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Matthew Barney
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Wikipedia About Matthew Barney

Matthew Barney (born March 25, 1967) is an American artist who works in sculpture, photography, drawing and film. His early works were sculptural installations combined with performance and video. Between 1994 and 2002 he created the Cremaster Cycle, a series of five films described by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian as “one of the most imaginative and brilliant achievements in the history of avant-garde cinema.” Full Wikipedia Article

essay Matthew Barney, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Matthew Barney’s career began, paradoxically, with a very profound absence. The night before his New York debut in 1991, he locked himself inside the gallery and began to climb. Using customized mountaineering equipment such as titanium ice screws and a climbing harness, he made his assault on the architecture. He ascended walls, moved across the ceiling, and finally descended into a basement gallery containing a sculptural tableau that included a weight-lifting bench cast from petroleum jelly housed in an industrial refrigeration unit. The next day, visitors saw only a video of the artist’s climb and the sculptural and performative residue of his presence. Barney might have left the building, but he opened a door onto a new aesthetic gambit: a powerful hybridization of sculpture, performance, and the moving image that has grown more complex since that first exhibition. Today, his universe is composed of a wildly complex pantheon of figures and forces, each of which overflows with narrative connotations and sculptural possibilities. Driving these intricate narratives is a systematic investigation into the generative nature of physical resistance in the creation of form. In Barney’s world, objects cannot take physical shape and narratives cannot develop without the struggle of a protagonist against an opposing force.1

One of the artist’s most astonishing contributions is his ability to expand the possibilities for sculpture—not only through his choice of such unorthodox materials as petroleum jelly and self-lubricating plastic, but through his insistence on the sculptural possibilities of both performance and film. Both aspects have their roots in a wide range of cultural references and artistic sources: for example, Barney has acknowledged a debt to Bruce Nauman, who used his own body to explore the limitations of his studio space in such videos as Bouncing in a Corner No. 1 or Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) (both 1968). Vito Acconci’s notorious Seed Bed (1972), with its hidden onanistic performance, also comes to mind, and it is impossible not to think of Richard Serra’s thrown-lead pieces, whose dynamic forms were shaped by the surfaces they encountered.2 These art-historical progenitors are fused with references to the artist’s childhood heroes, including the Oakland Raiders’ legendary offensive lineman Jim Otto or escape artist Harry Houdini, both of whom tested the extreme physical thresholds of the body. When the visual and narrative influence of films such as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II (1987) or Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) are thrown into the mix, it becomes clear that we are not simply dealing with cultural bricolage but with a fundamentally hybrid conception of sculptural practice.3

The motor force of physical resistance that animates Barney’s work is apparent in his three-channel video installation DRAWING RESTRAINT 7 (1993). Here the mythological world of ancient Greece is thrown into perverse proximity with Barney’s own cosmology of physical restraint and unrealized desire. On three separate monitors, a group of satyrs (done up in elaborate prostheses of the artist’s devising) play out a ritualized struggle for dominance in the back of a stretch limousine. A satyr with underdeveloped horns (played by Barney) spins around and around in an endless cycle of expenditure without return; his two brethren engage in a Greco-Roman wrestling match as they both attempt to create a mark with their horns in the con-densation on the moon roof. As one forces the other into submission, a drawing is created. All the while, the limousine drives in a never-ending loop over and through all six major bridges and tunnels entering New York City. In this work, drawing has been taken beyond the realm of pencil and paper into an expanded quasi-biological register, where the lines of force generated by its protagonists’ exertions become a kind of protean form of mark-making. In the end, though, neither protagonist wins, as they align their Achilles tendons and flay one another in a reenactment of Apollo’s revenge on Marsyas for his hubris in thinking that he himself could become a god.

With its emphases on the formative power of resistance, expenditure without result, and mythological hubristic failure, DRAWING RESTRAINT 7 can in many ways be viewed as an epigraph or even a prequel to Barney’s monumental Cremaster cycle, which was begun in 1994 and completed in 2002. An operatic series of five epic films, the Cremasters constitute a biological, mythological, and topological recasting of classical mythopoetic narratives in the form of a series of phantasmic quests. As Nancy Spector suggests, “Born out of a performative practice in which the human body—with its psychic drives and physical thresholds—symbolizes the potential of sheer creative force, the cycle explodes this body into the particles of a contemporary creation myth.”4 It is the anatomy of the body itself that provides this creation myth with its title, as it refers to the cremaster muscle, which controls the raising and lowering of the testicles in response to such external stimuli as fear and changes in temperature. The entire cycle alludes to the moment in prenatal development just prior to the assignment of gender—an undifferentiated physical state that embodies the tension between stasis and dynamic movement. That moment provides the metaphorical superstructure for the endless sequence of expenditure and renewal of energy that permeates the narrative of the Cremaster cycle.

While linked by a certain repetition of themes, the five Cremaster films do not form a continuous narrative with repeating characters. Shot out of sequence, each of the installments centers around a series of ritualized athletic endeavors and magical transformations in which landscape and architecture are characters in the plot. Each film also has at its core a quest that, as in classical mythology, forces the central character to overcome a series of escalating challenges before reaching his goal. The protagonists (often played by Barney) are forced to engage in a range of physical tribulations, including Houdiniesque escapes, trials by tap-dancing, and heroic climbs across the proscenium of Budapest’s Magyar Állami Operaház (State Opera House) and up the rotunda of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. These challenges are played out in a narrative of subtle ascents and descents that mimics the movement of the cremaster muscle itself, and are set in a sequence of topographies that moves from West to East: from Idaho (Cremaster 1, 1995), Utah and Alberta, Canada (Cremaster 2, 1999), and New York (Cremaster 3, 2001) across the Atlantic to the Isle of Man (Cremaster 4, 1994) and Hungary (Cremaster 5, 1997). In addition to a video or film component, each Cremaster is also realized in the form of a multiple that includes sculptural objects housed in a vitrine of the artist’s design; additional related sculptures, drawings, and photographs often have been shown at the debut of each film. As with his earliest works, these installations typically encompass a transformation of the architecture of the gallery into a complete, immersive design environment for viewing these films in which carpet, wall coverings, and even seating find themselves subject to Barney’s sculptural vision.5

Like the satyr that chases its own tail in DRAWING RESTRAINT 7, the Cremaster project feeds on itself in a kind of systemic autophagy that is generative rather than destructive. The cycle builds a complex, closed system of references in which the epic play of forces can never come to a conclusion, but is instead held in a moment of undetermined suspension just prior to resolution. In the end, it is the body itself, with its biological play of forces, that is at the center of this opus. Ovid’s Metamorphoses opens with the words “Of bodies changed to various forms I sing.” These are the unspoken lyrics to the imaginary sound track playing in the background of Barney’s work.

  1. Nancy Spector’s catalogue essay for the Guggenheim retrospective of Barney’s Cremaster cycle is the most comprehensive resource to date on these intricate works. See Nancy Spector, “Only the Perverse Can Still Save Us,” in Nancy Spector, ed., Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle, exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2002), 2–91.

  2. Richard Serra himself would play a central role in Cremaster 3. In one sequence, Serra throws liquid petroleum jelly into a wall along the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in a concatenation of Barney’s materials with Serra’s early aesthetic endeavors.

  3. On Barney’s relationship to film, see Richard Flood, “Notes on Digestion and Film,” in Matthew Barney and Gracia Lebbink, eds., Pace Car for the Hubris Pill, exh. cat. (Rotterdam, Netherlands: Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, 1996), 21–35.

  4. Spector, “Only the Perverse,” 5.

  5. Cremaster 2 premiered at the Walker Art Center in 1999 in an installation that included a large group of sculptural objects (many of which were used in the film), a suite of photographs, flags, drawings, and stadium seating designed and fabricated by the artist. The entire installation was acquired jointly by the Walker and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Walker also owns the special-edition film vitrines related to the other four Cremaster films.

Fogle, Douglas. “Matthew Barney.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center