Master of Ceremony

By Birnbaum, Daniel | Artforum International, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Master of Ceremony


Birnbaum, Daniel, Artforum International


All that the world most needs today is combined in the most seductive way in his art-the three great stimulants of exhausted people: brutality, artificiality, and innocence....

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner (1895)

BAYREUTH CAN WAIT: Matthew Barney's CREMASTER cycle is a Wagnerian vision for the new millennium. It started, in CREMASTER 4, 1994, with a tap-dancing freak--half glitzy performer, half goat--dressed in white. With great care, the soft hands of three monstrous muses attached prosthetic gadgets to his elegant shoes--not since the early Andy Warhol has an artist spent so much energy on footwear. And it's not only shoes in the traditional sense that play a central role in Barney's work, it's strange devices attached to the feet, tools for ritualistic practices and occult communication. In CREMASTER 3, 2002 (the recently debuted, last-to-be-realized installment of the pentalogy), a woman with crystal legs is suddenly transformed into a catlike creature, possibly in heat; a lovely lady with blades on her feet dices a roomful of potatoes, for reasons that will remain forever obscure; an elderly enchantress secretly lifts ceremonial instruments with her toes. Surely one way to enter Barney's work is through the rich world of fetishism.

"The occultist draws the ultimate conclusion from the fetish-character of the commodities," Theodor Adorno writes in Minima Moralia (1951). It may be quite logical, then, for Barney to be attracted to esoteric ceremonies and rituals. In fact this tendency has been there all along, and in his most recent works the artist has included scenes and imagery from the worlds of Mormons and Freemasons, the latter an especially rich source of hermetic symbolism. But the fetishistic desire so obvious in his productions relies on neither the charged objects of classical psychoanalysis nor the commodities analyzed by Marxism. This is a more confusing world of mutating materials, a fluid cosmos of energies and hallucinatory processes rather than stable things. Humans transform into animals, organisms blend with artifacts. What's offered up to us is nothing less than a perverse mythology for our times, one that seems to me decidedly American but which has many precedents, literary as well as philosophical. Here is just one, more than two thousand years old, from the writings of Lucretius: "You would see monsters coming into being everywhere. Hybrid growths of man and beast would arise. Lofty branches would sprout here and there from a living body."

Barney's CREMASTER cycle, the tremendously ambitious series of films he has made over the past nine years, has finally reached completion, and we can now see that the vicious circle thus brought into being is of a kind found in other mythological systems. This dazzling serpent not only chases its tail (as the character of the Kid does in Barney's early video Drawing Restraint 7, 1993) but devours large parts of its body. Chewing, digesting, and excreting its own revolving essence, it represents a closed system in which each element seems to refer to other parts internal to the cycle. Each film creates its own universe equipped with its own fables, which are related to the site of production, be it the Isle of Man, Budapest, or Manhattan's most glittering architectural phantasm, the Chrysler Building. Yet the separate episodes feed into each other, often in inscrutable ways. The works are linked in a kind of metabolic chain. Forms don't take on life, says Barney, until they are "eaten" by the narrative.

Everything, it seems, has followed a plan, exact and grandiose. After finishing the first film, CREMASTER 4, Barney outlined, in an interview with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve published in these pages in 1995, the entire sequence in advance: "I'm going to do number one this summer in a stadium in Idaho that has blue Astroturf. CREMASTER 2 is on a glacier, like an ice cap. …

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