For Art Winslow
Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle consists of five thematically interrelated films, much as Wagner’s Ring cycle is made up of four distinct but narratively interlinked operas. But Barney has also designed a number of sculptural objects for the work’s elaborate mise en scène, and it is these that make up the bulk of the exhibition to which the Guggenheim Museum in New York has been given over nearly in its entirety until June 11. Moreover, the museum is internally related to the work, not only because a substantial sequence in one of the films uses its interior space as a setting but because a symbolic correspondence is supposed to exist between the five films and the five ascending curves of the museum’s helical architecture. The objects displayed on each of the museum’s ramps were in effect props in the corresponding film. Not only do these objects derive their meaning from the films, but the order in which they are experienced, as one ascends from ramp to ramp, reflects the overall narrative of the work.
Wagner designed the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth as the canonical theater for presenting his oeuvre, and it is widely appreciated that seeing the Ring cycle performed in Bayreuth is a unique and indispensable part of experiencing it. The Guggenheim was of course designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, but Barney has exploited and modified its architecture for the key episode of the work as a whole. So unlike the Festspielhaus, which is not part of the Ring‘s narrative, the Guggenheim really is part of Cremaster‘s. This has given Barney’s many European enthusiasts a special reason to make a pilgrimage to New York, even if they may already have seen the exhibition in Cologne or Paris, for only here will they have been able to experience the Guggenheim as a work of installation art that belongs to the Cremaster endeavor. This makes it, by general consent, far and away the most impressive of the three venues. The question for Barney’s admirers, expressed by one of my Northern European correspondents, is whether Matthew Barney is the Picasso of our time, or the Leonardo.
I think it enough that he should be the Matthew Barney of the present age, using artistic resources that would have been unavailable to his predecessors, as well as a conception of visual art that is entirely of our time. Cremaster is a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk that uses performance art, music, film, dance, installation, sculpture and photography. Barney himself is the work’s author and dramaturge, as well as an actor in possession of the exceptional athletic powers his successive roles demand. And his art embodies preoccupations that are distinctive to our era. In Cremaster, these have largely to do with issues of what one might call the metaphysics of gender, and the use of the term “cremaster” implies as much. The term has existed in English since the seventeenth century, almost exclusively as part of the descriptive anatomy of the male reproductive system: It refers in its primary sense to the muscle of the spermatic cord by which the testes are suspended in the scrotum. But Barney has given it a somewhat allegorical spin, in much the way, I suppose, that Descartes did with the pineal gland, which, because it is situated between the hemispheres of the brain, impressed him as being the seat of the soul. No one to this day quite understands the pineal gland’s function, but the cremaster is associated with the descent of the testes into the scrotum in the seventh month after conception, at which point the gender of the fetus is definitively male.