Isle of Man
The sculptor, filmmaker, and conceptual artist Matthew Barney is best known for his epic six-and-a-half-hour Cremaster Cycle. Befitting the project’s elliptical nature, Barney undertook the five-part film cycle nonsequentially, starting with 1994’s Cremaster 4 and closing, in 2002, with the climactic convergences of Cremaster 3. As any decent biology text will tell you, the “cremaster muscle” raises and lowers the testicles, regulating temperature to ensure the sperm’s fertility. That, as well as the fetal stage prior to sexual differentiation, is central to much of Barney’s oeuvre.
Cremaster’s mostly wordless universe includes, among other things, the Isle of Man, Barney as a red-haired tap-dancing satyr, Ursula Andress in Budapest, a giant Barney with pigeon-tied testicles, Norman Mailer playing Harry Houdini (and Barney as The Executioner’s Song subject Gary Gilmore), a zombie horse race, a Bronco Stadium chorus line decked with helium-filled Goodyear blimps, gangsters, a multi-colored ram, vaudeville passages, growling death-metal icon Steve Tucker of Morbid Angel, the Masons, motorcycle sidecar races, a swarm of bees, bucking broncos in a choreographed death dance, fairies, and the Rocky Mountains. In Cremaster 3, Barney revisits past works (Gilmore, the Isle of Man, etc.), also playfully acknowledging his standing in the art world. In the central movement, “The Order,” he echoes the five parts of the cycle, while conquering Frank Lloyd Wright, scaling the interior of the Guggenheim: the Super Mario, or Dante-style game, pits a pink-tartan-kilt-clad Barney against a number of obstacles that include the Vaseline-scooping Richard Serra, double-amputee model Aimee Mullins as a shape-shifted cheetah, and New York hardcore bands Murphy’s Law and Agnostic Front (complete with slam-dancing fans). The film also stars a Chrysler Building crash-up derby and an Oedipal battle between Serra (as Hiram Abiff) and Barney (as the Entered Apprentice). When Cremaster 3 debuted at the Guggenheim, in 2003, as a part of Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle, the museum was outfitted with blue Astroturf, echoing Cremaster 1’s Bronco Stadium, the site of Barney’s high-school football games. “There was a conscious attempt to balance autobiographical material against the mythological, and the more intuitive, abstract material,” Barney told me when we first spoke. “It’s not so much about creating a portrait of an individual, but rather a complex, or a system that describes an individual form. Something like building an elaborate mirror over a ten-year period, then arriving at the mirror and being surprised to see your own reflection.”
In 2006, Barney released Drawing Restraint 9, a 135-minute film, and part of an ongoing series he began as a student at Yale in 1987. In general, the series finds Barney battling against an impediment of some sort (an elastic band, rope, hockey skates, a trampoline, etc.) while attempting to draw on a wall or a ceiling or other surface. This isn’t always the case: 1993’s Drawing Restraint 7 found limousine-bound satyrs leaving a mark with their horns and resembled Cremaster, at least topically. Or, in Drawing Restraint 3, from 1988, Barney chalked his hands, approached a petroleum wax-and-jelly-cast Olympic barbell, gripped the sculpture for a clean and jerk, released it, and documented the chalk that fell to the floor below the barbell. As Barney puts it, the concept behind the various actions has to do with “the way the body develops under resistance.”
Drawing Restraint 9 is the series’ major statement. Shot in Nagasaki Bay, it slowly unfolds on board the Antarctica-bound Nisshin Maru, a Japanese factory-whaling vessel. Joining the crew, a mysterious “Petroleum Spirit” and a large, mutating Vaseline sculpture of the field emblem are “The Occidental Guests,” played by Barney and his partner, Björk, who also composed the film’s soundtrack. Drawing Restraint 9’s central moment occurs at a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, during which the film’s only verbal dialogue takes place. After the host serves green tea and provides the Nisshin Maru’s history, the two guests consummate a courtship and kick-start a transformation, echoing the shifts of the sculpture on the deck. An exhibition at Barbara Gladstone in 2006 that accompanied Drawing Restraint’s early run included thermoplastic sculptures and casts from the film, erotic drawings, and the remains of a private performance in which Barney, dressed as General MacArthur, jaunted across a field of petroleum jelly. Drawing Restraint 9 shares visual similarities with Cremaster, but Barney sees a crucial distinction: “There was a host and there was a guest and they never become one thing,” he told me. “Whereas the guest in Cremaster is viral, it’s inside the thing, and it becomes part of the thing. It’s a very different model. There are similarities in the works in the way they look and feel, but I think they’re fundamentally very different.” Since the release of Drawing Restraint 9, Barney has performed additional Drawing Restraint actions. All in the Present Must Be Transformed: Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys, an exhibition that links the work of Barney and Beuys, opened at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, on October 28, 2006, and will head to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice in time for the 2007 Venice Biennale.
I first spoke with Matthew Barney in his New York Meat Packing District studio, where we drank coffee from Styrofoam cups at a conference table covered in light-green industrial carpet and emblazoned with the field emblem. (Later, Barney mentioned the emblem was accidentally melted into the table with a branding iron.) Our discussion continued over email and at metal shows across Manhattan.
THE BELIEVER: A friend pointed out to me that, in a way, you make action films about bodily processes. There’s no—or very little—dialogue, but there is a lot going on. Do you view your work as entertaining? How do you think the audience is reacting?
MATTHEW BARNEY: I tend to think of it in organic terms; I tend to think of it as a body. I think a lot of the decisions that are made in regards to duration and balance are about trying to describe an organism that has its own pulse and that has its own behavior. It’s something that keeps me coming back to the filmmaking process. I think working at that scale and working with a combination of media and working with a team of people makes it possible for the form of the project to drive itself at a certain point. Once everybody has put enough into it, the thing starts to have its own needs, its own desire, and its own behavior—and I find that really exciting. I think that can happen in the studio with object-making, but I think it’s often more difficult to get to that point. Ideally, that’s my relationship to the film: It’s not so much about approaching it from the outside and thinking about how it operates, it’s more about being inside the thing and trying to keep up with its demands. Not just in terms of production, but also in terms of the feeling that the film has. It’s difficult to describe.
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