Matthew Kimmerman at The New York Times declared Matthew Barney "the most crucial artist of his generation." But a recent New Yorker cartoon illustrated a woman at Barney's Guggenheim exhibit ruminating, "I'll just stare at the art until something comes through." The arrival of Barney's five Cremaster films at the Orpheum Theatre (Aug. 29-Sept. 4) will likely elicit responses on both ends of this spectrum and all points in between.
Barney's Cremaster Cycle recalls the esoteric mythology of the films of Kenneth Anger, but support from the gallery art world has given Barney resources and audiences beyond the experimental film scene. The plots have been described as quests for self-realization, but the narratives are overshadowed by audacious and hypnotic imagery and a complex symbolic system fusing high and low cultural references and intertexual play (each film has an insignia and color, important to understand when watching Cremaster 3). At first I was underwhelmed by Cremaster 5, which did not strike me as particularly innovative. But my opinion changed after experiencing the three-hour Cremaster 3 (opening the cycle Friday and Saturday), which fully engaged my imagination. I look forward to revisiting the entire cycle, which is unlikely to return to Madison after its one-week run.
Barney is a multimedia and performance artist, and his gallery installations include sculptures and the elaborate costumes associated with the films. The sheer physicality of the activities staged in the cycle link the films to his earlier athletic performance pieces. At times you cannot anticipate the logic of these activities unless you can trace connections within Barney's complex symbology. Watching 3, you might ask, "Why do his swallowed broken teeth slither through an intestine growing out of his anus and melt into a porcelain rod?" Those looking for answers might discuss the overriding biological metaphors in the cycle: The cremaster is the muscle that retracts the testicles when stimulated by cold or fear.
Barney establishes a pace that might seem unbearably slow to some, but that can be seductive and curiously suspenseful if you are in sync with its rhythms. And the editing produces spatial relationships that can create a sense of architectural wonder. In the opera house balcony of Cremaster 5, the Queen of Chain (Ursula Andress) watches her Diva (Barney) scale the proscenium arch of the stage while at her feet pigeons burrow through holes at the base of her throne to reveal the Gellért Baths, where water sprites and the Queen's Giant (Barney, again) reside. The gradual unveiling of these spatial relationships is often a source of pleasure in itself.Kimmerman wrote, "the work can seem ingeniously complicated or nonsensical, depending on one's inclination." The Guggenheim Museum sequence in 3u
James Kreul hosts a call-in discussion of the Cremaster Cycle on WSUM's "Film Talk Show" (91.7 FM) on Sunday, Aug. 31, at 4 p.m.