Hungarian Rhapsody

By Frankel, David | Artforum International, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Hungarian Rhapsody


Frankel, David, Artforum International


On the 24th of this month, Matthew Barney's Cremaster 5, the concluding segment of the artist's five-film-cycle-in-progress (episodes 1 and 3 are still to come), opens at New York's Film Forum. Contributing editor David Frankel takes a crack at Barney's symbolic tableaux, shot on location in Budapest. Discovering a world that is as densely coded as it is visually ravishing, he concedes that "Barney's allegory-making mindset will always have a jump on us."

That wacky Matthew Barney. Writers aren't meant to admit such things, but I often feel, looking at his work, that I have no idea what he's doing - or, rather, that whatever meanings I might find in or bring to the work have correlatives in extraordinary and incalculable systems of Barney's own. Oh, there's always research, and the Barney hermeneutical corpus, including a certain amount of explication by the artist himself. You can consult his groundbreaking analyses of the properties of tapioca, muse on just how internally lubricated plastic gets that way, play with the palindromic possibilities of football player Jim Otto's surname - all rewarding and even necessary explorations, given the work's materials and forms. But you'd better recognize that Barney's allegory-making mindset will always have the jump on you. For one thing, although his stories often link up through not only ideas and themes but images, narrative tropes, and even physical objects, each new one has its own dense detail and individuality - its own peculiarity, in the sense of both specificity and strangeness. For another, allegory depends for its readability on the audience's access to a certain lore. That lore may be commonplace, as in the allegories of medieval Christianity, or cultic, as in Mozart's coded freemasonry, or wholly individual - as in Matthew Barney. Fascinating as his films and videos, installations and objects may be to anyone stumbling on them in innocence, we will always be somewhat dependent on the artist himself to understand the correspondences and data to which they are attuned.

Take tapioca - please. A substance encompassing solid, liquid, and a gelatinous, mucus-y continuum between, it can easily be understood as a sign for the kind of transformative process that Barney seems often to have somewhere in mind. Actually, though, the process he is thinking of is more particular: "a metabolic transfer between a complex carbohydrate and glucose." Of course! It's a common art theme of the '90s. In a typical Barney exegesis, in fact, the artist told Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, in a 1995 Artforum interview, that this same metabolic transfer constituted the inner narrative of an entire group of his earlier works:

In Pace Car for the Hubris Pill, the hubris pill is a glucose tablet. . . . It's actually a prehubris pill - glucose is in the state of prehubris. In Ottoshaft, Otto and Al Davis try to take this glucose pill through the metabolic change from glucose to sucrose to candy to petroleum jelly to tapioca to meringue and then to pound cake. If they could just get it to pound cake - its state of hubris - then the bagpipe would play "Amazing Grace." But it never gets there; it gets trapped in meringue.

TNG [perhaps slightly stunned]: Where's the pound cake?

MB: Behind the pace car there's an eight-foot pound cake that sits on the floor. It's divided in the center, where that notch is in the pill.

Minute, lucid, yet delirious (delirious because so minutely lucid), such explanations, even as they help you out, tend to leave you feeling that you can't get there by yourself. Add in that Barney's is an extremely carefully imagined world in which everything is intricately connected to everything else - the bagpipes mentioned here, for example, being linked, as versions of panpipes, to the god Pan, and thence to the satyrs of Drawing Restraint 7, 1993, or to the Loughton Candidate of Cremaster 4, 1994 - and it seems safe to say that while Barney is surely doing something quite precise in the latest film of his "Cremaster" cyde, Cremaster 5, many of the film's viewers, certainly including me, will have only the most general idea what it is. …

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