four times like Gary Gilmore) slowly digs her way upwards through a goat burial ground. The corpse is, in fact, the reincarnation of Gary Gilmore. The corpse’s presence indicates that Gilmore successfully entered the sphere of Houdini at the end of Cremaster 2 and transformed into a female. The corpse is led up a series of staircases by five boy undertakers, eventually emerging in the lobby of the Chrysler Building. The corpse is deposited in the back seat of a 1938 Chrysler Imperial New Yorker parked in the lobby (the Imperial New Yorker was introduced in 1930 - the same year as the "birth" of the Chrysler building - and was one of Chrysler’s most deluxe models).
        While this is going on, we see the Entered Apprentice (Matthew Barney) trowelling cement over Nirosta steel gas caps mounted on the rear ends of five 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperials. The Crown Imperials are each marked with the insignia of a different Cremaster episode and are painted in the dominant color of the episode. The cars refer to Barney’s own biography: both the 1967 cars and the Imperial New Yorker holding the corpse were part of Chrysler’s Imperial line; 1938 is the year of Matthew Barney’s father’s birth and Barney was born in 1967. The Imperials (generally prohibited from demolition derbies, having superior engines and chassis to most other automobiles) circle around the older car and begin to ram into it with their cement-encrusted gas caps.
        While the cars bash one anoter, the Entered Apprentice sneaks away and starts to climb one of the building’s elevator shafts. When he reaches an elevator stopped between floors, he enters the car and lights a cigarette to trigger the sprinkler system. As the elevator fills with water, he begins to pour cement, using the elevator car as a mold to cast a perfect ashlar (an ashlar is a symmetrically-hewn stone often used in ceremonial architecture and a symbol of moral and physical rectitude in First Degree Masonic intiation). By casting the ashlar rather than carving it, the Entered Apprentice is cheating on his initiation rites - he has laid a false foundation for the development of his character (and by extension, the construction of the building).
        Three members of the Syndicate (whose aprons indicate that they are Master Masons) meet in the Cloud Club bar on the Chrysler Building’s 66th floor to discuss the Apprentice’s punishment. The Cloud Club resembles a traditional Irish pub, but with Art Deco flourishes inspired by the Chrysler Building. Part of the bar is made from frozen Vaseline, and the bar stools are pentagons (the shape of the Chrysler logo) supported by compasses (a Masonic symbol). The floor is carpeted in Green and Orange (the colors of the Irish flag and Cremaster 3’s predominant color scheme). Two Cremaster field emblems are embroidered in the carpet: one filled with the symbolic Masonic tools, the other with a Celtic harp.
        In a room beside the bar, a woman (played by paraplegic athlete/model Aimee Mullins, who also played Oonaugh in the prelude) cuts potatoes (another symbol of Ireland) with blades on the soles of her shoes (the blades resemble the funnel on Goodyear’s shoe in Cremaster 1). The woman cuts the potatoes into wedges, and then reaches through an opening in the wall to insert the wedges under the bar.
        Meanwhile, the Entered Apprentice has poured so much concrete into the elevator car that it falls to the bottom of the shaft. The Apprentice continues his climb and exits the elevator shaft into the Cloud Club, where he is met by the Maitre d’ (played by Irish tenor Paul Brady). The two men form a harp out of the elevator cables and make a wind organ by wedging the elevator doors open. The Maitre d’ then “plays” the building, singing a song in Gaelic. While he is singing, we see external scenes of the Chrysler Building under construction and the Apprentice slips past the Masons into the bar area.
        At the bar, the Apprentice shakes the barman’s hand with his dirty work glove. The barman looks at his own glove (now soiled), removes it, and pulls on an identical clean glove. The Apprentice orders a pint of Guinness, and a slapstick routine ensues (one of the few moments of humor in the Cremaster Cycle). The bartender drops glasses, sprays beer everywhere, and ends up playing the tap system like a bagpipe. It becomes evident that his mishaps are being caused by the potato wedges, which by now have thrown the bar (and by extension the entire Chrysler Building) out of alignment. The instability of the building is noticed by the three Master Masons, who measure the extent of the shift using a plumb line and level (two of the symbolic Masonic tools). Barney says he also sees the bar as a gigantic level, with the Bartender as the plumb.
        At this point, the film abruptly shifts to Saratoga Springs, New York. This upstate location was a popular getaway for members of the Syndicate when they needed to hide out from the authorities. The Apprentice and his moll (also played by Aimee Mullins) are at the Saratoga racetrack watching a harness race. Five teams are competing, each wearing satin jackets with the logo for a different Cremaster episode embroidered on the back. When the camera comes in close to the horses, ithe viewer sees that they are all putrefying zombies. The Cremaster 5 horse is the first to cross the finish line, but the team is disqualified for performing a foul on the Cremaster 1 team. The Cremaster 3 team is declared the winner and crowned with a blanket of narcissus flowers in the shape of the field emblem.
        When he sees that the horses are all zombies, the Apprentice begins to run but is intercepted by three hitmen from the Syndicate (referencing the three masons who killed Hiram Abiff). They join two mason’s trowels into a bridle-like configuration and insert them into the Apprentice’s mouth. Then they smash the his mouth into a railing, destroying his teeth.
        The film then cuts back to the Cloud Club. Although it appears that no time has passed during the Saratoga interlude, the Apprentice’s mouth is now bleeding. The three Master Masons and other Syndicate members escort the Apprentice out of the Cloud Club and up to a dental office on the 71st floor. The Apprentice is stripped of his work clothes and we see that underneath his clothing he wears the costume of a First Degree Masonic initiate. He also has a small fleshy apron hanging from his abdomen (echoing the mason’s apron he was previously wearing). The hit men place the Apprentice in a dental chair and one of them raises apron of flesh, revealing that instead of a penis the Apprentice has genitals that resemble a splash or sea anemone. One of the hit men melts a sheet of white plastic and pulls it tightly over the Apprentice’s face, leaving only a hole for the Apprentice’s bloody, damaged mouth.
        The film then moves one flight up from the dental office to the office of the Chief Architect (played by artist Richard Serra). The Architect’s office is the nerve center of the Chrysler Building. We see him studying drawings and models of the building as it is being erected around him. He descends to the dental office carrying the remains of the 1930 Chrysler Imperial New Yorker (which has been compressed by the Crown Imperials into a fist-sized lump). In the dental office, the Architect fits the crushed car into the Apprentice’s mouth. At the moment the teeth are inserted, the Apprentice’s intestines prolapse through his rectum.
        The Architect returns to his office and begins to construct two columns (referencing the columns Hiram Abiff built at the entrance to the Temple of Solomon) out of flat black plates which he stacks using a chain hoist. One column is made of pentagram-shaped plates, the other is built out of plates in the shape of a half-field emblem.
        While the Architect is building his pillars, a thick goo begins to drip out of the Apprentice’s distended rectum and down a trough molded into the dental chair. The fluid (conaining shards of the Apprentice’s teeth) falls into a tray beneath the chair and solidifies into a porcelain rod. The apron of flesh on the Apprentice’s stomach lengthens, symbolizing his passage from Entered Apprentice to the final degree of Masonic initiation: Master Mason. He removes the molded plastic from his face and rises from the dental chair. He leaps up and climbs through an opening in the ceiling towards the Architect above..
        Meanwhile, the Architect has built his columns nearly to the ceiling of his office. He climbs one column (mirroring the Apprentice’s climbs) and ascends through a skylight into a room directly underneath the building’s spire.
        In external shots, green and orange ribbons are shown flowing from the spire of the Chrysler Building. Workmen throw the ribbons from window to window, weaving them around the building like a maypole dance. The ribbons are then passed up through the building into the room where the Architect is. The Architect is shown wearing a Masonic apron and holding five bouquet of flowers representing the five Cremaster films (white orchid, Rocky Mountain sage, narcissus, Irish gorse, and calla lily, respectively). The Syndicate killers attach the ribbons to hooks above the Architect’s head. Like the spire, the Architecht his encircled with a web of ribbons, showing that he and his building have become one - this is his moment of crowning achievement.
        At this point, the film breaks into a choric interlude called “The Order”. This interlude was filmed in the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and is structured as a game in which the Entered Apprentice must scale the Guggenheim and compete in five “levels”: one for each film in the series. The architecture of the Guggenheim is similar to that of a beehive, which is an important symbol for Masons, as well as the Mormons of Cremaster 2 (Joseph Smith, one of the founders of the Mormon church, was also a Mason). The Apprentice’s fleshy apron has now turned into a pink tartan kilt and he wears a furry orange hat, but his mouth is still bloody (he has stuffed a cloth into it to stop the bleeding).
        The floor of the Guggenheim is covered in blue Astroturf like the playing field in Cremaster 1. The Apprentice’s five opponents appear in turn on a stage on the Guggenheim’s floor. Level One is represented by the Order of the Rainbow for Girls. These are the chorus girls from Cremaster 1, now wearing lamb costumes (the lamb is a symbol of the Masonic First Degree, representing innocence and purity) and white tap dancing taps similar to those worn by the Loughton Candidate in Cremaster 4. The Level Two opponents are members of the hardcore bands Agnostic Front and Murphy’s Law (preparatory sketches indicate Barney originally wanted to use Boston Hardcore band SSD instead of Murphy’s Law, which would have added an additional layer of meaning due to the rivalry between the New York and Boston hardcore scenes), referencing the death metal band appearing in Cremaster 2. For Level Three, we are presented once again with Aimee Mullins, this time in a white dress and transparent crystal legs. In “The Order” she is known as the “Entered Novitiate” and represents the Third Degree of Freemasonry. She can also be seen as an alter-ego of the Apprentice. The Level Four opponent is a large abstracted bagpipe made out of a Loughton Ram. Finally, for Level Five, we see Richard Serra. In “The Order”, Serra appears as himself, not Hiram Abiff. He hurls molten Vaseline against the Guggenheim’s ramp (one of Serra’s famous art projects involved throwing molten lead against a wall) providing the timer for the game. The Apprentice must beat the challenges of each level before the liquid Vaseline flow reaches the bottom of the ramp. Serra’s macho performance also alludes to Cremaster 5 -- the episode when maleness is fully achieved.
        The Apprentice begins climbing the walls of the Guggenheim. On Level One he crawls through a tunnel formed by the legs of the chorus girls and is presented with a lamb, which he wears around his waist. On Level Two, the Apprentice must solve a puzzle built into the floor underneath the feet of moshing punks while the bands perform on stages made of salt (referencing the arena in the Salt Flats where Gary Gilmore was executed in Cremaster 2). The puzzle, which involves fitting square plates together to form a cross and then a perfect cube, represents learning Fellowcraft, the Masonic Second Degree. After solving the puzzle, the Apprentice climbs past Level Three to Level Four. On Level Four he must throw five plastic bagpipe pipes into the Loughton Ram to complete the instrument in imitation of the traditional Scottish game of caber toss. The Apprentice must lodge five pipes in the bagpipe, representing the five points of Masonic fellowship. After many unsuccessful tries he eventually inserts the final pipe and returns to Level Three. On Level Three, the Apprentice is blinded by the beauty of the Novitiate (again, the theme of Narcissism). They give each other the Masonic embrace and the Novitiate whispers “Maha byn” (the words spoken by the revived Hiram Abiff) into the Apprentice’s ear. At this moment, the Novitiate transforms into a cheetah-woman and attacks the Apprentice. They wrestle around the Guggenheim, but he eventually kills her with blows to the head from three different Masonic tools. Having killed his double, the Apprentice has achieved the level of Master Mason.
        During the battle between the Apprentice and the cheetah, the film starts to cut back between “the Order” and the Architect atop the Chrysler Building. He is basking in the glory of his accomplishment, not knowing that the Apprentice has escaped from the dental office and is climbing towards him. At the moment the Apprentice kills the cheetah in the Guggenheim, he also deals a fatal blow to the Architect’s forehead in the Chrysler Building. However, as he kills the architect, the Chrysler Building thrusts the base of it’s spire through his head killing the Apprentice as well. These murders represent the simultaneous slaying of father, son, and self; and illustrate the cyclical structure of the Cremaster series.
        Cremaster 3 ends with a coda that returns to the Celtic myth that opened the film and connects it to Cremaster 4. Fingal has completed the crossing of the Giant’s Causeway and approaches Fionn’s hut. Entering the hut, he sees an enormous baby (the disguised Fionn) nibbling on a loaf of bread. Fingal is worried -- if this is the baby, how large must it’s father be? While he is thinking this over, he helps himself to a loaf of bread. Biting into the bread, he breaks his teeth on the plastic wedge baked inside (much like the Apprentice’s broken teeth). While Fingal is distracted by the pain of his teeth, Fionn reaches up and bites off his magic brass finger, the source of his power. Fingal flees over the Causeway back to Scotland, destroying the bridge with his heavy foosteps as he runs. Fionn throws a stone at Fingal, but the stone misses its mark. Instead, it falls into the ocean forming a new land mass: the Isle of Man, setting for Cremaster 4.
Cremaster 4

CREMASTER 4  (1994) adheres most closely to the project's biological model. This penultimate episode describes the system's onward rush toward descension despite its resistance to division. The logo for this chapter is the Manx triskelion - three identical armored legs revolving around a central axis. Set on the Isle of Man, the film absorbs the island's folklore as well as its more recent incarnation as host to the Tourist Trophy motorcycle race.  Myth and machine combine to narrate a story of candidacy, which involves a trial of the will articulated by a series of passages and transformations. The film comprises three main character zones. The Loughton Candidate (played by Barney) is a satyr with two sets of impacted sockets in his head - four nascent horns, which will eventually grow into those of the mature, Loughton Ram, an ancient breed native to the island. Its horns - two arcing upward, two down - form a diagram that proposes a condition of undifferentiation, with ascension and descension coexisting in equilibrium. The second and third character zones comprise a pair of motorcycle sidecar teams: the Ascending and Descending Hacks. These primary characters are attended to by a trio of fairies who mirror the three narrative fields occupied by the Candidate and the two racing teams. Having no volition of their own, these creatures metamorphose in accordance with whatever field they occupy at any given time.
      Cremaster 4 begins and ends in a building on the end of Queen's Pier. As the film starts, the Candidate is being prepared by the fairies for a journey. The motorcycle race begins, and each team speeds off in opposite directions. The camera cuts back and forth between the race and the Candidate, who is tap-dancing his way through a slowly eroding floor. As the bikes vie for the title, the camera pulls in for close-up shots of the riders' torsos.
      Gelatinous gonadal forms - undifferentiated internal sex organs - emerge from slots in their uniforms in a migratory quest for directionality. In the case of the Ascending Hack, the organs move upward toward a second set of slots in the leather. With the Descending Hack, they ooze downward.
      Back at the pier, the Candidate plunges through the floor into the sea and heads toward the island. At the moment of his fall - a transition from the utopian realm of pregenital oneness to that of bifurcation - the Ascending Hack collides with a stone embankment and the Descending Hack pulls off the course for a pit stop, where the fairies service its motorcycle. The Candidate reaches land and begins to burrow his way up into the body of the island through a curving channel that he must navigate in order to reach the finish line, where the two Hacks will converge. This conduit leads him to a bluff, where the fairies are having a picnic. They frolic in a game that mirrors the conflict enacted by the principal characters, but with none of the tension. Still in his underground tunnel, the Candidate finally reaches his destination. The Loughton Ram stands at this junction - a symbol for the integration of opposites, the urge for unity that fuels this triple race. But before the Candidate and Hacks meet, the screen goes white. The Candidate's dream of transcending his biology to dwell in the space of pure symmetry is shattered.
      In the final sequence at the pier the Hacks are parked on discrete ramps sloping down from the building's exterior. In the closing image the camera peers through an open crotch at the top of the frame toward the end of the pier. A tightly retracted scrotum is pierced with clasps connected to vinyl cords, which trail off to the awaiting Ascending and Descending Hacks, who will drive toward the island to pick up the slack. Full descension is guaranteed.

Cremaster 4 (42 min, 1994) was, in fact, the first installment that Barney filmed. It was produced on a shoestring budget of $200,000 (largely paid for by London arts organization Artangel, New York dealer Barbara Gladstone, and the Foundation Cartier in Paris). The film is set on the Isle of Man -- an small island (about three times the size of Washington, D.C.) in the sea between Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales. The film incorporates imagery from the island’s folklore, wildlife, and annual Tourist Trophy motorcycle race. Biologically, Cremaster 4 deals with the organism’s desire to return to a state of neutral gender as its male identity is formed.
        Cremaster 4, like other films in the series, has a circular structure and begins and ends in the same location: in this case a white padded building erected on Queen’s Pier, which juts far into the Irish Sea. The building has a white Cremaster field emblem painted on the roof. Inside the building, the Loughton Candidate combs his bright red hair in a mirror.
        The Loughton Candidate is the central character in Cremaster 4. He is the descendent of a Manx satyr named Phynnodderree and wears an Edwardian suit with a Manx heather corsage. As he combs his hair, we see that he has four impacted sockets on his scalp. These will potentially grow into the horns of the Loughton Ram, a species native to the Isle of Man. The Loughton Ram has two sets of horns -- one pair rises upwards, the other grows downwards. For Barney, the Ram’s horns symbolize a state of equilibrium, where ascension and descension can coexist together equally.
        Meanwhile, two motorcycle sidecar teams (each team is played by two brothers) are preparing for a race around the Isle of Man. The “Ascending” team is outfitted in yellow and will take the clockwise path, beginning in the lowlands and then ascending into the mountain section of the race. The “Descending” team wears blue and takes the opposite path. Both teams bear the insignia of the “Manx Triskelton” (the symbol of the Isle of Man: three legs around a central axis) superimposed over the Cremaster field emblem. Barney employs the Triskelton as a symbol of the three separate possibilities offered by the Loughton Candidate and Ascending and Descending teams.
        Inside the building, three fairies attach white plastic tap-dancing “taps” to the bottoms of the Loughton Candidate’s shoes with long pins and place large pearls into his pockets. Each of the three fairies is linked to one team/character (the Loughton Faerie wears its hair in four buns, mirroring the horns of the Loughton Ram/Candidate, the Ascending and Descending Fairie’s wear two buns in corresponding locations). At the start of the film, the faeries are naked and we can see that they have no genitalia (the faeries are played by female bodybuilders, whose physiques are naturally androgynous). In later scenes, the faeries appear wearing yellow or blue to show that they are operating in the zone of the Ascending or Descending Hacks. The faeries’ role is to both assist and mirror the Loughton Candidate and the two sidecar hacks.
        The hacks rocket off in opposite directions from the starting line. The film intercuts scenes of the speeding hacks and the Loughton Candidate, who is now tap dancing in front of the faeries inside the white building. The floor begins to wear away underneath his feet, forming a hole that grows gradually larger.
        The camera moves in close on the torsos of the motrcycle riders as a pair of testicle-like appendages sprout from slits in their leather jumpsuits. On the Ascending Team, the blobs climb from two waist-level slits towards two openings about seven inches above. On the Descending Team, they drop from the upper slits over the rider’s body and towards the back of the sidecar. The Ascending Team hits a flooded stretch of road and is forced to take a detour.
        On the pier, the Loughton Candidate taps through the floor and falls into the sea below (symbolizing the moment of genital descent/division in the organism, this moment also refers to the “escapes” of Harry Houdini and the Queen’s Magician in Cremaster 5). At the same moment, the Ascending Hack collides with a stone wall (the front rider’s helmet appears to be filled with Vaseline as it hits the wall and rolls across the grass) and the Descending Hack pulls off of the road for a pit stop where the faeries have marked the road with a field emblem. The faeries (wearing blue jumpsuits) tend to the Descending Hack, propping it up with a phallic hydraulic jack and white plastic wedges. They remove one wheel and replace it with a flesh-colored tire outfitted with a set of testicles. The Descending Hack has attained masculinity but it cannot drive with testicles hanging from its wheel.
        While the Loughton Candidate walks underwater towards the Isle of Man, the three faeries (wearing yellow hoop dresses) are shown picnicing atop a bluff. Their picnic, bowls of large tapioca pearls, is spread out on a yellow athletic mat. A gust of wind blows their picnic away and they unfasten the hoops from their skirts. The faeries thenplay a game of football that is a symbolic representation of the struggles of the two hacks and the Candidate (the pattern they run is called the “triple option”) using the hydraulic jack in place of the football.
        When the Loughton Candidate reaches land, he begins to tunnel towards the interior of the Isle of Man. At first the tunnel is fairly wide and appears to be filled with large granules of tapioca. Eventually, the tapioca is replaced by Vaseline, which makes the Loughton Candidates Journey more difficult. As he makes his way towards the finish line of the race, the tunnel grows narrower and sprouts soft protusions.
        The faeries remove the pink wheel from the Descending Hack and replace it with a functional rubber tire. At the same moment, both teams resume their race towards the finish line.
        Inside the tunnel, the Loughton Candidate has become covered in Vaseline but has almost reached the finish line. He lights a Zippo and reaches his hand up, where it breaks through the ground at the foot of a cliff. The picnicing faeries ring bells to direct the Loughton Candidate towards them. He continues through the soft tunnel and can hear the engines of the Hacks approaching him. Marking the finish line is a Loughton Ram with yellow and blue ribbons woven around its horns and its wool dyed red (like the hair of the Loughton Candidate and the faeries). It appears that all three teams will reach the finish line at the same moment, resulting in a horrific collision. However, the screen fades to white just before the moment of impact.
        For its conclusion, the film returns to the building on Queen’s Pier. The Ascending and Descending hacks (showing no sign of a collision) are parked on a green ramp which extends from the interior of the building. A white curtain opens to show a pair of testicles suspended in Vaseline. Metal claws marked with the triskelton pull at blue and yellow cords that pierce the scrotum, freeing the testes.
        Finally, we see the hacks framed between a pair of spread legs, presumably those of the Loughton Candidate. His crotch bears a semi-formed scrotum. One end of a cluster of long wires is clipped to the scrotum, the other attached to the backs of the revving hacks. Although it is implied that the hacks are about to drive off and stretch the scrotum out, the film closes leaving the final release of the testes for Cremaster 5.
 Cremaster 5
When total descension is finally attained in CREMASTER 5 (1997), it is envisioned as a
tragic love story set in the romantic dreamscape of late-nineteenth-Century Budapest. The film
is cast in the shape of a lyric opera. Biological metaphors shifted form to inhabit emotional states - longing and despair - that become musical leitmotivs in the orchestral score.
The opera's primary characters - the Queen of Chain (played by Ursula Andress) and her Diva, Magician, and Giant (all played by Barney) - enact collectively the final release promised by the project as a whole.
      Cremaster 5 opens with an overture that introduces the opera's characters and lays out the map of Budapest that the narrative will traverse. The Magician crosses the Lánchíd Bridge on horseback. The Queen ascends the staircase of the Hungarian State Opera House with her two ushers. She settles onto her throne in the royal booth, and the ushers arrange a fleet of Jacobin pigeons around her. Pearls float on the surface of the pools in the Gellért Thermal Baths, partially concealing the Füdór sprites, who inhabit their underwater realms. The curtain rises to an empty theater, the conductor readies his orchestra, and the opera begins.
      As the Queen sings, her Diva appears on the stage, delineating the proscenium arch of the stage by laying ribbons across its floor and then scaling its contours. The Queen's mind wanders to memories of her beloved Magician preparing for a leap into the waters of the Danube from the Lánchíd Bridge. Stripped naked, he positions plastic shackles over his wrists and ankles, then fits molded gloves on his hands and places weighted balls between his toes. His actions recall the famed bridge jumps of Harry Houdini, who was born in Budapest in 1874. The Magician is seeking transcendence, but the Queen misunderstands his actions and thinks he is trying to
take his own life.
      The Queen's ushers direct her attention to orifices in her throne through which she can see into the Gellért Baths below. Her birds plummet through the passages in the throne, trailing long satin ribbons into the bath. Her Giant enters the watery path between the two pools, wading through the pearls to hip level. The sprites cluster around him with a garland of ribbons they have woven together out of those attached to the birds. They reach up through the water and affix the garland to the Giant's scrotum. In the warm waters of the thermal baths, the cremaster muscle releases and the testicles descend.  This climactic moment - the emergence of a fully differentiated state - is rendered visible when the pigeons soar upward with ribbons trailing.
The Queen then relives the Magician's leap into the river and swoons from the horror of her recollection. At this point the narrative mirrors the path of descension just revealed: having completed his climb, the Diva tumbles to the stage, and the Magician plunges to the bottom of the river, landing, manacled, on a flowerbed. Two water sprites caress his fallen body and insert a black pearl into his mouth. The Queen performs her mournful aria, preparing to join her lover in death. A thin stream of liquid emanates from her mouth, trickling onto her ruffle and throne, then falling into the pools below. On its descent, the stream divides into two droplets that strike the water simultaneously. Two perfect circles resonate outward, filling the surface of the bath with their waves, suggesting, in turn, eternal renewal or the echoes of a system expiring.
The Cremaster cycle defers any definitive conclusion.

Cremaster 5 (55 min, 1997) is a five-act opera (sung in Hungarian) set in late-ninteenth century Budapest. The last film in the series, Cremaster 5 represents the moment when the testicles are finally released and sexual differentiation is fully attained. The lamenting tone of the opera suggests that Barney invisions this as a moment of tragedy and loss. The primary character is the Queen of Chain (played by Ursula Andress). Barney, himself, plays three characters who appear in the mind of the Queen: her Diva, Magician, and Giant. The Magician is a stand-in for Harry Houdini, who was born in Budapest in 1874 and appears as a recurring character in the Cremaster cycle.
        The film begins with an ominous prelude that presents the three locations where the opera will unfold: the Hungarian State Opera House, the Gellert Baths (envisioned in the film to be underneath the Opera House, although in fact located below a hotel some distance away), and the Lanchid (Chain) Bridge (the first bridge to span the Danube, the Lanchid Bridge joined the then-separate cities of Buda and Pest). During this overture, we see the Queen ascending the staircase of the Hungarian State Opera House followed by her two ushers (who are identical twins). The Queen’s dress is made of a rigid plastic, and Barney had to make a full-body cast of Ursual Andress for the costume designer. Because of the inflexibility of the material, three dresses had to be made: one for standing, one for sitting, and one for the scene at the end when the Queen lies on the ground.
        The Queen sits on a flesh-colored throne in the back of the opera house and her ushers arrange seven white Jacobin pigeons around her (the pigeons were provided by Barney’s then-wife Mary Farley, who raised exotic birds). In the Gellert Baths, Fudor Sprites swim underneath a layer of floating pearls. The Magician, dressed in black and riding a black horse, begins to cross the Lanchid Bridge. The Jacobin Pigeons are pulled downwards through oriifices in the throne and flap into the Baths, streaming long satin ribbons behind them.
        The curtain rises on the stage and the opera begins. The opera house appears to be empty, except for the Queen, her ushers, and the orchestra. The Queen’s Diva appears appears and lays ribbons across the stage. The Queen, wearing a veil (as does her Diva), sits on her throne and begins to sing. Her Diva begins to climb a vine at the “proscenium” of the stage - the border between the actors and the audience. The Queen’s Ushers sing a duet and remove the Queen’s veil, revealing a crown made of two linked transparent orbs. Her Diva reaches the top of the proscenium and begins to climb along a crossbar high above the stage. The ushers lay ribbons on the stage and unveil the Diva.
        The Queen flashes back to memories of the Magician. She remembers kissing him goodbye in the woods and then sees him preparing to dive into the Danube River from the Lanchid Bridge. The magician is naked and places white plastic shackles on his limbs and weighted balls between his toes (referencing the manacled “bridge jumps” performed by Houdini). For the Magician, the jump from the bridge symbolizes transcendence - a chance to go beyond the possibilities offered by mortality - but the queen misunderstands, only seeing that he wants to kill himself.
        Back in the Opera House, the ushers uncover an opening in the Queen’s throne so that she can see down into the Gellert Baths. The camera moves under the Quees skirt, showing similarities between the shape of her throne, her crotch, and the baths below. The Queen rises from her throne, revealing a pink lining at the center of her otherwise black gown. Her ushers guider her to the opening in the throne and she looks into the baths.
        In the baths, the Giant holds the pigeons. He wades into a trough that connects the two baths (which Barney refers to as the Queen’s perenium - a middle-ground). The Fudor Sprites swim around the Giant and attach the ribbons from the pigeons to his nascent genitals (recalling the cords attached to the Loughton Candidate’s scrotum at the end of Cremaster 4).
        After the sprites attatch all of the ribbons, the pigeons fly upwards trailing the ribbons (formerly blue and yellow, now green) and the Giant’s cremaster muscle relaxes, releasing his testicles into the water. At this moment of release, the Magician leaps from the bridge, the Queen swoons from the horror of the memory, and the Diva crashes to the stage, his head smashing into a viscous pink puddle. The Magician, still shackled, lands on a flower bed at the bottom of the river. Two water sprites caress his body and place a black pearl in his mouth (a black pearl was often placed in the mouth of a dead nobleman).
        The Queen sings a sorrowful aria, preparing to join her Magician in death. At its completion, the Queen loses consciousness and a small trickle of liquid begins to seep from her mouth. The fluid drips down her chin, along the throne, and finally into the baths below. As the liquid falls, it splits into two two separate streams. Two drops fall from her hem, striking the water at the same time. Circular ripples move out from the droplets, and a later of pearls slowly glides over the surface. Barney leaves it to the viewer to decide whether these ripples signify final death of the organism or rebirth and a return to the possibilities offered by Cremaster 1.
Cremaster Cycle Synopsis
The Cremaster Cycle is a series of five films directed by artist Matthew Barney, with a total running time of just under seven hours. Biologically, the cremaster is a muscle that raises and lowers the testicles. Barney uses the descension of the cremaster muscle as a symbol for the onset of male gender (which appears about nine weeks after a fetus is conceived). The five films progress from a state of undifferentiated gender (a fully ascended cremaster muscle, represented by the floating Goodyear Blimps and other symbols), through the organism’s struggle to resist gender definition, to the inevitable point where maleness can no longer be denied (complete descension of the cremaster and release of the testes).
        Matthew Barney directed all five films and appears as an actor in all but Cremaster 1. The Cycle was conceived of as a five-part epic - an early drawing shows a bagpipe-like form with pipes emerging in five different locations: Bronco Stadium, White Sands / Columbia Ice Field, The Chrysler Building, Ireland, and Bath House/Istanbul. Over the course of the project, Ireland became the Isle of Man, Istanbul was changed to Budapest, and other details were adjusted. Barney also creates photographs and sculpture (he considers himself to be a sculptor, not a filmmaker) that reference and expand upon the themes of the Cremaster films.
        The films were shot and released out of order; Barney first filmed Cremaster 4 (1994), then Cremaster 1 (1995), Cremaster 5 (1997), Cremaster 2 (1999), and finally ended in the middle with Cremaster 3 (2002). The films frequently reference one another, but each film follows a different set of characters (although Gary Gilmore and Houdini appear in multiple films). Barney has stated that the films not only trace the formation of sexual definition, but also the creative process of the artist: Cremaster 1 is the spark of an idea, Cremaster 2 is the rejection of the idea, Cremaster 3 is the artist falling in love with the idea, Cremaster 4 is panic at the knowlege that the idea is about to come to fruition, and Cremaster 5 is the final resolution.
        The films also contain many references to Barney’s own biography, and he has said that taken together the films can be viewed as a self portrait. Cremaster 1 is shot at Bronco Stadium in Boise, where Barney played high school football, Cremaster 2 is set in a nuber of locations Barney visited as a boy, and Cremaster 3 takes place in New York, where Barney currently resides.
        Matthew Barney’s filmmaking is abstract and there is little dialog in the Cremaster Cycle. The films communicate in a highly-symbolic language and the storylines can be hard to follow on the first viewing. You can read one poor movie critic’s attempt to decode the films here. With this in mind, CremasterFanatic.com presents a guide to the films of the Cremaster Cycle. Click on any of the links to the left for more information.
Drawing Restraint 9


The Drawing Restraint series is a project Barney began while an undergraduate at Yale. The central theme of the series is the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity. Barney’s theory is that encumbrance can be used to strengthen an artists output, much as resistance is used by athletes to build muscle. In Drawing Restraint 1 - 6 (1987-89) Barney climbs around his studio attempting to create drawings while hindered by obstacles and various physical restraints. These early videos were followed a few years later by Drawing Restraint 7 (1993), a three-channel video installation in which Satyrs grapple in a limousine as it drives through the tunnels of New York City. While one satyr chases its tail in the front seat, another attempts to make a drawing in the condensation-coated sunroof of the limousine using the third satyr’s horn. Drawing Restraint 8 (2003) is a sculptural installation of a series of drawings based on the field emblem. A recurring image in Barney’s work, the field emblem is commonly interpreted to signify either two divergent states of being (the two halves of the oval) or a complete entity (the oval) ruptured by an obstacle (the line) -- see the FAQs for more on the field emblem. In Drawing Restraint 9, the field emblem appears as the template for a massive sculpture that is cast in vaseline on board a Japanese whaling ship.
Drawing Restraint 9 is the centerpiece of the series. Barney began work on Drawing Restraint 9 when he was invited to create a work for an exhibition at the 21st Century Museum of Art in Kanazawa, Japan. The film is the result of extensive research into Japanese history and culture, which Barney fuses with his own interests in metamorphosis and indeterminate states. Barney was interested in the restrictions inherent in Japanese rituals, the interconnectedness of humans and nature in Shinto (Japan’s national religion), the historical relationship between Japan and the outside world, whaling traditions, and the process in which dead organic material is converted into energy (specifically whale oil and fossil fuel).
        The 143-minute film (shot on digital video and transferred to 35mm film) opens with a sequence showing two halves of a fossilized shell being carefully gift wrapped. This introduces the central themes of ritual and transformation. In Japanese culture, the presentation of a gift is as significant as the gift itself, and the amount of time given to this scene underscores the importance of process to Barney. The footage is accompanied by a track called “Gratitude” sung by alt-country star Will Oldham. The lyrics are adapted from a letter written to General MacArthur by a Japanese fisherman. In the letter, the author thanks MacArthur for lifting the US moratorium on whaling.
        Next, the film shifts to the industrial harbor of Nagasaki Bay. A festive parade including oxen, horses, deer, wild boar, and hundreds of Japanese revelers leads a tanker truck carrying liquid vaseline from the factory gates to the harbor. At the port, the tanker delivers its cargo to the Nisshin Maru, an enormous (129.5 meters long by 19.5 meters high) factory whaling ship. The Nisshin Maru has been in operation since 1987 and still hunts whales, making it a frequent target of environmental groups like Greenpeace. As with the locations in Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, the Nisshin Maru functions as both the setting of the film and a character. Metaphorically, the ship can be read as a body in water, a whale in the ocean, or the island of Japan. On board the ship, a giant mold in the shape of Barney’s field emblem is constructed and workers begin to fill it with 25 tons of molten vaseline. In the literature accompanying Drawing Restraint 9, this sculpture is referred to as “The Field”, although it is not named in the film.
        Meanwhile, female pearl divers discover a massive log of ambergris while practicing their dives in the ocean. Ambergris is a waxy substance formed as a byproduct of a whale’s digestive system, often containing a large number of cartilaginous squid beaks and shrimp shells. After it has aged in the ocean for at least several months, ambergris takes on an odor often described as a richer, smoother, more animalistic variant of isopropyl alcohol. Ambergris is extremely expensive and is used in the perfume industry as a fixative.
        Barney and his real-life paramour Bjork appear as the Occidental Guests. They are led separately onto the ship, beginning a story line which develops in parallel with the creation and metamorphosis of the vaseline sculpture on the deck. The Guests are groomed, bathed, and dressed in elaborate skin and fur costumes reminiscent of traditional Shinto wedding attire. Bjork’s teeth are blackened with squid ink and porcupine quill ornaments are placed in her hair. On deck, the molten vaseline begins to cool and sways gently with the motion of the ship.
        The couple join one another below deck in a tatami room. There they engage in a highly-ritualized tea ceremony and their actions are mirrored by the crew laboring on The Field above them. In the film’s only spoken dialog (presented in Japanese and English), the tea master recounts the history of the Nisshin Maru and jokes that the smell of the ambergris is permeating every part of the ship. On deck, cranes lift the giant log of ambergris and place it in the center of the vaseline sculpture.
        A lightning storm outside strengthens, rocking the ship violently from side to side and disturbing the cooling vaseline. The Guests come together in an embrace as hot petroleum jelly begins to spill from above and flood the room. As the vaseline rises, the couple pick up flensing knives (used for the ritual carving of whale carcasses) and begin to cut flesh from one another’s legs. The wounds they inflict resemble labia, the splatters of blood semen. Once enough flesh is removed, whale-like tails are revealed beneath the remains of their lower bodies and blowholes appear at the bases of their necks.
        On deck, the crew dismantles the rubber and metal barriers which had been holding the vaseline in place and the sculpture surrenders its form, spilling out over the deck. The ship emerges from the storm and sails towards Antarctica through a sea filled with icebergs. In the final shot of the film, two wales can be seen swimming behind the ship.
        The Drawing Restraint series is rounded out by five additional components created for exhibitions in 2005 and 2006. Drawing Restraint 10 and 11 were created for the Drawing Restraint exhibition in Kanazawa (2005). Drawing Restraint 10 is a video re-staging Drawing Restraint 6, which was never documented. In this video, Barney jumps on a trampoline which has been set at an angle, attempting to draw two linked field emblems on the ceiling. Drawing Restraint 11 was filmed at the 21st Century Museum and depicts Barney climbing three 40-foot walls to complete a drawing. Drawing Restraint 12 is a similar piece created for the Drawing Restraint exhibition at the Leeum Samsung Museum in South Korea (2005).
Drawing Restraint 13 was filmed at Gladstone Gallery in New York shortly before the opening Barney's Occidental Guest exhibition (2006). The film references two historically significant moments from the late stages of WWII and shows Barney's continuing interest in dramatic encounters between Westerners and Japan. Drawing upon General Douglas MacArthur's infamous landing on the beach in the Philippines (a moment that established MacArthur's legend as he reclaimed territory for the US that had been seized by Japan), Barney appears dressed as General MacArthur and wades through a sculptural wedge of vaseline (the sculpture is also called Drawing Restraint 13). He then signs a number of drawings (which were later hung in the exhibition) with an electric engraving pen and stamps them with a field emblem-shaped brand that has been heated over a bunsen burner. Barney's dealer Barbara Gladstone then affixes a label to the back of each drawing and passes it to the Japanese Delegate to be signed. In the background, actors dressed as American soldiers watch the proceedings. This scene relates to MacArthur's acceptance of the articles of surrender from Japanese officials on board the USS Missouri, the ceremony that ended the war.
Drawing Restraint 14 is similar to Drawing Restraint 11 and 12 -- a video documenting Barney creating a site-specific drawing in a museum exhibiting other works from the Drawing Restraint series. In this case, Barney (dressed as General MacArthur) creates his drawing high above the stairwell in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Drawing Restraint 15 (2007) was filmed during a 5-month transatlantic voyage made by Barney. It depicts Barney drawing with fish blood and hanging overboard, allowing the motion of the ship to control his drawing. Drawing Restraint 16 is a performance/installation similar to Drawing Restraint 11, 12, and 14, that was created in 2007 for the Drawing Restraint exhibition at London's Serpentine Gallery.

Barney has not indicated the how many installments there will be in the Drawing Restraint series. For more information on the symbolism in Drawing Restraint, see Peter Streitman's excellent Drawing Restraint Glossary and the official Drawing Restraint web site. Barney has also issued five books dedicated to the Drawing Restraint series (plus an earlier volume focused on Drawing Restraint 7). See our Drawing Restraint Books page for more information. You can download the press guide for Drawing Restrint 9 (pdf file) HERE.
- cremasterfanatic.com/SynopsisDrawingRestraint.html

Matthew Barney interview: 'It's what's outside the frame that's scary'

Hermione Hoby visits American artist Matthew Barney in his New York studio - and discovers a world of barnacle-encrusted cars and bugling binmen. 

13 Jul 2013

Manhattan has a habit of yielding extraordinary moments. If, however, you’d been standing on the banks of the East River one overcast day last October, you would have seen something wonderfully odd, even by New York’s standards. Smoothly sailing north past the skyscrapers of midtown was an entire brownstone house on a tugboat.
The man responsible for this spectacle was Matthew Barney, the visionary artist and film-maker. At 46, he has already been behind some of the most arresting, strange and beautiful images of our time, most famously in his Cremaster Cycle, an epic sequence of five films released between 1994 and 2002.
He’s a mythmaker, something of a sorcerer and, by necessity, a formidable logistician too. That brownstone was a meticulous replica of Norman Mailer’s old house in Brooklyn which will feature in River of Fundament, a new film by Barney inspired by Mailer’s 1983 novel about Egyptian mythology, Ancient Evenings, and set to premiere at the Manchester International Festival next month.
Barney works in a vast warehouse building in Queens, facing the glittering skyline of the Chrysler building and Empire State. He’s broad-shouldered, muscular and, on the day we meet, wearing an ugly black ­T-shirt and a black baseball cap decorated with little primary-coloured Egyptian figures. His face has a pared-down quality, as though it’s been refined to its essence. His mouthwash-blue eyes, calm and intense, compound the impression of radical self-possession.
His studio space is clanging with the noise of construction but he leads me into a side room and we sit at a trestle table beside one long white wall covered in storyboards for River of Fundament. Barney explains that the project – which he has been working on since 2007 with his long-time collaborator, the composer Jonathan Bepler – began in response to a direct challenge from Mailer.
The two met when Barney persuaded the then 75 year-old to play the role of Houdini in Cremaster 2. Mailer’s initial response had been incredulity: “I’m 75 years old, I’m arthritic, it’s all I can do to tie my shoelaces and you want me to play Houdini?” But he came around to the idea, later praising the “extraordinary visceral experience” of Barney’s work.
River of Fundament marks something of a shift for Barney. For the first time he’s working from a text, and the film is scripted. He has also cast established actors including Paul Giamatti, Elaine Stritch and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
“I’m not a literary person at all,” he says, “and so my relationship to a book as dense as this is fairly abstract. I’m interested in cliché, in how much power that carries. And I think the same can be said of Egyptian mythology. My daughter was studying Egyptian mythology in first grade: it’s such a basic narrative.”
Did he consult his daughter while working on this project? “Of course!” he says, and it’s a pleasant shock to watch his face erupt out of composure and into the deep creases of laughter.
Barney’s evolution as an artist has been far from conventional. In 1985, he was recruited by Yale University to play American football. He intended to study medicine and become a plastic surgeon. But on trips to New York to visit his mother – an abstract painter who had divorced his father, an administrator, when Barney was 12 and left the family home in Idaho – he became immersed in art and the work of people like Joseph Beuys, Robert Smithson and Eva Hesse.
His experiences on the sports field also had an impact. “Everything changed when I got involved in sports,” he says. “Because that’s a situation where there’s a frame around the world and that world has everything – violence, victory, loss. That was the beginnings of what has become an aesthetic system that’s very similar: anything can happen within the frame.” He pauses for a moment then adds, smiling: “It’s what’s outside the frame that’s scary.” He ditched medicine and switched to art.
After graduating in 1989 he moved to New York where he worked as a model. Search hard enough on the internet and you can still find his face, tanned and grinning, in old ads for preppy brands such as J Crew and Ralph Lauren. The experience served, he says now, as “a crash course in the way one’s image can be commodified, used up, spat out”, a process which he resolved to avoid repeating as an artist.
From the start, he says, he wanted to work always on “a scale that was a little bit larger than what my means were”. The huge acclaim he received – very young and very fast – made that possible sooner than he could have anticipated. His gallerist and art dealer Barbara Gladstone remembers the first time she saw his work. It was 1991, Barney was just 23. “It was,” she tells me, “the studio visit to end all studio visits… an extraordinary experience.” She remembers, in particular, a weightlifting bench covered in semi-frozen Vaseline, a signature material for Barney. He’s explained he was thinking of the objects he made, “as literally extensions of my body and I wanted these objects to feel like they had just come out of me or could be put into me”.
In 1994, he released the first of his Cremaster films, an extraordinary, if baffling, visual spectacle featuring, among a cascade of dazzling images, a satyr tap-dancing into the ocean, clear plastic corsets filled with bees, caves made of Vaseline, and a mirror-balled cowboy saddle. One critic suggested the goal of the films was to sustain, “through one phantasmagoric image after another, a state of creative redolence” and that still feels about right.
Barney admits that, “it’s a little bit hard for me to look at a work in an isolated way and talk about its meaning.” The five films are such a totalising work that it seems miraculous he ever did anything else.
“I definitely needed to recover from it,” he says. “The things that happened in the wake were largely performative. It’s a feeling I often had on set – that we were staging these big, physical actions, and performing them in real time. It always felt like the people really having the experience are not the audience in the cinema, but the ones on set – that’s where it’s at. I think film-making is full of compromise.”
Barney, who lives with the singer Björk and their daughter, has achieved a level of celebrity that doesn’t sit well with everyone in the art world. Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker’s art critic, once disdainfully referred to him as “a star for attaining stardom – a star star” but the implication that that’s all he is feels unfair. I ask him whether he thinks being famous is antithetical to creativity. “I think there’s an extent to which you lose the ability to discover things,” he says. “It’s harder to anonymously stumble into something you didn’t know you were interested in.”
Barney and Björk have been together for more than a decade and, like Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, or, until recently Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, their couplehood has become totemic. In 2005, the two made Drawing Restraint 9, a film set on a Japanese whaling ship. Its most famous scene – equally derided and rhapsodised over – involves the couple ritualistically flensing each other with knives. It’s the only time the two of them have worked together. Afterwards, Björk pronounced him, in her typically gnomic way, “a bit of a submarine”.
I ask Barney to explain how his work takes shape. “It comes in stages,” he says. “There are certain drawings that are narrative maps and they kind of give it enough shape that I can begin. Just enough.” He looks away, perfectly still, and thinks in silence for a full 20 seconds. Then: “It’s sort of like buying mining rights.” In what sense? “Like, knowing that there’s a vein, that’s full of the mineral that you want. But then waiting for a couple of years to go in and open it up… at least that's the way it was with Cremaster.”
Is he concerned with whether or not an audience is entertained by his work? “I think that doesn’t concern me,” he says quietly. “I want for the piece to have presence, and I want for that presence to provoke the audience.” And then he breaks off, darts me an apologetic look, and says, “there’s an audition upstairs I need to pop into real quick”.
While he’s gone, one of his young assistants shows me around the studio. We come to a table covered with crusted gold and dark brown objects. What are these, I ask? “Phalluses,” she says, nodding neutrally as she appraises them. “Those are phalluses.” She takes me outside to see a gold car covered in barnacles. “It’s supposed to look like it’s been dredged up from the river.” I’m admiring it, a little mesmerised, when I realise Barney is at my elbow. He’s somehow silently materialised. I ask him how the audition was.
“Good actually,” he nods, sounding surprised. “We’re auditioning a chorus of sanitation workers. They play these brass sort of medieval instruments, these long bugles,” and then he smiles, just a little, as if acknowledging the beautiful absurdity of it all.
Back inside, he takes me into a room set up with a huge television screen where another assistant is cueing up footage from River of Fundament. Barney offers me the lone swivel chair and crouches on the floor beside me as we watch.
The scene showing is Mailer’s wake. Elaine Stritch is presiding over a table, giving a speech. Paul Giamatti receives a head massage, his eyes rolling back in ecstasy. One man is furtively casting a tiny silver shovel. At one point, Barney appears on screen alongside the actor and athlete Aimee Mullins, apparitions covered in grey-green silt. I ask him who they represent.
“They’re what are referred to in the text as the caw,” he says. “The double of the main character, they follow him around and watch.” With a laugh, he adds: “So it’s sort of a supporting role.”
Perhaps that laugh was self-deprecation. Or perhaps, more likely, it was an acknowledgement that Barney’s role is anything but supporting – it’s everything. - www.telegraph.co.uk/

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Updated: Matthew Barney, The Cremaster and the Markers of an Invisible Masculinity

What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how
express and admirable, in action how like an angel,
in apprehension how like a god.
-William Shakespeare.

The Measure of a Man

In Hamlet, the young Danish student spends the entire play pondering the heavy questions—life, death, and not surprisingly, what it means to be a man.  In fact, as long as there have been men who think and write, this question has been a reoccurring one.  Men have always searched for proofs of their manliness, a measure, a marker and even a map to guide them.  They nearly hysterically know that there must be something that must alert them to their manliness, to masculinity, something which they can use to take the idea of masculinity outside of the abstract and make it clear, real and actual.  They instinctively know that these signifiers must exist; like baseball cards, they collect, catalogue, trade and compare them.  These markers, have always been used by men to identify themselves, to mark themselves as separate from the realm of beasts and more importantly to take them out of the supposedly inferior realm of the feminine, which has, historically been marked by the absence of these masculine signifiers.

Hamlet, like every man, seeks the difficult answers to questions that have not lost their significance or currency today.  How is a man supposed to act? What should a man believe?  How should he face death and what kind of death should a man die? Who does he f*ck?  In essence, these are all the same question, reiterated—“What is a real man?”  For Hamlet, the answer is found in man’s reason, his apprehension, those ways in which mankind is closest to the gods, in which he is elevated from the beast, his nobility and his action; later in the play, the last marker is mankind’s own physicality, specifically the bodies we leave behind us when we die.
Today, our markers have not changed so drastically nor do we seek to define a different set of questions.  We are just as anxious as Hamlet to find the measures of men, and while we now find these markers in action movies, WWF wrestling, celebrity, western steakhouses, sports bars and sporting clubs, the importance of these signifiers, their necessity in identifying and marking the masculine remains.
We use masculine markers to identify, delineate and locate masculinity.  Recently, masculinities scholars have suggested that masculinity should be free of such traditional markers—that men should be free to construct their own senses of self, while never being forced to give up their identities as masculine beings.  But what if, rather than separating masculinity from such socially constructed markers, we were to instead free the markers themselves from their generally accepted gendered meanings?  Is it even possible to separate the markers from their understood masculinity?  Is it possible to purge these signifiers of their masculinity?  What would happen to our understanding and perception of masculinity when these markers cease to function in the ways that they are expected to through custom, through expectation?  What happens if and when we can no longer depend on these objects and their accompanying ideas to locate and ultimately to define masculinity?  What happens to masculinity when and if it becomes unlocateable, when masculine landmarks cease to function as they are expected to–because there is nothing for them to point to?

Matthew Barney

Contemporary, sculptor, performance artist and filmmaker Matthew Barney expends much of his energy contemplating questions of masculinity.  Barney is, for all intents and purposes, obsessed with gender—performing various masculine types, dealing with several icons and images of masculinity and even, perhaps most uniquely, examining the biology of men with the incisiveness of a physician opening up the interiority of men to the viewer’s gaze.  In doing so, he focuses on the things that make up difference between men and women.  His performance artwork and video filmmaking turn a keen eye on the masculine, inspecting and measuring what it means to be a man.  He takes on different masculine types and plays them out to sometimes laughable extremes.  Along the way, Matthew Barney, one of contemporary art’s “enfants terribles” points to several issues that continually arise in masculine texts.  But what he finds may prove to be very surprising, even unsettling.
Born in 1967, in San Francisco, Matthew Barney is an artist who tends raise more questions than he answers, blending several types of media and interweaving many kinds of artistic language in order to carry out his examinations.  Partially because Barney can be deeply obtuse, he has also been accused of being difficult.  Like other New Mannerists, his work is often “typified by a cerebral “dandyism” taken to the limit, (an) immoderate use of complex metaphors, a willingness to dress up the real in rhetorical figures, (showing) concern for the marvelous and esoteric while using stylized language refined to the point of excess and having a taste for the strange, unusual, the extravagant, the horrific, the repulsive and the bizarre.”[1] Because of this and because of the scarcity of the original texts[2] (the Cremaster videos) I will attempt to describe as well as possible what one sees when viewing Cremasters 1, 2, and 4.
Within his work, there are three sets of signifiers that have special meaning in any discussion of gender and how masculinity is used in the Cremaster series.  These are his frequent use of sports imagery, his performance of masculine types–including the dandy and the serial killer–and his literal and symbolic travels through the body.

The Cremaster Videos
The Cremaster videos are abstract fantasies, which are devoid of language and wreak havoc with narrativity, and as such can be difficult to decipher even for someone who has viewed them in their entirety.  Each Cremaster video is part of a series that serves as the primary text of Barney’s artistic opus, and each appears as part of a larger set of sculptural and multi-media installations.  The Cremaster series is a cinematic epic, consisting of five parts.  Each video ranges in length and can be very tense as Barney uses a non-linear, non-Hollywood visual style that has more in common with abstract, artistic video and performance art than with anything that viewers of mainstream contemporary film might be used to.  Because of this, interpretation of his films are left to be done by the viewer without any of the assistance that we are used to getting in normal film; instead, images and events are left to hang, with no real closure, no comment and nothing in the way of traditional narration.

A Sporting Male

That sports has been used to signify masculinity goes almost without saying.  From the time of the Greeks to now, sports has been given an important position in the creation, representation, and transference of masculinity from boy to boy, man to man, man to boy, and from father to son.  Sports holds an extremely important place in our definition of society, especially homosociety.  It has become part and parcel of our accepted customs.  We expect to watch football at Thanksgiving, we smile when we see a father take the time to play catch with his son.  Sports have become part of our societal expectations—the very logic that we use to define ourselves as a people—and as men.  Each man is expected to be both good and knowledgeable at/about various popular sports.  They are judged by their ability to juggle dates and facts–“stats”—of various players and teams, just as they are expected to be able throw and catch a ball.  Those that are best at these are respected by their peers and become popular amongst other males.
However, while sports is incredibly popular in today’s society and is one the most important markers (if not the most important) of contemporary masculinity, it has not found much popularity in the art world.  Matthew Barney is perhaps the first post-modern artist to successfully utilize sports imagery in his work.  He does so by taking elements of sports—objects such as football fields and football equipment, racing bikes, weightlifting benches, sports stars and the (almost magical) pageantry inherent in sports matches—and removing them from their natural contexts.  In doing this, however, his use of sports imagery is not directed towards, nor is it about sports itself.[3] His interest does not lie in generating a discourse around sports.  Instead, when Barney presents us with football, as Renee Magritte might say, “This is not football.”
It would be very easy for Barney to employ the imagery he does to make work that is about sports and continue the process of gendered enculturation that sports is part of, or even overtly critique that process.  But Barney has other plans for the symbols of sport.  He employs the language of sports, one which most of us are familiar with, in order to make a larger statement about masculinity.
In Cremaster 1, the opening scene is of an illustration of an unrecognizable shape, floating in the center of the screen as loud bagpipes play a single, droning note which becomes louder and louder.  Slowly the shape becomes a football stadium.  This space fills with dancers in yellow cheerleader-like costumes.  From the center of a parade-like scene comes a male transvestite who is holding two ropes in his hands.  He is dressed in an evening gown and looks like he might be ready to attend the opera.  At first, the dancers watch and wait; then he directs them in a choreographed dance that looks like a Busby Berkeley routine.  The camera follows the ropes that he/she is holding, and we see that a large Good Year blimp is attached to these ropes.  Aboard the zeppelin, we find the same transvestite playing with pearls which she/he has scattered on the ground.  Below, we see the dancers follow with their eyes the upward and downward motions of the floating zeppelin.   On board again, female flight attendants stand around smoking brown cigarettes as the transvestite attempts to keep these pearls from scattering.  Using them, he/she slowly builds up the outline of the interior of male genitals—specifically the Cremaster muscle—but as the blimp descends, the outlines that she/he makes are disturbed by turbulence.  The film ends with a complexly choreographed dance routine, and an external shot of the football field and blimp, which dissolves into the same symbolic drawing that we now recognize as a mix of the football field and the Cremaster muscle.

Matthew Barney seeks to rework and denature the signs of sports.  They are overwritten and re-contextualized; new associations are created which have little to do with the original meanings of these signifiers.  Within his oeuvre, we will see that Barney relegates sports to the level of the symbolic quotation, the linguistic metaphor/sign: for example, he takes objects that are associated with sports and changes them remaking them out of new materials: weights, workout benches or other sports objects are remade out of silicone gels, tapioca or Vaseline, kept refrigerated, but not kept from their natural decay.  In doing so, according to Norman Bryson, Barney seeks to trip up our expectations, hard sports equipment are made soft, physical like the flesh and gore of the body.  Our expectation that these objects should function as sports equipment is confounded when we are confronted by these soft, malleable, melting objects.  He reworks these signs so that they no longer function as they are supposed to and instead become about:
…a mad interplay of forces—the storage and expenditure of energy, motion and rest (the snap and the delay of game penalty), friction and slippage (tapioca and Teflon), expansion and contraction (testicles), opening and closing (orifices), bursts and sudden reverses and cliffhanging arrests (the frenetic, pointless dash of the sidecar racers around the Isle of Man in Cremaster[4]
What Barney does not do is make work in which, say the “tapioca and Teflon” is about tapioca or Teflon, but instead he is more interested in creating new meanings which are generated through the interplay of new associations.
What Barney seeks to do is to use sports as a tool: consisting of an already existing set of icons and language through which he arranges larger scenarios.  For Barney, sports is only one element in a larger set of signs that he uses to paint his visual tableaus.  Among these other signs are his use of Victorian feminine imagery, bees, beehives, rock music all of which are reworked in the same ways that he reworks his sports imagery.   He ignores the commonly understood meanings that sports imagery has, denying and actively tripping up associations that do not serve his ends.  He reworks the images and objects making them into a symbolic iconography that serves the Cremaster, so that they become a language that he can then control just as an artist would control the paints or brushes that he works with.  In doing this he negates and distances entire sets of signs from their intended associations and makes them strange/estranged from their original contexts.
Barney plays with the complex nexus of language and meaning by disconnecting these images from the constructed associations that they original have and making new connections for these signifiers and giving them new nexes of meaning.  By showing that these signifiers can be made to mean something entirely different, he questions the general perception that sports must define masculinity or that it is a fundamental part of masculinity.  Instead, for Barney, sports like other masculine signs, informs masculinity, but need not stand in for masculinity—it is not a metonymic association.  Masculinity is only one of several associations that sports can and does have.  The signs of masculinity become free to generate new texts, new complexities in multiple gendered associations, homoerotic desires and dancing girls.
An important example of  Barney’s transformation of the imagery used in sports into his own personal language is visible in his use of the football stadium, by changing the activity that would normally go on within this site, he not only subverts our expectations, he alienates this site from its context and its history; it is rewritten into a fantasy space—no longer the football field, it becomes a stage where strange and unfamiliar events can occur.  That this sports location is the first scene to be viewed in the entire Cremaster series might make one think that sports will have an overpowering importance within the series.  However, while the ground that he sets up is sports-like, the activity that takes place within is anything but.  Instead of a ball game, Barney fills the space with dancing girls and airline stewardesses.  That we are meant to see these women as exhibiting clichéd feminine behavior is obvious, especially as they preen and prance on the field their actions become more and more elaborately and stereotypically feminine.  Then, at the fifty-yard line, an almost dominatrix-like figure arises, holding the guide-wires to a Goodyear blimp.  Upon closer inspection, we can see that this figure is in fact a man—in drag.  He proceeds to direct the women around him through kaleidoscopic, multi-leveled acrobatics.  Here, Barney creates a dreamlike space, which Nancy Bless describes as “a state of potential.”[5] Matthew Barney actively takes this masculine encoded space and makes it sexually ambiguous, not only feminine—he specifically queers the space, because that is part of his larger narrative on the fluidity of masculinity.
This space has more in common with Busby Berkeley’s mise en scene dance routines than with any actual football game.  Busby Berkeley was known for his elaborate Technicolor fantasy dance routines, which were placed within popular movies of the thirties and forties.  His scenes have very little to do with the rest of the motion pictures they are set in, and the effect, as Steve Martin highlights in his own film Pennies From Heaven, is a surrealistic break from the narrative space of the movie.  Basically a film within the film, these scenes have their own internal logic, often turning gravity and basic ideas of realism on their heads.

Berkeley himself never cared much about the story line and regarded it merely as a convenient skeleton on which to flesh out his fantasies, much in the manner of Rossini draping his gorgeous solos, duets and ensembles all over the framework of whatever hack libretto an impresario handed him.[6]
Berkeley instead sought to create a space in which his own logic applied and in which the familiar was made to act in novel and at times bizarre ways, but always with an aesthetic panache that became his trademark.  For Berkeley, the artistic space was paramount; it mattered little that characters that had been behaving seriously in one scene would suddenly break into dance and song, or that water suddenly poured forth and “bathing beauties” filled the screen.  Matthew Barney evokes the language, visual style and even some of the dancing moves of Berkeley, does he seek to show us that he too wishes to create an artistic space, where only aesthetic rules apply?
In Cremaster 1, the scene that Barney presents us with is only casually about football, football is the playing field so to speak, but the activity within becomes mysterious and detached from the idea of sports.  In essence it becomes clear that Barney is preoccupied with other things.  Like Berkeley, Barney ruptures the logic that we are familiar with, giving a space like New York or a football stadium a more mystical and magical form, in which anything is possible because the logic of football, in fact any but Barney’s own logic does not apply to the space he creates.
In the words of Keith Seward, writing for Parkett Magazine, “He creates an aesthetic of athleticism and an athleticism of aesthetics.  Athletic means have aesthetic ends…”[7] The signs, setting and even the players are separated from their routine and made to do what the artist pleases.  Dancing girls and men in drag break the narrative space and logic that we are expecting and the Cremaster wallows in its own blend of the real and the surreal.  In this new space the laws of physics, logic and narrative break down and are replaced by a logic system that is visual rather than narrative.  The ends that Barney uses any means to get to are purely aesthetic in that the playing field is separated from its own logic and employed to Barney’s own conceptual ends.
In another scene, this time from Cremaster 4—sports cars traverse the rocky crags of the Isle of Man.  The Isle of Man is an ancient island situated on the Irish Sea and has been a site of myth and legend.  This works in Barney’s favor as the location serves to further take his imagery out of the familiar context of the everyday.  According to James Lingwood, the Isle of Man is a place where mythology and topography become one.[8] Where the space is as fantastic as the events that will happen there.
The island is known for its annual  “Tourist Trophy” motorbike races, in which bikes race through the island’s villages and back roads.  Barney utilizes this imagery in the video, by creating bizarre sexless raggedy-Ann doll drivers who circle the island while a bizarre Dandy watches and tap-dances effeminately.  But here again, the sporting event (the motorbike race) is secondary to the overall narrative that Barney is trying to work with, which instead is about the body and especially the internal muscles that control the rise and fall of the testicles.  According to Barney, “The narrative of Cremaster is based on the stories that nearly take place within the body.  The kind of action films that go on inside the body.”[9] Here, sporting language is used to examine a narrative structure that is based on the internal logic of the body, which he abstracts into a narrative system, moving the state of the story up and down.  It is a narrativity that is based on the reproductive system.

What becomes clear is that these events are not meant to follow the logic that they have been associated with, Bike-riders are meant to show the flow of narration, a football field becomes a “Berkleyesque” stage.[10] Barney deconstructs and rewrites these spaces (and their markers) that so many have made into primary sites of masculinity—the wide world of sports, masculine performance, and even the penis.  Instead, Barney shows that like the costumes that are worn by dancing women, like the advertising and marketing symbols that appear on Adidas and Nike shoes—these are separable and ultimately separate from the masculine.  These markers do not define masculinity in any real or meaningful way.  In fact, these sports signifiers operate at the same level as any of the other images that Barney employs and which generate new meanings—aesthetic meanings.  But there is a difference between turning these icons into aesthetic objects–that is into beautiful objects and retaining their “thingness” (das ding,) which Barney is also not interested in, instead he is attempting to move us into yet another space, a purely conceptual, aesthetic space.
Dressing in Daddy’s (and Mommy’s) clothes
Matthew Barney began his artistic career as a performance artist by climbing the walls of art galleries, recreating a mountain climber’s experiences but placing them within an art context.  Barney has always had a penchant for performativity.  He has always invested his performances with odd, ceremonial repetitions, creating onanistic dramas, while dressing in outlandish costumes that mesh Hollywood-quality theatrical, horror make-up and Victorian costumes.
In the Cremaster movies, Barney continues his interest in these odd juxtapositions as he and others take on the roles of many bizarre characters.  From figures like the transvestite majorette in Cremaster 1, the Loughton Candidate and Harry Houdini, Barney mixes fantastic, mutant characters from his overwrought imagination with historical people again interacting within a fantasy space that only partially exists in the world that we know.  Of these characters, two are of extreme importance, as they are nearly polar opposites, though upon closer inspection they are actually hybrid characters that call into play Barney’s belief that masculinity is not a simple venture, but a complex continuum and while one masculine trait may, on the surface, appear to be paramount any over-simplification would be in error.

The first of these characters—the Loughton Candidate–is one of Barney’s, carnivalesque mutations.  A mix of human and Loughton ram, this is Barney himself dressed in a white suit and bright red fur.  “The human half of the Loughton Candidate seems to be a dandy or aesthete, with lounge suit, leather brogues and Manx heather on his lapel.”[11] The character spends his time surrounded by three naked, genderless creatures of the same breed.[12] They are intent on weighing him down with heavy pearls as he tap-dances, creating an ever-widening hole in the floor beneath him.  The Loughton candidate is unaware that he will soon fall into the ocean finding himself both below land and within the body, traveling through the Cremaster into the male reproductive system and freedom.
The second character is introduced in Cremaster 2, a film that has been described as a  “violent, heavy-metal murderous thing.”[13] The second film is based loosely on the story of Gary Gilmore, the first person executed after the re-institution of the death penalty.  While the Loughton candidate appears as a mostly passive, gentle aesthete, Gilmore is a violent obsessive, exhibiting many of the most tragic masculine traits—he is seemingly right out a country-and-western song, cigarette smoking, gun-toting, given to hard luck, broken-hearted and ultimately, seemingly macho.  A fact that is not lost on Barney, who has one of his characters sing Johnny Cash lyrics about loss and tragedy, while a cowboy couple line-dances in the background.
While Gary Gilmore is known as a serial killer, this is in fact a misnomer, as Gilmore did not kill more than two people over the course of his release—three being the cut-off between serial killer and merely murderer.  Instead Gilmore killed a gas-station attendant and a hotel desk clerk, all of this in an effort to get the attention of his estranged girlfriend.  He was executed by a five-man firing squad; one man carrying blanks so that no one would know which bullet had killed him.
The Gilmore tragedy stands in contrast to the onanistic Loughton Candidate’s drama, which is almost laughable in its oddness.  Gilmore’s story is loud and violent, while the other is abstracted and methodical.  In one Barney dons the robes of a regular, down-and-out American male, in the other he is a bizarre blend of monster and man.  Each however, exists in a dreamlike mix of the real and the bizarre.  When we first meet him, Gary Gilmore is trapped in the womb of a white Ford Mustang, listening to a mix of hard rock guitars and the loud buzzing of bees.  While he moves within the cabin of the classic car, a gasoline attendant washes and rewashes the car’s windows, filling the tank with gas in preparation for the evening’s events.  The Loughton Candidate, named after the colorfully horned, Irish, Loughton rams, falls through the floor into the ocean surrounding the Isle of Man and enters into a bizarre, white, tapioca tunnel that according to Norman Bryson is a representation of the male reproductive system.  Bryson describes the Loughton Candidate’s travel through the wet, white flesh-like tunnel as a “gonadotrophic journey” and both men ultimately come in contact with their reproductive selves. [14]
While both of these men appear to represent masculine types– the Dandy and the macho man—Barney does several things to shake them loose from any clear type.  While dressed as a Dandy, in white lounge suit and taps, the Loughton Candidate is a hybrid of man and an extremely masculine coded animal.  The ram is known for its violent rites of passage in which males ram into each other sometimes causing extreme damage and even death.  While the Candidate appears unable, or unwilling to stop himself from being weighted down and crashing through the floor—once he finds himself within the Cremaster, however, his passivity must give way as he attempts to crawl through the bodily tunnel in search of an opening.
Gilmore’s story is perhaps more complex, just as it is more visually appealing and filled with lush examples of Barney’s complicated iconography.  While Gilmore is presented as being a wildly angry masculine male, his narrative acts against this.  Barney presents us with a story that serves to make it clear that Gilmore, the illegitimate grandson of Harry Houdini and a sorceress, is trapped in a story of heredity and events that are seemingly beyond his control.  We are meant to see him as a man, who is, in essence, caught in a loop that will repeat endlessly, always with the same tragic ending.  Gary Gilmore is presented as a passive zombie as he moves through the proscribed events as if in a daze, robotically killing the gas attendant, robotically riding a large American Buffalo as the effects of a lethal injection take hold of him and the massive beast.[15] Gilmore is consistently taken out of the role of actor and made to be passive under the control of fate, heredity, history, an almost biblical sense of atonement and killer bees.

The Un-measur(ing) of a man.

Through each man’s voyage of genital discovery, Matthew Barney takes us to the heart of the matter—the body, the internal machine and the location, if there is to be any, of difference between the male and the female.  While at Harvard, Barney studied medicine and his knowledge of the inner workings of the body invests his work throughout the Cremaster series.  The Cremaster itself is the set of muscles that control the rise and fall of the testes, as well as being directly involved with the production of sperm.  The Cremaster responds to temperature and fear, and Barney redoubles the image of the Cremaster–an almost ovary-like site– with the actual testes.  In many scenes the testes are placed as icons and their location in or on the body is used to locate the narrative flow.  In Cremaster 4, the bike racers on the Isle of Man are seen to have externalized testicular objects, which climb up or down their jumpsuits as they follow the track.  When these testes are in the upper position, climbing up the men’s chests, the narrative flows happily along, but when these testicle-objects drop, bikes crash, suffer flat tires and riders are severely hurt.
This strange movement is important because the testes, rather than being safely and easily located within the body are now seen to be literally all over the place, even at one point crawling along a beach.  They are simply put, no longer where they are supposed to be, but instead can be anywhere, used in any way that Barney wishes to use them.  They are no longer limited to the site of the body, nor when they are located on the body are they where one would expect them.

Narrativity of the Cremaster

For Barney, the Cremaster governs the narrative form within his films and the narrative of the Cremaster is based on the stories that nearly take place within the body –the kind of action films that go on inside the body.[16] In doing this Barney has stated that he hopes to break narrative free from the traditional patterns that it has taken.  He wishes to abstract the narrative, just as he has abstracted the icons and types of masculinity–he attempts to make films that achieve a non-hierarchical relationship between narrative, character, image and landscape.
In doing so, by invoking the body—like a post-modern Jack the Ripper, or Caligula—he opens it up to close scrutiny, but what he actually finds is surprising.  In one particularly graphic scene in Cremaster 2, a doctor uses a scalpel to cut into a male abdomen, what he finds inside, instead of the bloody, flesh and gore of the body is a space of transformation—the organs within have mutated into a fantastic, white, creamy, tapioca pulp.  From this space two pearl-like objects are removed, taken out of the body for further inspection and use.  While they may no longer function as testes, they are seen to reappear in several places, most notably on the jumpsuits of the bikers and the pearls that are used to weigh down the Loughton Candidate bringing him into contact with the Cremaster.  They become visual, aesthetic objects.  The testes are transformed into solid, pearls that he uses as part of his artistic symbolism.  They are no longer seen to be functioning in the ways that we would expect, nor are they located where we would expect to find them.
Barney takes the internal space of the body, which he rewrites as a fantasy site and externalizes it.  But in this process a kind of dematerialization and uncertainty creeps in.  When Barney unearths the internal, it is changed, replaced by near approximations, tapioca –a jewel-like pudding takes place of the jouissance within the body, pearls take the place of the testes.  The actual internal space of the body becomes uncertain, unreal, symbolically abstracted into signs that are further abstracted and made to act as tools that Barney once again uses to his own ends.  Any actual location of the contents within the body becomes impossible, the internal organs are instead replaced and a location that should make biological sense becomes one whose sense is now under the complete control of the artist.  This is a location that is no longer represented by the actual but instead becomes available to us only through signs and signifiers.

Penis, penis—who’s got (or doesn’t have) the penis.

Historically, theoretically, legally etc. the ultimate site of masculinity has always been considered to be the penis.  In fact, we have even created a system to explain the primacy of masculinity creating the all-powerful, god-like ideal of the phallus—whose marker is the erect penis.  The phallus, known alternately as the father, the law, history and the super-ego is not free from Matthew Barney’s deconstructive gaze.  We are nearly always presented with a theoretical ideal of the phallus as being solid, erect and non-changing.  But Barney questions this notion as well, showing us both a narrative that is always at the point of collapse and the penis as a marker that is continually in a state of change.

Like the testes before them, Barney shows the penis, the supposed, final, physical location of masculinity, to be just as uncertain.  In Cremaster 2 Gilmore’s penis is often seen on the outside of his overalls, or visibly affecting the shape of his pants.  When we first see Gilmore’s penis, shortly after he has killed the gas station attendant, we are shocked, by its unprecedented presence as well as its horrific nature.  As he moves past the dead body, Gilmore’s penis is peeking out of his outfit, but rather than the erect phallus of metonymic masculinity, in this first shot the organ appears to be the size of a child or baby’s undeveloped/underdeveloped penis.  When we next see any sign of his penis, it has grown laughably huge, crawling down his leg, testicles seemingly bloated and pushing against his pant-seam.  In another scene we can see clearly that Gilmore no longer has a penis—his pants pushing inward into camel-toes, creating a vagina-like image that is in fact the last view that we are given of Gilmore’s polymorphous penis.  In perhaps the most important moment in all contemporary art, when presenting the macho Gilmore in this fashion, Barney deconstructs the ideal of the penis, showing clearly its shifting nature.  Here, it grows, shrinks and even disappears completely.  This is not the image that we expect of the penis.  As the signifier of masculinity, the penis is always presented in a complete, non-altering, unchanging/unchangeable state.  Historically, narratively, poetically, artistically, legally, etc. men have been presented as either well-endowed or not—there is no room for mixed messages, there is no accounting for the shift in size when the penis is non-erect, there is no accounting for the shifting in size from childhood to adulthood and old age.  But like his testicles, Barney’s penis is constantly shifting, changing, altering in every way.  For Barney, shape, hardness and girth are always in motion and always uncertain.  The penis becomes like Schrodinger’s cat—so uncertain, that we cannot even be sure of its existence.  If the penis is no longer describable, shifting and changing, even disappearing completely—what does this say about masculinity (and moving forward, this appears to be the most important point of this essay–linguistically, theoretically, philosophically and historically–the phallus/penis duality has always been presented as unchanging, unmutable, and as a solid erection–but as we all know this is far from the truth–the linguistic signifier of law, masculinity, history etc–is endlessly changeable, at times flaccid, small or hard–and therefore its linguistic doppleganger must be equally changeable.  I will get back to this in later papers, because this is the crux of the argument and the most damning to the hegemony of masculinity.)
The Phallus, which has always been a linguistic and philosophical abstraction, then, is joined by its signifier, the penis, into this abstraction, this destabilization.  The penis, which before has always been seen as erect, solid and locatable, joins the other markers that we use to identify and locate masculinity in uncertainty.  Masculinity, itself, becomes invisible and unlocateable—like a position on a map that you are certain is there, but for which there are no longer any identifying points—we become lost in our search for directions.

No wonder men never want to stop and ask for directions.  Finally, however, it is important to remember that in the case of the Cremaster, it is not masculinity which has changed, masculinity may, indeed, have always been an uncertain abstraction—it is the markers through which we have sought to identify and locate masculinity which have changed, they have become abstracted, destabilized and have opened themselves to new associations, taking on new functions, leaving us, if only for a moment with a masculinity that has become destabilized and invisible.
This action, rather than allowing masculinity to take on the markers of any and all genders (in an obviously hysterical attempt at self-protection and in the process to claim supremacy over other gendered positions,) appears to be part of the larger pan-historical, pan-generational masculinist program, instead, calls the very markers and any possibility of the location of masculinity itself into question.
Invisibility, abstraction and non-existence is intrinsically different, than the positioning of masculinity so that it can take on and subjugate the signifiers of other genders.  If the markers that we have always associated with masculinity have no real meaning, then what meaning can masculinity, ultimately, really have?  Is this, in fact, something that all men inherently understand from birth on, have always understood and which creates an inherently masculine form of hysteria?

INTERVIEW: “CREMASTER 3” at the Guggenheim Museum
INTERVIEW: “CREMASTER 3” at the Saratoga, NY Racetrack


In 1995, while working for George Lucas, I was introduced to the work of Matthew Barney. Captivated by the psychological and emotional impact of Barney’s work, I set out to demystify the inner workings of Barney’s creative process. Over the next decade, I worked closely with Barney and his team to document the making of Barney’s epic Cremaster Cycle, shooting over 300 hours of behind the scenes footage and interviews. The resulting feature length documentary, I Die Daily, captures Matthew Barney’s enigmatic process, creativity and resolve.
Some clips from the unfinished film are embedded below.  If you would like to help finance the completion of this project, contact me at: matt@mattwallin.com
- mattwallin.com/i-die-daily/

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler

Matthew Barney

A performance still from “Khu” by Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, October 2, 2010. Photo: Hugo Glendinning/courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.
  On October 2, 2010, something weird and otherworldly visited downtown Detroit. It was the second chapter of the seven-part performance piece Ancient Evenings, loosely based on Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel and created (with resurrectionist fervor) by artist Matthew Barney and composer Jonathan Bepler. Barney, best known for his cinematic Cremaster Cycle series, seems to have reversed gears in his production tactics lately—the end product is the live performance, while the filmed documentations of these mesmeric artistic rites serve as secondary artifacts. Each of Ancient Evening’s seven acts tackles a different stage of the soul’s transformation from death to rebirth—in accordance with Egyptian mythology (or at least Mailer’s retelling of it). Those who happened to be present at a certain south Los Angeles car dealership in May 2008 might have witnessed the release of the “REN”—or a person’s secret name—which, in the phantasmagoric retinal and audio landscape of the Barney and Bepler collaboration, involved a funereal procession and violent destruction of a green 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial before it was mystically reincarnated into a gold 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. The setting of Los Angeles—where private selves so often die to be reborn as sparkling golden icons— seemed an ominous but winking gesture.
For the second act, Barney and Bepler’s pit stop was Detroit, where an entirely different frisson applied. Two hundred audience members gathered downtown that morning to watch the departure of the “KHU” or light. But Detroit is not Los Angeles—the Motor City hardly has the same sense of sunny optimism and quick cultural resurrection. Much of Detroit is an endless, vacant inner city, its exquisite Art-Deco towers abandoned, shattered, or just blazed out. It is a city with no real sense of impending salvation. Fittingly, the weather on the day of “KHU” was cold and rainy, leaving audience members to endure the harsh outside conditions for the entirety of the seven-plus-hour performance. Of course, the mash-up of other historic factors also made Detroit optimal: As cars feature so prominently in Ancient Evenings, the hub of American automobile manufacturing was clearly significant (artist Diego Rivera painted a series of murals depicting the Ford assembly lines in the Detroit Institute of Art, which served as the initial starting line for “KHU”); Harry Houdini performed his first handcuffed bridge jump off the Belle Island Bridge into the Detroit River in 1906 and later died in a Detroit hospital from a ruptured appendix in 1926; and influential performance artist James Lee Byars, who once “performed” his own death, was from Detroit. Death was everywhere in “KHU,” but this morbid intrigue took on stunning twists and turns. Early on, at an abandoned glue factory, assembly-line machinists turned steel sheets into 16 working viols, which were played by musicians in a mournful aria before Detroit blues singer Belita Woods belted out incantations from The Egyptian Book of the Dead. The audience was then packed onto a barge, which floated down the Rouge and Detroit Rivers and eventually stumbled upon a crime-scene investigation on the shoreline. Actress Aimee Mullins played an FBI detective who also happens to be an incarnation of the goddess Isis, and soon, as four towboats loaded with musicians circled the barge, the cadaver of the Chrysler from “REN” was pulled from the river. In turns, the car’s remains were autopsied on deck, separated like mummified organs, allowing Isis the opportunity to have sex with the engine—notably filled with live snakes—before being taken into custody herself by two twin baritones. The car’s body was lifted off the barge, cut into pieces, and as the audience stood after sunset in the rain on a platform in front of a steel mill shooting sparks, the pieces of the Chrysler were eventually melted into molten liquid—no doubt to be incorporated into a future chapter. Before the act could be completed, the operators of the furnaces shut down the event for fear of explosions. But for those watching, the narrative plot points mattered less than the brilliant momentary interactions and interventions that the framework held. Where “REN” felt like an ensemble of elegiac marching tunes, everything about “KHU” was operatic.
Barney, of course, has become the art-world Houdini of visual spectacle, but Ancient Evenings is really very much a musical event. The live performance was primed as much for its radical image content as for its opportunity to break new ground in the ear. Barney and his collaborator Bepler, who is based in Berlin, talk here about the sound of Ancient Evenings. But first the 43-year-old artist explains in his own words how he and the composer first met and why Bepler, age 51, builds an ongoing soundtrack that is the opposite of background noise.
“Peter Strietmann, the cinematographer of the Cremaster project, introduced me to Jonathan Bepler during the postproduction of Cremaster 1 in 1995. I realized I couldn’t finish that soundtrack using only found public-domain music from the 1930s, as I had originally planned. I needed a piece to be written to bridge two scenes, and Jonathan agreed to do this, though there was little space for him to express his own language. At that time, I was thinking about sound design more in terms of site-specificity and the ready-made aspect of the work. In the same way that my visual language was coming from the landscape and traditions of where the work was made, there was also an abundance of sound—both ambient and traditional— that came along with each of these locations. It hadn’t occurred to me to work with a composer, partially because I didn’t believe in it. In my mind, soundtrack music belonged to the language of film (and Cremaster did not), and was a layer of emotion that was applied, which didn’t interest me. It was inspiring to meet a composer who felt the same way, and those first discussions with Jonathan led to the development of Cremaster 5, which we did together in 1997. During the production of C5, we established a way of working that involved writing the visual narrative and the musical composition simultaneously. This opened up a number of new possibilities. Around that time we started talking about a mutual interest in making a live work together. This idea was kicked around for a number of years, and with Ancient Evenings, we are finally getting around to it.”

I Die Daily teaser from Matt Wallin on Vimeo.

I Die Daily: Guggenheim shoot from Matt Wallin on Vimeo.

I Die Daily: Sunset Park shoot from Matt Wallin on Vimeo.

I Die Daily: What is Cremaster? interview segment from Matt Wallin on Vimeo.

River of Fundament, 2014

Matthew Barney and Gaspar Noé 

On the eve of Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament world premiere at BAM, Barney spoke over the phone with Paris filmmaker and long-time friend Gaspar Noé. This is an excerpt from a longer conversation, which will appear in BOMB’s next print issue as well as on this site.
Gaspar Noé Have you ever tried 3D?
Matthew Barney I haven’t. I remember the last time you and I hung out, you were taking some pictures on the Bowery with a 3D camera. My interest in filmmaking is probably less connected to technology than yours is.
GN Actually, I don’t like technology but it allows me to work with people who are really good. Have you seen Gravity?
MB No, I haven’t.
GN The first two takes are twenty minutes each, but you’ve never seen such a visual roller coaster inside a movie theater. Those two opening takes are incredible, also because the background is all black and you really have a sense that you’re in space. The camera is spinning around the astronauts, and it’s all computer-generated imagery. The result is incredibly mind-fucking. Everything is fake but it looks so real. I’m sure you’d be amazed by that movie.
MB This sounds like the type of film that I could never imagine making, because my addiction has to do with performance, with creating a very real situation and then dealing with all the physical problems surrounding it. I spend much energy trying to realize situations and occurrences physically before I give in to digital effects. In that way, digital effects for me always feel like a compromise but not unrelated to the kind of compromise that one faces as a sculptor. You know, on the classical level, a figure often needs a third leg to stand. Or the material problem you set up for yourself fails and needs an additive or an adhesive to make the material survive on its own, or to stand on its own. Compromise is so much part of the process of making film or the process of making sculpture for that matter.
GN I would say being an artist or a performer or a director is also being a magician or a wizard because you use every trick you have in your pocket.
MB Have you ever worked in theater or live performance?
GN No. Actually somebody just called me because they want film directors to direct operas. They proposed it to me but I have never done anything like that. You’ve done opera yourself.
MB What I’ve been working on recently is a combination of cinema and live performance, and these live scenes have all of the ingredients of opera. I can’t say it’s an opera, but it certainly relates. So it’s definitely something that’s been on my mind, and, in a way, this hybrid approach has resurrected my interest in filmmaking which I had lost for a while after working in Japan, where I made a film that dealt with many of the same problems I had worked with in the Cremaster cycle. I felt like I hadn’t found a new problem to solve. So when I began working on River of Fundament, I started by setting up these live scenes and filming them. The final film is a combination of documentary photography and cinematic photography. That’s quite different from things I have done in the past, but it has definitely clarified what interests me in live performance and what doesn’t. Early on in the project, I presented a preliminary sketch onstage and learned that stage doesn’t interest me. A kind of site-specific situational theater is a more natural fit for me.

GN You’ve never played the same play onstage twice?
MB That sketch I made was part of a festival in Manchester and was part of the writing process for this piece. I found the stage problematic. You know, as a moving-image maker, I felt the loss of the close-up and the loss of the macro-view of textural changes and material behavior. I felt like I couldn’t exercise that quality or use that tool from my toolbox. I felt crippled. The fixed perspective of somebody sitting in the theater also seemed very limiting to me. Stage performance is such a different discipline. It’s interesting to me that there are so many people out there who move back and forth between film and theater when they are so utterly different.
GN But River of Fundament is a film?
MB Yes it is. It’s five and a half hours long. It’s being presented in opera houses and proscenium theaters with a couple of intermissions—like an opera. The majority of the work I’ve been doing over the last seven years was for the live performances in the production. The cinematic work has been done over the last two years. And what I’ve ended up with is a hybrid between the two. The aspect of filmmaking that I’m most interested in has to do with creating a live condition, where something is actually happening in real time, and then filming in response to that. To a certain extent I’ve always done that—the Cremaster films were full of situations like that. It’s not a very economical way of making a film—to set something up and to shoot it in real time and then edit it down.
GN How many cameras did you use for this project?
MB For some of the live scenes there were ten or twelve cameras rolling—from hotheads in different positions that were controlled remotely. Trying to make the camera position invisible to the live audience is a very difficult way to make a film. You often feel that the camera is not in the position you want it to be in, and you can’t adjust and move the camera the way that you would do on set. A good example is the scene where the audience group was positioned on a barge pushed by a tugboat out on an industrial river in Detroit, and, while under way, they came upon a crime scene. The barge went into a hover in the current, while the investigators called in a crane barge to pull a submerged car out of the river and land it onto the larger barge in front of the audience. The investigators were ferried from the shore to the barge on a smaller boat, and the investigation continued. From a filming perspective, there were several, stacked layers of action which needed to stay in line for the cameras, and the tugboat was struggling with the current and the wind.
GN What about the music?
MB It’s nearly through-composed with live music, and the singing is often carrying the text to the story. Like I said, it certainly has a lot of the elements of opera but I’m hesitant to call it an opera because its convention is not something I’m committed to.

GN Did you compose the music yourself?
MB No, I collaborated with Jonathan Bepler, who did a lot of the Cremaster music. So we worked on it together from the start and did a lot of the writing together. It’s a long project in collaboration with somebody, which is both completely rewarding and challenging at the same time.
GN Have you ever thought of directing a fiction film, based on a novel or a personal story?
MB Well, River of Fundament is based on a Norman Mailer novel called Ancient Evenings. So in that way, having the novel as a text to work from, toward a script or a libretto, is completely new to me. And I’ve enjoyed that very much. You know, I would not say that it’s a traditional narrative film by any means, but it has aspects of filmmaking that I haven’t worked with in the past. There are scenes with dialogue carried by professional actors, and I worked with an editor who comes from a commercial filmmaking tradition. While it’s a step in the direction of traditional narrative film, I still don’t know if I could actually do one. Technically I could, but my interest in storytelling relies so much on experimentation with structure—and this is one of the reasons why I like your films so much.
GN I think there’s something very square about how scripts, and movies in general, are written now. You see one or two and you’ve seen them all; you can close the thought inside your head, like, “Oh, I understood that, it goes from point A to point B and from point B to point C.” There are not many movies that stay in your mind, like the way nightmares stay in your mind. When people ask me what my favorite movie is, I say the two I can watch the most are Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Buñuel’s An Andalusian Dog. I can watch them over and over and don’t get bored by them. 2001 is narrative but at a certain point it reaches a level that toys with a part of your mind that doesn’t read events but reads symbols. What are your favorite movies?
MB For sure The Shining is up there. I like films that are trapped in one location—Das Boot or Jaws or the ’70s “cabin in the woods” horror genre films—where the location often becomes the main character. I also loved early Cronenberg. The Brood, in particular.
GN If you haven’t seen it, you should check this film called Wake In Fright . It’s an Australian movie from the ’70s. It’s very sick.
MB A lot of my favorite films are actually commercial films. I mean, I love the spirit of experimental films, but I’ve been influenced much more by commercial films. It has something to do with the fact that my development as a filmmaker has come from a performance background. It started by performing an action by myself and having one person hold the camera and simply document the action. That slowly evolved into story telling, and into something that resembles a filmmaking practice, but my interest was never in cinema from the start. I was a bit of a tourist with cinema, but I had an interest in horror from an early age.

GN Are you a fan of Lon Chaney?
MB Definitely.
GN I think he’s the best actor ever. “The man with a thousand faces” and in each movie he plays another cripple—his face is burned, his legs and arms are missing. For his time, he was the master of transformation.
MB When I first started working with performers other than myself, I was thinking about something along the lines of Lon Chaney, like how you can, as a director, put a performer into a situation that can overcome their tendency to act. In other words, how do you restrain somebody from acting in a mannered way? It was the kind of thing I was doing to myself as a young artist—I was putting myself into situations where my body was restrained, as an attempt to change my behavior, the behavior of my art-making gestures. So once I began working with other people, I started restraining the actors. And it led to very interesting situations for sure, experimenting with prosthetics and costuming in the development of a character, and for sure Lon Chaney was always a model for that.
GN Do you always work with the same makeup artists?
MB I’ve done a lot of work with Gabe Bartalos in California, the makeup artist who did all of the Cremaster work. And with Keith Edmier, who is a sculptor based in New York, who worked in the makeup FX Industry when he was younger. I just did this last project with him after not working together for almost twenty years, which was really fun. For obvious reasons I’m very interested in prosthetic makeup artists because their process is so similar to mine as a sculptor—the casting and the mold-making and the experimentation with material behavior. The alchemy in that interests me very much.
- bombsite.com/issues/1000/articles/7537

River of Fundament

Matthew Barney’s singular new film.

Matthew Barney’s studio, the birthing place of some of the biggest and most ambitious art of our time, sits in an industrial New York netherzone by the East River in Queens. A couple blocks down is a garage for cast-off food carts in states of obliteration and disarray. On the streets stroll workers whose sturdy coats solicit calls to 888-WASTEOIL, for the service of all waste-oil wants and needs. Alongside the studio the mercurial river flows, its current changing direction several times a day.
Inside are forklifts to move things like six-ton blocks of salt and sculpturally abetted Trans Ams. Football jerseys hang on a wall, including one for the fabled Oakland Raiders center Jim Otto (his number, 00, puts Barney in mind of extra-bodily orifices). A staff of a half dozen studio hands oversees projects of enterprising kinds, from building and bracing large architectural oddities to disrupting and destroying sculptures and letting objects rot.
It was here that Barney completed River of Fundament, a new epic film project premiering this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with a running time of nearly six hours (including two intermissions) and passages that play as extravagantly abstracted and absurd. The film was inspired by Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel, Ancient Evenings, set in ancient Egypt and invested in stages of reincarnation that come after death. The story would not seem to be eminently filmable.
But River of Fundament is not exactly a film. It draws on a series of site-specific performances and elaborate happenings—live actions related to the project date back as far as 2007—and all of them, however cinematically presented in the end, fit as sensibly within the traditions of theater and opera. Shoots lasted for days, doubling as rituals or séances, with characters performing for an audience that would come to be part of the work.

“I really was not in the mood at that point to make a film,” Barney says of the earliest stages of the project. “That’s not where my head was.” Instead, after an eight-year period devoted to directing films for his phantasmagorical Cremaster Cycle, Barney conceived River of Fundament as a premise for more immediate experiments and events to be presented on stage. The first was a performance at his studio that later went public, in 2007, at the Manchester Opera House.
“I don’t have much of a relationship with opera,” Barney says, “but I’m interested in opera houses, the way organic spaces are designed acoustically to receive the human voice. It’s like the resonant chamber in your body. You feel like you’re inside another body when you’re in an opera house. I like thinking about a character on stage performing inside another body.”
 After the first performance, a critic for the Guardian puzzled over what to make of a show that featured a live bull and, in its human cast, a “pair of incontinent contortionists, one of whom arcs her body and pees all over the stage.” Another character came across as a “static, naked odalisque [who] spends almost the entire performance with her head hidden under a black rubber veil, and with a hand up her own bottom.”
The strictures of the stage did not exactly suit him, Barney says now. “I couldn’t work with the same level of physicality that I’m used to. I also couldn’t create a close-up.”
* * *
The idea to adapt Ancient Evenings came from Mailer himself, whom Barney had cast to play Harry Houdini in Cremaster 2, which also enlisted elements of Mailer’s nonfiction masterpiece The Executioner’s Song. That book, about the crime-scarred life and complicated execution of Gary Gilmore, was an established classic from its release in 1979. The novel Ancient Evenings, however, had not met with the reception Mailer thought it deserved.
ancient evenings“It is, speaking bluntly, a disaster,” wrote Benjamin DeMott in the New York Times. Though his review thrills over elements of a story that “pulls its reader inside a consciousness different from any hitherto met in fiction,” DeMott found the bulk of the book a dire mess, populated by characters who came across as “ludicrous blends of Mel Brooks and the Marquis de Sade.” Other less-than-charitable dismissals cast the book as “pitiably foolish,” “impossible to summarize,” and blighted by “pointless, painful, unintended hilarity.”
Mailer himself was of a different mind. “He loved that book,” says John Buffalo Mailer, the writer’s son, who plays one of three incarnations of his father in River of Fundament. “He would no sooner pick a favorite book than he would a favorite child, but Ancient Evenings was a labor of love”—it took more than ten years to complete—“and it was heartbreaking the way it got, I don’t want to say ‘written off’ … The truth of the matter is the first hundred pages of that book are incredibly tough to get through. If you make it through those hundred pages, then it starts reading like The Naked and the Dead. It starts to flow and move. He always wanted to see something more happen with it, which is why he talked to Matthew.”
Barney dug into the book at Mailer’s insistence and found elements of its surreal, body-snatching story fit for extrapolation. He tangled with Mailer’s prose and read reactions to its bawdy, sprawling sensationalism. “I was influenced as much by a review of Ancient Evenings as by the book,” he says. That review was Harold Bloom’s in The New York Review of Books, which was vexed by parts of the novel but rather more pleased with its scope than many others at the time.
“Our most conspicuous literary energy has generated its weirdest text,” Bloom wrote, before making a case for its endearing, invigorating, spiritually searching weirdness. He continued: “I don’t intend to give an elaborate plot summary, since if you read Ancient Evenings for the story, you will hang yourself.” But: “Ancient Evenings rivals Gravity’s Rainbow as an exercise in what has to be called a monumental sado-anarchism.” And: “Ancient Evenings is on the road of excess, and what Karl Kraus said of the theories of Freud may hold for the speculations of Mailer also—it may be that only the craziest parts are true.”
Key to Bloom’s reading of the book, for Barney, was the notion that the most meaningful characters in Ancient Evenings were in fact stand-ins for Ernest Hemingway and Mailer himself. The review, Barney says, posited “that the book was effectively autobiographical, that Mailer saw himself as being too late—that the great American novel wasn’t needed anymore by the time he had come into his own. He wanted to be Hemingway but he couldn’t. That interested me. So I started putting Mailer himself into the role of the protagonist, in reincarnations of the same character.”
His revelation as to how to approach Ancient Evenings came after his conversations with Mailer, who died in 2007. “We talked about in what way it could function as a libretto,” Barney says. “But he passed away not long after that, so unfortunately he never saw it develop into the hybrid that it is now. There are definitely things about the film that I couldn’t or probably wouldn’t have done were he alive. I’m not so sure what he would have thought about it.”
But the prospect of a less-than-literal approach must have been on the author’s mind. “I think he certainly knew, from the way I used The Executioner’s Song in Cremaster 2, what adaptation means to me,” Barney says. “It’s loose. I always visualize these things as host bodies and my language [as] a guest passing through the host body, touching it but not really becoming it. I think Mailer understood that.”
John Buffalo Mailer, for his part, thinks his father would have been pleased. “There were not many people in the world that Norman acknowledged as a genius,” he says. “Matthew was one of them.”
* * *
The spirit on a Matthew Barney film set is never less than unconventional. For a stretch in the fall of 2012 the artist’s studio in Queens was outfitted with a precise replica of Norman Mailer’s former Brooklyn home. The author’s book collection sat on dusty shelves, with actors in zombie garb roaming among real-life literary mavens and Hollywood stars. Emblems of ego and achievement strained for space on the walls. There was a memento from a debate with William F. Buckley in 1962, and a framed Life magazine cover trumpeting Mailer’s life-ali-frazierreport on a fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali (with a cover photograph by Frank Sinatra).
On a day of shooting, Barney, as director, painted gold accents on grisly undead characters’ faces and guided actors through dialogue drawn from Mailer as well as Hemingway, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William S. Burroughs. “Past and future come together on thunderheads, and our dead hearts live with lightning in the wounds of the gods,” bellowed one character, in a scene that required more than a few takes to get right.
With his bushy white beard, and wearing a black T-shirt ornamented by the death-metal band Cannibal Corpse, Barney looked like anything but a refined cineaste. But his charge was much the same. “Pour it a little more aggressively,” he said through a mouthpiece to a production designer wetting the set with a strange, unidentified liquid. To the actress Ellen Burstyn, in the midst of a stubborn scene, he suggested, “I think we should not smile.” He was right: the eerie Burstyn’s version of not-smiling makes for an effect not to be forgotten.
A month later, another day of shooting began at 6:30 A.M. and called for floating an outdoor replica of Mailer’s apartment around the New York waterways on a barge. As the cast ate catering in the dark outside the studio, preparations were made: structures hoisted, lifejackets secured, boats untied. Shortly after sunrise, the industrial-size barge drifted off, pushed by a tugboat and followed, at a distance, by a camera boat with Barney and a few others on deck.
The floating processional made its way down the East River to Newtown Creek, an industrial waterway separating Brooklyn and Queens. In the midst of the workday, noisy and clanging, industrial rigs filled barges with dirt. Towering silver “digester eggs” gleamed in the sun, doing the work of a nearby sewage treatment plant. All seemed still on the water as, on land, cranes separated piles of trash at a recycling receiving center. “That pile’s pretty bad-ass, with the seagulls on it,” Barney said to the camera operator. The gulls were eating glass.
On the barge, characters from the story, in dirty makeup and costumes like decomposing clothes from the grave, spent the day standing sentry on the apartment’s balcony for shots to be mixed with scenes set inside, at Norman Mailer’s wake. Actors playing guests at the wake make up an eclectic cast: Paul Giamatti, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Elaine Stritch, Salman Rushdie, Debbie Harry, Dick Cavett, Lawrence Weiner, and Larry Holmes, among others. But today the action was contained to just a few mourners and undead souls, to be filmed from out on the water.
With footage from the morning logged and the afternoon whiled away in wait, the schedule led to a sunset scene featuring the avant-garde vocalist Joan La Barbara singing Walt Whitman beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. The boats loosened up and ventured out again, past the United Nations Headquarters, the Chrysler Building, the Con Ed East River generating station. Closer to the bridge, floating out in the middle, the drummer Milford Graves stepped onto the barge’s balcony and began banging on the railing, shaking bells and making a racket. Then La Barbara stepped out and sang, her mouth moving and her microphone on but her sounds falling silent across the distance and the wind. Her song drew words from Leaves of Grass, recast by Barney’s own sense of writerly refraction. Of the style of the script, La Barbara later said, “It's almost like Virginia Woolf, the way she will turn a phrase and then bring a phrase back after having put it through some kind of prism.”
As the sun went down, the sky glinted pink off the water. The barge continued drifting beneath the bridge, crossed above by traffic with no notion of what was happening below. The tugboat started its laborious turn. It was time to go home. The sky, as it blackened, looked somehow both sensuous and macabre. “It’s a beautiful sky, isn’t it?” Barney said.
Back at the studio, the barge and the boats nested into their docking stations. Bringing such vessels in is no easy feat. The barge was more than fifty yards long, with nearly forty feet of height between the water and the top of Mailer’s floating home. The tugboat was large enough to marshal the barge. The camera boat was smaller and easier to steer but less resilient against its surroundings. “Steel on fiberglass?,” the driver asked as he idled his way in. “Steel wins.”
* * *
Spells of shooting happened elsewhere in New York and other locales as well. A crucial scene was filmed last summer with a mass of more than three hundred extras in a disused dry dock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Before that came a trip to sites where salmon spawn in Idaho, near where Hemingway died and Barney was raised. Toward the beginning of the project, the traveling road show ventured out for extended stays to film and perform in Los Angeles and Detroit.
Both cities figure prominently, as part of a triumvirate with New York, in a film that is intensely peculiar yet permeated by a sense of place. A typical scene from LA features a ragtag marching band playing discordant music at a gnomic ceremony outside a car dealership (for Chrysler, which seems significant and proves to be, but in ways that are more cryptic than clear). A curious speech transpires on the subject of putrefaction, feces, fermentation, and rot. A gold 1979 Trans Am, which turns out to be one of the movie’s lead characters, drives off a lot to a parking garage where a naked woman with bugs in her hair writhes around as a group of musicians makes sounds with horns and guitarróns.
In Detroit, slow panning shots of an urban hellscape give way to more action involving the car, which races around mysteriously and drives off a bridge from which Houdini once jumped. A monumental set piece takes place at an abandoned steel plant where Barney and his crew spent months designing and building a custom set of furnaces to melt rock into metal. Onscreen, five towers rise, fire shooting from their tops, as hard forms are made molten by temperatures topping two thousand degrees. “It was very dangerous,” Barney said. Actors wore safety suits; an audience watched. The result of the orange streams of iron, bronze, lead, and copper was an indelible film scene and a series of sculptures made from twenty-five tons of material poured.
Many of the memorable scenes in New York telescope out from Mailer’s wake, with the writer himself featured in three reincarnated forms. John Buffalo Mailer, who plays the youngest form of his father, features in one scene for which he climbed inside the cut-open cadaver of a cow. “They had cleaned it out as best one can, but it’s the inside of an animal,” he remembers. “I will say that once I got inside I felt oddly peaceful and sheltered and taken care of.” The jazz percussionist Milford Graves, in his role as the second incarnation of Mailer’s soul, later plays the cow as drums, from the inside.
Musicality, in fact, plays a significant role in River of Fundament’s sense of anarchic freedom and its sense of shape. Remnants of the project’s beginnings as an opera remain on screen, in dialogue delivered with an unorthodox sing-song cadence and set pieces given over to surreal musical interludes.
“In film, it’s very hard for people not to think of music as something there to inform one’s sense of what the emotion is,” says Jonathan Bepler, a composer who collaborated with Barney on all stages of River of Fundament. (He wrote music for the Cremaster Cycle too.) “For me, it’s much more than that.” Blurring the distinction between opera and film proved catalytic, he says. “In opera, musicians are allowed to be anywhere at any time. Having that permission helped.”
For Barney, as a director whose concerns are more sculptural and imagistic than conventionally cinematic, music is a liberating agent. “I’m really interested in the abstractness or openness that music can provide,” he says. “It can also do the opposite—it can be so emotionally fixed that it works against what I’m interested in. But the way that Jonathan composes music is quite similar to the approach I take in terms of less-determined ways of thinking about linearity and storytelling.”
* * *
Matthew Barney
Photo: Samantha Marble
In his studio, commanding actions to continue after River of Fundament’s premiere, Barney is quiet and intensely present. His speech is considered and slow, with long pauses when searching for the right word, if in fact a word will convey something that silence cannot. He is affable but also able to deflect vacant questions back with eyes that have grown dark and hard through looking.
“He is incredibly focused and centered as an individual,” says Barbara Gladstone, the gallerist who gave Barney his first New York show in 1991 and has since represented him on his rise to prominence in the art world. “As Matthew thinks about something and works at it in his head, it becomes evermore complex.”
With the film just recently finished—final edit set, sound mix complete—Barney sits in a makeshift office above the construction floor below. His beard is gone, and he wears a winter hat adorned with the logo of Budco Enterprises (the favored source of steel fabrication for Richard Serra). Pages for an elaborate River of Fundament catalog to be published this summer by Rizzoli hang tacked up on the wall, along with images of art works to travel to an exhibition, opening in Munich in March, of sculpture borne from the project.
The exhibition is as much a part of River of Fundament as the film itself. In terms of scale and sheer materiality, many of the pieces are more formidable than work from earlier in Barney’s career. In place of his signature use of plastics, jellies, and all manner of oozing agents is a new focus on earthy materials like iron, bronze, sulfur, and salt.
“There are descriptions in Ancient Evenings where you have elemental waste coming from the earth, like sulfur, molten iron,” Barney says. “Elements are interchangeable with the waste products of the body. Sulfur and excrement are used in a very similar way in the writing, as a sort of fundamental state.”
They figure into infrastructure too. In New York, “it’s all there along the waterways but barely visible,” Barney says. “You see it in a flash on your way to the airport—you look down and see the recycling plant, wastewater management, the natural gas and sanitation department. But the view from the waterways … I was interested from the start in framing the city through these waterways,” he says. “Working here on the East River and seeing it every day, watching the current change the way that it does, moving both directions, has a lot of power. The rivers are big working rivers. Once I started exploring the water, it changed my perspective on the city as a natural landscape.”
The notion of cities as natural machines for living, in all their grotesquery and pageantry and gasping for air, figures as one of River of Fundament’s prevailing themes. The camera fixes on sights of industrial might and decay the same way it ogles objects with a wizened sculptor’s eye. From those objects come stories, and the current washes back.
“The story comes first, then out of the story come reductions that are distilled,” Barney says. “I have to start with a story, as a sculptor. I haven’t really figured out any way around that.”
- www.theparisreview.org/

Wading in Matthew Barney’s River of Shi
Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, "River of Fundament: Ren" (2014), production still (photo by Chris Winget) (© Matthew Barney)
Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “River of Fundament: Ren” (2014), production still (photo by Chris Winget) (© Matthew Barney)
In the opening of his review of Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament for GalleristNY, Michael H. Miller writes that “it feels perverse to attempt to review, or even summarize” the six-hour-long film (including two intermissions), which premiered on Wednesday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I’m not normally prone to be suspicious of an artist’s intentions, but part of me suspects that this is what Matthew Barney wants. It may even be subconscious, but Barney’s basic idea with this new film seems to be that if you throw enough shit (pun intended) together, and stretch it out for long enough, and make it suitably incoherent, most everyone will be too overwhelmed and swayed by hovering notions of “genius” that they won’t bother to object.
In fact, if Barney had made the film shorter, or more coherent, I would feel far more forgiving. Instead, as River of Fundament dragged on and descended further into its pit of self-indulgent ooze, I found myself increasingly indignant at being made to sit through it. (Yes, I know, no one was forcing me to stay.) By the very end, when the story had finished and given way to a few minutes of gorgeous, generic shots of nature — followed by a few shots of dead nature (birds, fish), because yes, life and death are connected and it’s all such a deep revelation — I was ready to walk out. I didn’t, partly because I was with someone and partly because I figured that if I’d made it this far, I should stay until the credits rolled.
Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, "River of Fundament" (2014),  production still (photo by David Regen) (© Matthew Barney) (click to enlarge)
Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “River of Fundament” (2014), production still (photo by David Regen) (© Matthew Barney) (click to enlarge)
Miller is correct on one count: to attempt to summarize River of Fundament would be futile; there’s somehow too much plot and no plot at the same time. The BAM program does a surprisingly excellent job, but short of quoting the whole thing, it’s useless to try and replicate that here. Here are some basics (I think): the film concerns Norman Mailer, who is dead, but whose soul has been attempting to achieve immortality by crossing the river of feces three times. A wake is being held at his apartment, filled with famous people (actual ones, like Fran Lebowitz) and also some Egyptian gods and pharaohs, who are represented in the film as people covered in shit, since they seem to inhabit and guard the river (which flows beneath Mailer’s apartment). Norman has various spiritual manifestations and helpers, including two kas; Hathfertiti, who acted as his medium during his lifetime; and three cars that become protagonists of a sort (one manages to impregnate a woman, after it’s been crashed into a river and rusted to pieces!).
This scenario — give or take the cars — is based loosely on a book by Mailer himself, the 700-page Ancient Evenings, which he worked on for more than 10 years and published in 1983. Mailer’s protagonist is actually a nobleman named Menenhetet I, but Barney chose to replace him with the author based in part on his reading of a review of Ancient Evenings in the New York Review of Books by Harold Bloom. In that piece, Bloom writes:
But I don’t intend to give an elaborate plot summary, since if you read Ancient Evenings for the story, you will hang yourself. There is a lot less story than any summary would indicate, because this is a book in which every conceivable outrage happens, and yet nothing happens, because at the end everything remains exactly the same.
That applies to River of Fundament as well. If you see it, you will see many things: a man licking a woman’s shit-smeared asshole, a woman giving birth to a bird, men fighting and tearing out each other’s eyes out and each other’s balls off, much vomiting, many penises, Barney himself (playing one of Norman’s kas) covered in shit and anally penetrated by another shit-covered man (whose penis is wrapped in gold leaf), a woman arched in a backbend peeing prodigiously on a dinner table. Barney is apparently one of the few artists left who still believes in shock value.
Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, "River of Fundament: Khu" (2014),  production still (photo by Hugo Glendinning) (© Matthew Barney)
Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “River of Fundament: Khu” (2014), production still (photo by Hugo Glendinning) (© Matthew Barney)
All of that, mind you, is shot impeccably. The visuals are stunning. Shit has never looked so good (except for maybe in Andres Serrano’s Shit series; there’s enough shit to go around, apparently). And in a few scenes, most notably when Barney films the smelting of a car at a steel plant in Detroit (which was abandoned before he took it over), rivers of deep gold fire jumping and running into puddles and sculpted towers looming ominously in the air, you understand his talents as an artist — they are formal.
As a storyteller and writer, on the other hand, Barney comes up far, far short of his five and a half hours of screen time. The script is of mixture of his own writing and passages pulled from Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William S. Burroughs, and Mailer (all men). Despite the strengths of those names, it never amounts to anything, with disjointed texts turned into operatic chanting at the hands of Jonathan Bepler, who composed and directed the music. The music is ever-present and actually quite terrific in places — strange instruments made of metal and played in a factory in Detroit, an atonal marching band in a parking lot in LA — but the opera decision starts off suspect and becomes comically bad. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a great actress, but nothing can save her from having to talk-sing the phrase “fuck yes!” while kneeling before her shit- and boil-covered father.
Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, "River of Fundament" (2014), production still (© Matthew Barney)
Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “River of Fundament” (2014), production still (© Matthew Barney)
The lack of strong writing is, I think, what damns River of Fundament — and not so much the lack of plot so much as the lack of … anything. The movie becomes almost six hours of mixed-up images and references and scenes without any seeming purpose or point. The many ethnic groups that make appearances as musical accompaniment start to feel like weird tokens in a movie made by a white man about another white man: Mexican guitar players, a Ranchera singer, an R&B singer, a group of singers and drummers who all look Native American, an African-American girls’ step team?! (Also, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, Mailer’s arguably most famous essay is called “The White Negro,” which makes his second incarnation in River of Fundament as a black jazz musician both logical and particularly hard to swallow.) This kind of postmodern mishmash can work for an hour, maybe two, but not six.
Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, "River of Fundament: Ren" (2014), production still (photo by Chris Winget) (© Matthew Barney) (click to enlarge)
Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, “River of Fundament: Ren” (2014), production still (photo by Chris Winget) (© Matthew Barney) (click to enlarge)
But who are we kidding? This is Matthew Barney. He is a Male Artist. He makes Big Artwork filled with Spectacles like car crushing; in fact, Barney “conceived River of Fundament as a premise for more immediate experiments and events to be presented on stage,” Andy Battaglia writes in The Paris Review Daily, which perhaps explains its inability to come together. A macho artist obsessed with sex, shit, and violence has made a six-hour film adaptation of a macho writer’s (also really into sex and violence, shit maybe a little less) 700-page novel, and no one knows what either of them is about. Lucky us.
- hyperallergic.com/

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