Cinematic excess

Matthew Barney's seven-hour Cremaster Cycle descends in the Portland Museum of Art
By ANNIE LARMON  |  November 10, 2010

Eight years after its completion, The Cremaster Cycle, Matthew Barney's interminable multi-media opus, continues to befuddle and intrigue audiences. In a marathon cinematic experience that virtually eschews narrative and dialogue, Barney concocts an insular parallel world bred from autobiography, biological allusion, mythology, and conspiracy theory. In 1994, the sculptor and performance artist set out to complete an earthwork, or land sculpture, on the Isle of Man. The sculpture organically developed into Cremaster 4, the film that is now the fourth in a series of five, as Barney played with the introduction of action to the object. Cinema became the format for his eight-year globe-spanning investigation into gender, metamorphosis, masculine identity, and regression.

Barney, who was deemed "the most important American artist of his generation" by the New York Times Magazine, is a controversial figure in the art world. While Cremaster maintains a cult status, perhaps aided by the film's unavailability, his work has had an equivocal reception by critics, who have a difficult time allying the artist with either avant-garde cinema or fine art camps. His notoriety is superficially bolstered by his status as Bjork's groom and his quirky star-athlete-turned-conceptual-performance-artist story, never mind his Roman physique. The integrity and originality of his media-bending performance survived a stint of Barney as art star media darling, however, and Cremaster deserves to be seen by any art- or cinephile who has the endurance to sit through all 400 minutes of it.

The cremaster, of course, is the muscle that raises and lowers the scrotum in order to protect and regulate the temperature of the testes. The Cycle chronicles the process of the ascended reproductive organs to a state of descension during embryonic sexual differentiation. The state of undifferentiation represents "potentiality" in the films, a trope that lends the entire series an air of suspension, a confusion that, like the creative process, never finds resolve. Thematically, the cremaster serves as a point of departure for the artist to tackle any variety of reproductive processes that involve in-and-out or up-and-down actions. On the performance front, expect to see a lot of climbing and falling. Sculpturally, get ready for uncomfortable amounts of Vaseline, tapioca pearls, and anything that happens to be sticky and white. The forms of a slew of absurd non-gendered prosthetic genitals become motifs that thread through the films.

READ: "But is it a good movie? Diving balls deep into The Cremaster Cycle" by Christopher Gray

Loosely clinging to an esoteric collection of references and mythologies, Barney's aesthetically riveting pageant unravels into a series of harshly edited pseudo-narratives that address the arbitrariness of human ritual, symbolism, and identity. Comparing the human life to that of a drone bee and reducing our intention to the will of nature, Barney both approbates and undermines the material culture we decorate ourselves with. Barney confronts the moment of differentiation with his parallel fantasy world full of opulently costumed real and exaggerated human bodies, mocked misogyny, and gender contortionists. There are countless up-the-skirt shots and we are confronted with testicles so often they become as innocuous as potatoes, or grapes.

Barney's metaphors can be frustrating, as they are either briefly introduced and whisked away before we are able to grasp their intention, or driven home so intensely by repetition and redundancy that we begin to lose interest. That said, at least when ingesting the work in its epic totality, it seems a dose of monotony here and there is necessary to fully enter Barney's world, by submitting to a dream or drug state. The overall effect of these films is stunning, in both senses of the word, and might be compared, at best, to reading diluted Pynchon. Convoluted as they are, the moments in the films where logic is suspended are where Barney is at his best. It is probably best to give in to the experience and save the interpreting for later.

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