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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
, 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.

There is a point in embryonic development when matters are less
clear-cut. Two genital swellings known as labioscrota separate, in the
female, to become the labia majora, and in the male unite to form the
scrotum. But in the labioscrotal phase of our development, we are male
and female at once, so to speak, and this condition of gender
indeterminacy speaks with particular eloquence to a generation that,
especially under the influence of feminist theory, postulates a
condition beyond the male-female disjunction. After sexual
differentiation is established, the chief function of the cremaster is
to raise the testes when the scrotum is chilled.

Why Barney should have singled out this particular muscle, rather than
the spermatic cord or, for that matter, the testes themselves, is
doubtless connected with the poetics of ascent and descent, which figure
as metaphorical actions in the four Cremaster films in which Barney
himself performs. He does not appear in Cremaster 1, in which two
Goodyear blimps may be taken as symbolic embodiments of the genital
swellings of the labioscrotal moment of our sexual development. In
Cremaster 3, the character played by Barney climbs up and down an
elevator shaft in the Chrysler Building; in Cremaster 5, he climbs
around the proscenium arch in the Opera House in Budapest; and in
Cremaster 4, the character burrows through an underground channel
fraught with symbolic meaning.

The spiraling interior architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim
lends itself to ascent and descent, and becomes a second site for the
character's upward itinerary in Cremaster 3. Because of its role in the
Cremaster cycle, the building overcomes the commonplace distinction
between exhibiting space and exhibited content. But neither it nor the
profusion of objects and images that make up the show as a whole can be
grasped as art without reference to the films that are Cremaster's core.
The Guggenheim accordingly holds daily screenings of its various parts
in its Peter Lewis Auditorium, and on each Friday, those with the
required stamina can see the work in its entirety. It is a remarkable
experience, and a remarkable if not altogether successful work. I have
to say that I lost patience with Cremaster 3, the last installment of
the cycle to have been made, and three grueling hours long. But I am
haunted by certain of its sequences, even if I remain unclear what the
point is of the ordeal that it, and the cycle as a whole, depict.

The films in the cycle, as a useful handout claims, "represent a
condition of pure potentiality," by which I imagine is meant the
labioscrotal phase of genital development, before we are definitively
male or female. In fact, Cremaster I glorifies femininity. It has two
protagonists--a female performer and then a chorus of females who dance,
so to speak, as one. The action is dreamlike, and it reminded me, as do
many of the Cremaster sequences, of the Surrealist films of Maya Deren.
The female heroine is situated under a table, laden with grapes, in the
cabin of the blimp, seemingly guarded by women of an almost forbidding
beauty, wearing smart military uniforms. She succeeds, after some
effort, in making an opening in the cloth above her head, through which
she pulls down clusters of the perhaps forbidden fruit. The performer's
name is Marti Domination, a real personage, I discovered through the
Internet, where she is identified as belonging to The House of
Domination. And though Marti Domination looks thoroughly feminine, in a
white intimate garment, high heels and an extravagant coiffure, the web
page leaves the matter of her actual gender somewhat ambiguous. My sense
is that Marti Domination portrays a woman, whatever the reality, and
that the aura of sexual indeterminacy accounts in part for her having
been cast in the role.

The action of Cremaster 1 is split in two: As Marti Domination arranges
the grapes in logographic patterns on the floor, the chorus executes
isomorphic Busby Berkeley-like patterns in a football stadium on the
ground below: The gridiron is covered in blue Astroturf. Their movements
are cadenced to swelling cascades of deliberately gorgeous music, as in
a musical from the 1930s. There is an exalting moment when one of the
chorines--Marti Domination herself--runs across the field with two
balloons, shaped like the Goodyear blimps. Not much else happens. The
action goes back and forth between grapes and girls, cabin and football
field, and then comes to an end. The entire review flirts outrageously
with kitsch, which gives it, one might say, its authenticity.

If Cremaster 1 is an ode to a certain idealized femininity--to beauty,
music, dancing, fantastic gowns and pumps by Manolo Blahnik--Cremaster 2
is a stylized ballad to violent masculinity. The hero is Gary Gilmore,
portrayed by Barney wearing a full beard. Again, the action is
dreamlike. The robbery and murder in the gas station (the Goodyear logo
can be glimpsed through its window as the attendant, shot through the
back of the head, bleeds to death on the floor) mainly unfurl in
silence. The execution of Gilmore, wearing convict stripes, is
symbolically enacted as a rodeo act--he dies subduing a bucking
bull--and his afterlife is fantasized as a Texas two-step, danced by a
cowboy and cowgirl. These images are poetic and powerful, as is the
mysterious flashback scene near the end of the film, in which Gilmore's
grandmother, as an Edwardian belle with an impossibly narrow waist,
speaks in a vast exhibition hall of that era with Harry Houdini. In a
brilliant piece of casting, Houdini is played by Norman Mailer, the
author, not in-cidentally, of The Executioner's Song. Mailer-Houdini
delivers a speech--a rare occurrence in the cycle--poetically describing
his escape from the submerged box in which he has been chained. He tells
how he becomes one with the lock, how "a real transformation takes
place." Escape through transformation is somehow the motif of the entire
work, though the nature of our captive condition naturally remains
somewhat indeterminate.

Cremaster 2 is, in my view, the most fully realized of the five segments
of the cycle. But I have to say that I found Cremaster 3 a mess. Calvin
Tomkins wrote in The New Yorker that "a film like this may be one that
only a Dick Cheney could walk out on without a frisson of self-doubt,"
but that walking out should have occurred to him at all speaks volumes
about the film's shortcomings. Nothing but a cold sense of duty was able
to keep me in my seat. The film exemplifies the flaw of hubris it is
intended to portray, but one cannot really believe that it is any the
less a flaw if it was made intentionally boring and preposterous. It is
not my responsibility to moralize, but my conjecture is that Barney has
attained the kind of artistic eminence that makes those who work with
him reluctant to be critical. If this should be true, then it is a good
thing that Cremaster 4 and 5 were made before hubris on this scale
kicked in. Cremaster 3 is not redeemed by its unquestioned high points,
any more than 4 and 5 are seriously compromised by their ennuis. It is a
piece of bad art by a good and unquestionably important artist.

Disregarding Cremaster 3's mythological prelude, the action of what one
might consider its first act is split, somewhat like that of Cremaster
, between two planes. On the upper plane--the suspended elevator cabin,
the Cloud Club bar and indeed the glorious roof of the Chrysler
Building--the performance is enacted by a single character, identified
as the Entered Apprentice, played by Barney himself. On the lower
plane--the Chrysler Building's elevator lobby--the performance is by
a chorus of five 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperials, engaged in demolishing
what I surmise is
a vintage black Chrysler. The demolition derby goes on interminably as,
with screeching tires, the five Imperials crash into their victim, go
into reverse, and crash again, and again, and again, finally dragging or
pushing the shattered heap from their midst. The prolonged mayhem
alternates with the action on the higher plane, where the Entered
Apprentice muddles through the process of mixing mortar, using the
elegant Art Deco interior of one of the Chrysler Building's elevators as
a vessel.

There is something wanton and willful about the way in which both
enactments take place. I somehow feel that Barney, who seems to lack a
real sense of humor, intended all this as some kind of comedy. As the
Entered Apprentice, he is dressed in vintage 1930s working clothes,
including a fedora, and wearing a small mustache. Perhaps he is supposed
to be suggesting the ineptitude of the Chaplin character in Modern
. The slapstick routine with the bartender in the Cloud Club, who
improvises a stepstool to fetch a glass, only to bring a whole cupboard
of glassware crashing on top of him as he falls to the floor, is roughly
as funny as the automobile massacre in the lobby below. The entire
sequence is malevolently inane.

The Guggenheim Museum is introduced as a symbolic setting in Cremaster
, where the Entered Apprentice makes his graded way upward through a
sequence of degrees based on the rites of the Masonic Order. There is a
genuine piece of wit in associating the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
with the legendary Temple of Solomon, which is an important mythic site
on which Masonic rites and beliefs are based. My grandfather and father
were dedicated Masons, so Masonic appurtenances--the compass and square,
the trowel and the apron, not to mention references to initiations and
sworn secrecies--inflected the atmosphere of my childhood. Masonry
really was their religion, but I could never bring myself to follow
them, since even as a youth my temperament was too positivistic to
believe in occult teaching of any sort. I nevertheless picked up a
certain amount of Masonic lore, which helped somewhat to clarify what
takes place at successive stages of the Guggenheim's involuted ramp, as
imaginatively transformed by Barney.

"Entered Apprentice" is a term in Masonic nomenclature, referring to the
lowest degree in the Order. The highest standard degree is that of
Master Mason. Masonic myth traces the origins of the fra-ternity to the
Phoenician masons who worked on Solomon's Temple, as the Hebrews lacked
the knowledge necessary to realize the king's architectural vision. The
Master Mason was named Hiram Abiff, who possessed not merely the
practical knowledge of shaping matter into usable forms but
the greatest Masonic secret of all, the "ineffable name" of God. I know
by hearsay of a ritual
enactment in which various Hebrew ruffians try to wrest the knowledge,
and hence the power, from Hiram Abiff, who was finally killed--or
sacrificed--only to be resurrected by King Solomon himself, using the
Masonic Grip.

Barney has cast the sculptor Richard Serra to play the part of the
Master Mason, or Architect, whom the Entered Apprentice finally murders.
The main action of the Guggenheim interlude, however, requires the
Entering Apprentice to pass a series of tests, which must be done in the
time it takes for melted Vaseline to spiral its way to the museum's
lobby. The molten Vaseline is flung against the para-pet by the
Architect, which reenacts one of Serra's most famous sculptures, and indeed
one of the
signature works of the late 1960s. In 1969, Serra flung molten lead into
the angle where wall and floor met in Leo Castelli's warehouse, using
the architecture as a kind of ready-made mold. In a photograph of the
time, Serra looks like a warrior hero, using the ladle as a weapon, and
there is little question but that his act was perceived at the time as
inaugurating a new moment in the history of sculpture. It is difficult
not to see the demotion of lead to Vaseline as an emblematic degradation
of that heroic moment to the present moment of postmodern art. The fact
that the Entered Apprentice is himself killed in Cremaster 3 is
nevertheless a declaration that an artist of our day will achieve the
status attained by Serra: Every member of the Masonic Order impersonates
Hiram Abiff when initiated as a Master Mason. I have, meanwhile, nothing
to say about the significance that Vaseline evidently has in Matthew
Barney's vocabulary of symbols. Its cultural meaning is that of a
lubricant, which can perhaps be connected to the two phallic columns
erected by Hiram Abiff in the courtyard of the Temple. Someone once told
me that in the night table next to his bed, all that was found after
Auden's death was a large, economy-size jar of Vaseline and two pairs of

I must leave readers to their own resources in dealing with Cremaster 4
and 5. I think they are both quite magical. Barney is at his best in the
role of The Candidate--a dandified tap-dancer, half man and half sheep,
with red spit curls--in Cremaster 4, which takes place on the Isle of
Man. The "Three Faeries"--personages of genuine sexual ambiguity who
serve as benign intercessors--are among Barney's most compelling
inventions. In both these films, I thought of The Magic
--especially so in Cremaster 5, in which Ursula Andress plays the
role of "the Queen of Chain," in the sequence that takes place in the
Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest. As everyone knows, the
narrative of Mozart's masterpiece is also based on Masonic ritual. One
cannot, meanwhile, praise too highly the musical scores for the whole
cycle, composed by Jonathan Bepler.

Since objects and images relating to the different parts of the
Cremaster cycle are arrayed on successive stages of the Guggenheim, the
intention is that we shall imagine a mapping through which the
exhibition replicates the cycle in another modality--in space, so to
speak, in contrast with time. But the experience is totally different,
and unless one has internalized the films and something of the ideas
that animate them, what one encounters as one ascends or descends the
ramp is more or less just art-stuff. It does not on its own make an
enchanting show. But the cycle has moments of great enchantment. It is
an uncertain achievement, but one with which everyone interested in
contemporary art must deal.

OK, let's say that life goes on.

When James Agee wrote in these pages sixty years ago, he often
complained of the paltriness of this or that movie, as judged against
the events of the day.

If you've never watched Nelson Mandela dance, then you should know that
he does a modified Locomotion, pumping his elbows like pistons to the
immense, loving amusement of his people.

Since few of us at The Nation speak Thai, I'm going to refer to
my favorite filmmaker of the month as Joe, which is the name actually
used in this country by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

If Elia Suleiman's face were a cartoon, then the single short, white
brush stroke dabbed into his black hair would perhaps be the beginning
of a thought balloon, perpetually forming above the l

The summer before 14-year-old Trent Lott entered all-white Pascagoula
High School in Mississippi, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago named
Emmett Till convinced his mother to let him go down

Looking backward in the January chill, I feel my eyes shoot past the
films of 2002 toward a movie made some thirty years ago: a picture by
Martin Scorsese about violent, driven people in downto

I can think of no picture of recent years, other than Roman Polanski's
The Pianist, that has won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and yet
stirred neither controversy nor excitement.

Even without the aid of Smell-o-Vision, Charlie Kaufman's bedroom comes
across as dank.


Robert Hatch’s conflicted review of Stanley Kubrick’s great satire, released fifty years ago this week.

January 25, 2014

NPR does a segment on Following the Ninth, a new film co-produced by Greg Mitchell.

January 14, 2014

The danger to orcas—and humans.

December 11, 2013

The Coen Brothers reanimate the Greenwich Village of the sixties.

December 5, 2013

The New Public offers a powerful look at poverty’s impact on education.

November 11, 2013

Is “collaborators” too strong a word for movie bosses dealing with the Hitler regime?

September 24, 2013

The news-leaking website, in possession of a leaked script, offers rebuttals to the film that dramatizes Julian Assange's relationship with former colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg. 

September 22, 2013

Nation editor Roane Carey joins a panel to unpack the Israeli documentary The Law in These Parts.

August 21, 2013