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Never mind the—The Cremaster Cycle

Jake Wilson

Trying to analyse Matthew Barney’s 5 film, 7 hour Cremaster Cycle is a messy, thankless task not unlike the solipsistic rituals regularly carried out by Barney’s characters: scaling the lift-shaft of a skyscraper, smearing fuel-caps with cement and throwing Vaseline against a wall. As a mediocre artist but an undeniably gifted hustler, Barney’s basic strategy is to assemble freakishly elaborate objects which announce themselves as sui generis, leaving baffled critics to cast around for relevant terms of evaluation. By design, there’s no way to label the Cycle as cinema or sculpture, narrative or non-narrative. Still less are viewers seriously expected to decode the nebulous allegory that binds the whole saga together, which according to the website is something to do with “the process of sexual differentiation.”

Trained as a sculptor, Barney approaches cinema from the perspective of a galaxy far, far away. He isn’t really interested in storytelling, but he’s equally distant from the traditions of the medium’s avant-garde. Outside the gallery, his nearest relatives are purveyors of arthouse weirdness like Peter Greenaway and David Lynch (at his worst), fellow specialists in overripe calendar imagery punctuated by gross-out effects. Some typical scenes here involve celebrity model Aimee Mullins lounging next to a huge mound of grubby potatoes, gelatinous slugs oozing from the shiny uniforms of racing car drivers and Barney himself, as a character called the Entered Apprentice, being kidnapped, stripped and sexually assaulted by a group of gangsters. Though Jonathan Bepler’s modernist music supplies an atmosphere of sorts, Barney carefully avoids realising the comic or dramatic potential of these lurid scenarios. Like a fashion photographer, he fixes his mute performers in static poses which the camera circles or, more typically, zooms away from: a conjuror’s flourish cueing the audience to gape at each newly revealed ‘jaw-dropping’ image.

Beyond a desire to dazzle and baffle the viewer, what is the Cremaster Cycle really about? My short answer would be not much, but if the allegorical machinery underlying the films is too blatantly piecemeal to function as a resonant personal myth, nor is it simply an arbitrary system of aesthetic constraints. No doubt specific esoteric principles have been used to determine the disparate elements brought together in each installment: Masonic rituals, the life stories of Gary Gilmore and Harry Houdini, red-haired giants stomping around the Isle of Man. But in practice the forced connections between these elements serve less to generate unexpected meanings than to sharpen the impression of incongruity. The central tableau of Cremaster 1 supplies a paradigmatic example: crouched under a white tablecloth, a creature identified in the credits as Goodyear (Marti Domination) arranges grapes in patterns that diagram the choreography of a Busby Berkeley dance sequence, which in turn “delineates the contours of a still androgynous gonadal structure” (to quote the website again).

Without underestimating Barney’s capacity for humorless pretension, it seems likely that up to a point these proliferating, arbitrary correspondences are meant to be parodies of significance. Similarly, it’s likely that the grandiose scale of the Cycle parodies claims of monumentality in general, placing the notion of ‘masterpiece’ in ironic quotes. Appearing in various guises in 4 of the 5 films, Barney himself seems to be enacting a mocking, reductive version of the myth of the heroic artist. Like a postmodern Buster Keaton, he’s obliged to perform a series of impossible tasks that develop into ostentatious Freudian fantasy scenarios, such as plunging into water and crawling though cramped uterine tunnels in part 4, or slaying his artistic ‘father’ (sculptor Richard Serra) in combat near the end of part 3. Yet far from having been retrieved from the depths of the unconscious, Barney’s images and ideas are self-conscious to the point of suffocation. They are rarely seriously disturbing or erotic. In this regard, he’s very different from David Lynch, who despite some accidentally fashionable traits is ultimately a ‘naïve’ artist in the noblest sense.

Still, for all its archness, the Cycle can’t be called a spoof or a hoax: again, there’s a strategic indeterminacy in play. Barney’s exaggerated concern with literal masculinity is presumably satiric on some level, and his predictable obsessions with androgyny and prosthetic devices paraphrase a standard post-feminist view of gender and sexuality as constructed rather than natural. However, our understanding of all this has to change slightly once it’s recognised that the Cycle is above all a self-reflexive work, concerned with dramatising its own processes of articulation and gradual evolution towards the possibility of ‘significance’. In other words, Barney presents himself, through his onscreen avatars, as engaged in a quest for a hegemonic masculinity that’s also a quest for aesthetic success. This equation is not ironic at all, or at least is no obstacle to the kind of epic self-aggrandisement required to consolidate a reputation as a Major Artist Of Our Time. Then again, given the futility of Barney’s fictional labours, maybe the real point is art’s impossibility except as a cynical shell game, where the counters are fictitious but the prizes of wealth, fame and kudos are very real.

Or maybe the paradox is illusory. Just as beauty and ugliness co-exist and change places in Barney’s universe, he’s well aware that art is not just a matter of disciplined erections, so to speak, but also of decadence and waste. I suspect the real secret of the Cremaster Cycle’s relative popular success is simply the thrill of irresponsibility; the chance to marvel at the time, effort and resources squandered on this vaguely kinky nonsense. Admittedly, the budget for the whole seven hours probably wouldn’t cover catering on one of the Matrix sequels, but then the Wachowski Brothers are also obliged to entertain (whether they succeed is another question). Barney, on the other hand, has the advantage of an audience who are quite willing to be bored out of their skulls, provided he manages to flatter both their feelings of superiority and impotence. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

The Cremaster Cycle, director Matthew Barney, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, February 8-22, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, March 6-20

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 25

© Jake Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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