Rev., July 21, 2015.
It is difficult to watch Matthew Barney’s Cremaster today, primarily because video has changed so much, and moved so far toward cinema, that the audience even in the gallery is more likely than not to look at it through the viewfinder of cinematic expectations. Fortunately, Cremaster has scenic cinematographic features, as well as imposing music, and guest appearances by Norman Mailer and Ursula Andress. So, it is true, at some point, in his foray into video, Barney met up again with residual cinematic tastes lingering in his mind and went with them, to expand his practice, and that will all seem legible to today’s audiences, but there is also the danger that that legibility will also obscure its deeper truth relative to his art.
And it is also true that it is best to see art in its context, and in neoconceptual art the context is the sequence of exposures to the art which one is granted in the context of an installation in a gallery. It was in its embrace of the possibly narrative, in any case the sequential, embracing a theatricality that Fried rejected from sculpture, that neoconceptual art in the late 1980s moved away from its conceptual forbears. What this meant in general terms is that the sculpture was not a self-contained plop set down in a formal white cube, representing ideal reality, and to be appreciated in formalist ways, but it was a property of a sequence of cultural migrations or movements of mind in and about the sculpture, which created the general milieu of it, and allowed the mind to move rhizomatically, or in the matter of sliding signifiers, the depleting running off energy of poststructuralism, around it. Matthew Barney in fact made his impression by descending into this ongoing discourse, and introducing more radical departures of the style. If through scatter art and the like other artists were showing how the gallery space could host sliding signification in a sequence of objects which one looked at in the manner of investigating the forensic evidence at the scene of the crime (the primary metaphor of the time), Barney interjected himself into that terrain by playing the part, or making of a sculptor, the criminal of that crime. In the first work of his that I saw, introduced in a group show at Althea Viafora Gallery, at the corner of Prince and Broadway, Barney included an object, in plastic, if I remember, in the show, but it was clear that it was touched or marked by some sort of performance activity around it. And then the accompanying video, which showed the real work of art, showed Barney with excruciating exactitude scaling and descending the walls of the gallery with climbing gear all to go up to gather up some Vaseline jelly, and then descend seven times, once for each orifice of the body, to apply it to the object. What could it mean? All it meant to me was that, here I was talking about sliding signifiers, and here was an artist who took that literally, and was climbing the walls of the gallery. I was interested in scene of art, and here was an object in a gallery, purporting to be sculpture, but which really was forensic evidence after some event. I was curious about the spideriness of space in the time of the sliding signifier (I did a show on this theme, Arachnosphere, in Summer, 1993) and here was an artist who was spidering on the walls. Whatever the fetish reasons for his actions, too, the fact that he by that made the strange shape into a kind of body, or a fetish representation thereof, was also of great interest.
In contemporary terms, I would say that Barney had found a way to give new agency to sculpture by performing sportlike acts around it, in a way that wrest the object from the white cube, and made of it a link in a chain of performative acts. It means that, especially in his reascensions to the ceiling, on that line, he was draining away the white cube, he was extracting himself to some crawl space at the side of the white space, outside of power, but, somehow, more powerful. At the time, I could only identify the space he occupied vis a vis art and the white cube as psycho space, thinking of crawlspace psychos in movies that inhabited air ducts and the like to spy on showering girls in their apartments. But now I would say more generally Barney saw that the reality of sculpture had somehow become depleted in an irrecoverable way, therefore he turned away from it, then, in seeking out a world beyond where new sculpture could be made, he fell back on a counterreal posture, in an outlying crawlspace, to come in over the top with a new commentary and a new narrative of meaning, and, by means of application, or multiplying through it, created, through the sculpture, through reverse engineering his feint away, a new kind of reverse agency sculpture with an inherently opposite charge in it than mainstream conceptual or minimal sculpture. And his work has ever since retained that sort of in-between, leftover, scene of, stageset transferred, quality, which I have always liked. But how then does this relate to Cremaster?
What caused Barney to begin to ascend in the neoconceptual scene was that as scatter art played out, he ascended with the same notions of departure of the white cube and resignation to sliding signifiers, to push his sculptures and performances into installational projects which, for the time of the performance, or the viewing of them, became non-white cube spaces. Perhaps his most dramatic step in that direction occurred in a show at Barbara Gladstone where he showed all his work in an installational environment that smacked of a basketball gym, or a sports space, and in the front gallery, in a small enclave, was a strange refrigerated unit, Transsexualis, replacing entirely the white cube in another kind of space (this effect derived from the boy art at the time seeking bachelor machines to stage simulacrum terrestrial events, with even, oddly, a Barney and Kelley connection here), with then objects in it that depended entirely on their physical being by the nonwhitecube qualities of the space, that is, if they were not kept cold, in that unit, they would melt. This was genius, in the terms of solving the problems facing the program at the time, and broke him through to a totally new level. What followed was a resituation of all of his art in an imaginary space beyond the white cube, with all of the extraterrestrial feeling and trappings (and Damien Hirst’s sharks certainly profited by association with Barney’s program at the time), and it was on, Barney’s imposing ascent to Cremaster.
So, that is the first thing. Cremaster ought to be watched in a gallery because Cremaster is an extension of gallery space, or rather, a farther extension of Barney’s mission to already move beyond white cube space. But it is best seen at the far end of a telescope consisting of a white cube. In Cremaster, we repeatedly see evidence, that the cinematic scenarios, put to music and given time, are in fact nothing more than imaginging where his sculpture might fit in the wide world, or, even more boldy, how the world as developed from his sculptures might look. The dynamic is apparent in Cremaster One, where we find beautiful and sculpturally aloof stewardesses of Goodyear balloons idling, over a stadium, waiting for something to happen. There is a table with grapes on it, as if to host a soiree or art opening later that evening. In the middle, taking the part of the ice sculpture that would be there in the real world, is a property, but, actually, a sculpture by Barney—so it is Barney visualizing cinematically the notion that the sculpture is ‘like an ice sculpture centerpiece at buffet table on an old Zeppelin balloon.”
There are two balloons, one each, one presumes, for each testicle, referred to by the title Cremaster, but under each testicular sculpture, is a hole in the grapes, a typical Barney orifice, a signifier of all of his sculpture, which could be called nothing but a tissue of orifices, and connectives
And then through that, is a crawlspace. And one of the most classic of crawlspace, where people hide, and which people fear, is under the table, just as under the bed is a classic place of horror. We find that under that table, is a living being, an occupying spirit, a nymph (if I can use that term to describe a figure who is said to occupy a crawlspace outside of primary space)
the way that she parcours about trying to get comfortable, like a kid trying to camp out under a bed, or like an embryo in the womb, is also fascinating, and in many ways simply a reproduction of some of Barney’s performative gesturings. It is also telling that she has her hair done up in 40s styled curlings, to subliminally refer to the female sex organ, something rarely seen in movies after, for example, as I mentioned in a 2010 blog entry, Bride and the Gorilla
And here is Bride and the Gorilla (1953)
Now, I mentioned under the bed. In a recent piece on The not good Hammer movie, Woman in Black 2, I did give some credit to the understanding of the nature of crawl space as a compressed two-dimensional counter-real place where hauntings could occur. With deep roots in horror lore, the under the bed is the classic space, where, because of its underness, one fears that the things down there will come alive, and, since it is under us, we fear that the space as a whole in the form of a monster will come alive. The movie was quite good in mapping out this space, spread throughout the dormitory and again showed some canniness in creating unreal space beside real space where hauntings might occur, in the case of the fake shell bomber plane set on the runway, a completely unreal place.
This place is the same sort of place. And, it is interesting, once you are stuck in there, you do try to get back to reality, and she does tear at and finger the hole, again a classic Barney gesture
And does stick her eye through, suggesting that cycloptic one-eye look is not so much the evil eye as the marginalized eye now coming back at you, and scaring you
we also find out that this woman in the womb space in the crawlspace, has gained for herself some power from her counter-maneuver, and can therefore reverse engineer into existence a new reality, one she directs. And here is the artist returning, now she can use the grapes she steals from above (this happening in two balloons in duplicate) to order the world, using sigils and signs of obscure meaning (with obvious meaning that it is power from her womb, by her spread eagle positioning) (of the various action-memes or motif of Barney’s work, a basic musing on the act of creation is always part of it; one is well advised to reread the title of the work as Creation Master, or Master of Creation, and you can see it, somehow, an allegory of the creative process, or even the six days of the creation of the world)
And the world below becomes an all but platonic reflection of this sculpture world of creation above. For this Barney uses the formal motif of cheerleaders but then replaces them with his preference, showgirls from Busby Berkeley days, and descending from his new source of creation, the church of the upskirt universe (the degree to which Barney scaffolds his imaginary with the upskirt universe, a trope and form of the male gaze upon women in the modern age, and which began to be replaced by a more deeply unconsciously rooted specular vision in the mid-1950s, indicates that the fetishistic nature of his precipitated out exposure forms, those small repetitive actions, are based on childhood memories with women (this is a direct reference to Berkeley’s shot in 42nd Street, the young and healthy number, one of the masterpieces of the upskirt universe vision of the world, and, in my view, one of the most famous frontshifted abstract representations of sexual intercourse on film
So the model is there from Cremaster One. This is a visualization of the world as seen from inside his sculptures and performance. His has taken his vocabulary of sculptural terms and extended them now into a narrative space lying past or through them. To find his sculpture, he retreated to a crawlspace adjacent to the white cube, there he synthesized and purified his sense of the real in a counterreality composed of only highly charged exposure-precipitations based on his psychological experience of life.
Then he moved down upon form and space and made sculpture and performance from this countering, by reverse agency multiplying them through ‘contemporary art’ to create new work. And, then, to complete the illusion, once he made objects existing entirely in that network of steps, that series of arcs and loops, he fell back a second time to create a scenic reality derived from movies from them.
In Cremaster 2 it is apparent that, though the metaphor now shifts to bees, and birds and beeing, his crawlspace of departure, in counterspace, remains the under the table.
And if he is to look at life, it is through under the table, and through his art, and its filters, this is what sex looks like in the Barney counterreal universe. It is not that different from what sex might look like in the mind of a young boy accidentally caught under the bed when his parents by surprise go at it over him.
some of Barney’s extensions are not as successful. His interest in cars, and in using his sculpture to walk back to and then overcome and take into his art his former interest in cars, like a blob eating up the former interest, are less successful, though this extension of white carved form glomming onto a Mustang at least all but stands as a sculpture, simply given a scenic out of gallery context in film
Sometimes sequences in Barney’s films start with a form or surface that he might have had an interest in making sculpturally, and this may have been one, such as this
But then he turns away from it a second time to create a still more elevated second counterreality of almost fantasy where forms he could never make live, and he uses film, much as the musical directors of the 1940s, who only used to film to fantasize on film versions of stage performances and sets that could not be done on stage in reality, to envision a fantasy from insideout of his sculpture. This necessarily involves compressions and dovetailings and Barney’s fusing here of the Mormon Tabernacle choir and the US senate is one of this greatest scenic achievements
but this is a new sort of compacted agency, this is the sculpture itself imagining its broader reality. That is, it is second degree Barney. It is not Barney as sculptor imagining his sculpture placed in an ex-white cube context, but it is those ex-white cube sculptures themselves, from within, imagining their wider reality. At this point, it must simply be argued that Barney’s mind moves poetically, meaning that it is moving in all sorts of different ways, rhizomatically stimulated by association. I suspect that at the arrival of these flags in Cremaster 2, there is a bit of an authorial undertone of Barney doing his own version of, perhaps, a sequence he admired, the opening title sequence of Kubrick’s The Shining, and, then, on top of that, mockery of extraneous chatter around the movie, that it is imbued with secret codes. If you want a secret code, once we get West, here’s mine, sigils on flags
And again the sigils will imagine their reality, and after a few flutter flap out into a three d reality. Again, if you think the Overlook looks symbolic, or like a rocket, or the Apollo II landing, here is my version of the flag sigil, made real: it’s a circle of mounted police riding around on a strange Star Warsy island
The movie then does in fact begin to soar, just like at the beginning of The Shining (1980), the island is even a variation on the island that has been assigned some meaning at the beginning of Kubrick’s title crawl
And this island
Then we get to a little lodge, and there is, in a gold encased room (Kubrick’s Overlook associated by some with the gold standard), not unlike a merry go round room found in a number of different house of mirrors sequences in movies (I am thinking in particular of the merry go round room in The Haunting, but that is 1999), there is a sculpture in the middle. This is classic installed sculptural Barney, placed in a scenic counterreality, far from the white cube. The following is an imagining of space from within it
Indeed at one point, the space verticalizes, again, very Kubrickian, and it leads down the wormhole, to a deeper imagining of itself
Here, too, a similar tilt in perspective in The Shining too
At the very end of Cremaster 2, we recoil back to the sculpture, we see it more close-up, we see that it reflects, has facets, has, in fact, a lot of reflectivity, all of which signifies a capacity to imagine, and the whole movie back to when it first appeared can be envisioned as an imagining of reality through the filter of a sculpture in Barney’s second degree fictional world
(oddly similar to the large driftwood piece in the Overlook in The Shining too (though I make no claim that Barney was influenced by this)
and here is the close up
We go back through the surface glitter, reimagined, on the micro level, expanded to macro inside, to a river of ice, a glacier
This brings us back, by way of one of Barney’s favorite comparisons of his sculpture to another kind of sculpture in the real world, centerpiece work, this time of ice, melting
And on that stage, is Stanford White somehow representing the Valhallan God of the Old Anglos, and also Houdini, made into a principle of escape, on a podium in the middle of a great hall, greeting an inspecting woman, some sort of goddess also of Valhalla (the fact that Barney would represent the mountain gods of Anglo America by magnates of 1900 is also in keeping with The Shining comparison as some secret code readers of that text believe that all the folks at the party hosted by Jack’s avatar in 1921 were Wilson administration officials, many of them having to do with the decision to end the gold standard, making of the Overlook a kind of redoubt for those who had faith in Fort Knox America
And this takes place in a vast garage, filled again with vocabulary forms Barney has folded into his practice, as if the kunstkammer of his influences, elevated to a pantheon state, the floor wet from the melting ice
and it turns out to be another variegated and faceted surface, a pavilion in iron
(again, I see this mountaintop Fair’s pavilion, as a cousin to the Overlook),
And in it nature is paralyzed, and stuffed, and encased,
and we see that it is in fact an abandoned old display hall from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, when America announced its arrival as an industrial power on the world scene, which also featured an appearance by Houdini (the relation of Barney to the Fair would be through a common culture of material display, a kind of sculpture used at the fair to display produce, and which Barney may envision as a forensic model for his work, from a parallel culture)
and yet all of it has been magically transported to a mountaintop, far, far, away, way up in the west
all of which, as I see it, are eight loops of internal musing by the sculpture itself, as to what it would look
And what it envisioned of itself in its glitter and reflection was being a godlike presense like an ice sculpture in a hall of prized collectibles in an old World Fair pavillion transported to the mountains and the mouth of a river of ice. His vision of America. (This is a tendency I deeply respond to now, with regard to megafigural imaginings of Western lands: it may seem “anglo” to deify the forces of nature in the Western US in a way that would usurp and replace Native American gods and sacredness, but maybe not, later on this). My personal view is that Barney had tongue very far up cheek, to the level of silent absurdism, countering the essentialist discourse that sees the history of land in America as a two-step from essential-native to invader-desecrator-Europeans, to preferring a panglobal view of America as, like any other landmass, the site of numerous, if not endless, comings and goings.
My view also is that this scenario was the high point of Cremaster. Here was where the testicular muscle after which the series was named retracted the gonads up into the body of American mythology, to protect them from the cold being emitted from his art. In Three, Barney involves his marginal countering too much in urban laboring, it seems fussy; in Three, it is too much, as if trying to make people understand, a return to the scene of the art world itself, the Guggenheim, and then the need to scaffold the notions with cultism, and working out art world issues again, while I simply do not quite see how Five’s Andress opera fits in (maybe, someday). The Cremaster I like is the Cremaster which moves its musclature up and down from the core creative physicality of Barney’s original performance-sculpture based drive to transcend the white cube and find a place for art in the wider world. Cremaster works best, and is best seen as Matthew Barney sculpture dreaming about itself and its possible future in life—free from the hand of Matthew Barney. It exists in two phases, warm, when the drama of counterreality creating is represented by an action in a sculpture, usually in the person of Barney (though in my view his appearance in his series is the least successful part of it) to order reality without; and cold, when the sculpture itself, seemingly without Barney, imagines it’s own future, and, from that, is able to exploit the fly’s eye rhizomatic multiplicity of the vision of things to shoot out to a much broader canvas. But whereas the neoconceptual program sought to scatter sculpture into theatrical places it had never known, it intersected with a cultural development of social complexity that allowed for the colonization of crawlspaces, and counterspaces, and living life in a permanently counter condition, and Matthew Barney provided the mythology for that moment in time, in the first half of the 1990s, just before the internet changed the disposition of the human beings to living in the actual world ever after. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that Cremaster be viewed as a filmic fantasy of works of sculpture, and that it be remembered as a document of a specific time, the peak years of the postmodern age (1976-2001), which would be the neoconceptual moment (1988-1996).