In 1994, Matthew Barney began a projected cycle of four operas. Collectively titled The Cremaster Series, these videos and films have, like George Lucas’ Star Wars Trilogy, been produced out of sequence so that Cremaster 4(1994-1995) was the first, followed by Cremaster 1 (1995-1996) and then Cremaster 5(1997). Each of the Cremaster installments is very dependent on the location in which it was filmed, so that the settings (the Isle of Man for Cremaster 4, the football field at Boise State University for Cremaster 1, and the Bridge of Chains in Budapest, Hungary, for Cremaster 5) become characters in much the same way as the actors who perform in the films.
Like contemporary updates of Arthurian legends, each of the protagonists in Barney’s films has a challenge to overcome and undergoes a rite of transformation. While references to sources as diverse as Harry Houdini and Busby Berkeley abound, Barney’s mythology is dense and intensely personal. The very use of the term “cremaster” introduces a clinical ambiguity into the series’ narrative–the cremaster is the “suspensory muscle of the testes” that contracts the male genitalia in response to stimuli as pragmatic as cold or as subjective as fear. In Barney’s symbology, the contraction of the cremaster muscle becomes analogous to the in-utero period when the fetus is still sexually undifferentiated and the male/female balance is in perfect harmony. In one way or another, each entry in The Cremaster Series is a search for that harmony.
Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint is on view in Gallery 6. Cremaster 2 will premiere at the Walker in March 1999.