Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle Is A Low-Hanging Balls Joke — And A Work Of Art

A closer look at the artist and the meaning behind his Cremaster works, from the front row at Metrograph.

Photos courtesy of Metrograph and Matthew Barney Studio.

Published

“SATANIC!” That’s what my elementary school teacher called my “show and tell” item: a Matthew Barney “CREMASTER 4” postcard (of a goat man combing his hair). What the uptight teachers at my Jewish Day School in Upper Manhattan didn’t get, audiences at Metrograph did (evidenced by thunderous applause after each showing).


Matthew Barney has a new show, SECONDARY, in Long Island City, overlapping with re-screenings of the rarely shown, highly enigmatic art house film series, The Cremaster Cycle. Yes, THAT Cremaster. Things are about to get phallic, and no, I’m not talking about the symbolism in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (eat your heart out, Judith Butler). Barney’s style is a bit more “in your face’ with lore, world-building, and big ideas to back it up (as any good visual artist ought to).


I first encountered Barney as a precocious six-year-old running through his exhibit at the Guggenheim in February 2003. The exhibit opened after the last film in the cycle, “CREMASTER 3,” dropped on May 15, 2002, and showed stills from the five films in the cycle as well as props, costumes, and recreated scenes. The exhibit heavily featured imagery and scenery from “CREMASTER 3,” as the last section of said film took place and was shot throughout the Guggenheim’s spiral hallways. Barbara Gladstone, an esteemed gallerist, and Barney himself primarily financed the film cycle. Barney sold stills and other artifacts from the films to make up the costs of such a costly effort—the entire cycle took $4 million to make.

Courtesy of Metrograph and Matthew Barney Studio.

“Things are about to get phallic, and no, I’m not talking about the symbolism in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (eat your heart out, Judith Butler).”

Upon securing the tickets for each showing of each installment in the cycle at Metrograph, I counted myself blessed because not only did showings sell out quick, but committing to something on this scale seemed like an exciting “experience.” In total, I watched over 6 hours of esoteric art house cinema.


Despite being shown at a movie theater, the cycle is a series of evocative images conceived by a visual artist. It would be similarly hard to review Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band’s discography like one would a typical artist due to it being more art than entertainment. The Cremaster Cycle lies somewhere in that milieu.


In “CREMASTER 4”, we’re quickly introduced to Barney’s zany world-building. Immediately, we see a pier with faeries, powder white-skinned female attendants with orange skullcaps, Princess Leia buns, and bodybuilder physiques. Meanwhile, a goat man, played by Barney himself, combs Archie Andrew's level orange hair to cover where he has chopped his horns off. He’s dressed in a white suit and is about to tap-dance right into a hole, eventually leading him down a convoluted tunnel to be reborn as a Loughton goat. Meanwhile, two auto-racers speed through the countryside of the Isle of Man. At the race’s end, the goat man is reborn, and the racers pull on strings from a giant testicle. This installment is the most obvious in its connection to the testicular phenomenon known as The Cremaster Cycle.

“Upon securing the tickets for each showing of each installment in the cycle, I counted myself blessed because not only did showings sell out quick, but committing to something on this scale seemed like an exciting “experience.””

Courtesy of Metrograph and Matthew Barney Studio.

While there were oppressive sounds of bagpipes and cars screeching in “CREMASTER 4,” “CREMASTER 1” plays with lush classical music in the foreground with beautifully choreographed ballerinas on a pink and blue football field devoid of an audience. Two GOODYEAR blimps host several Isaac Mizrahi-attired flight attendants viewing the scene on the field below. In the middle of each blimp’s common area is a table with a display of either red or green grapes and a statue of the female reproductive system.


Crouched beneath each table is a blonde-haired, retro-looking young woman who clandestinely sneaks grapes off the table above. The grapes fall from her grasp to the ground below and make patterns repeated by the dancers on the field farther below. Almost like Disney’s Fantasia (1940), the simplicity of this film was pleasant and evocative, with all the design elements and syncopation in motion.


But out of them all, “CREMASTER 5” is my favorite. Barney takes the melodramatic formula and elevates it with beautiful imagery and character development. The Queen of Chain, played by Ursula Andress, dons a masterfully constructed grand black gown and sings of loss in a five-part Hungarian opera. The imagery of the sea fairies in a pool beneath her and the opera house where she sings is a sight to behold. It feels profound in its ability to meditate with detail on loss and the gripping hold of misery.

“The imagery of the sea fairies in a pool beneath her and the opera house where she sings is a sight to behold. It feels profound in its ability to meditate with detail on loss and the gripping hold of misery.”

In the final installment, “CREMASTER 3,” Barney goes full National Treasures, regaling us with several Freemason rituals. The action occurs primarily in the Chrysler building, highlighting its Art Deco architecture with 1930s-style period rooms and colorful masons dressed appropriately for the era.


The installment is bookended with violent encounters in Scotland, where creatures rise from the ‘primordial slime’ and attack the old Celts. Overall, the film speaks to modernization and art as ritual, including the Guggenheim scenes as a way of inviting the audience in.


The cremaster is a muscle that helps protect one’s “balls.” And what “balls” Barney had producing this cycle of films?! There are so few artists nowadays in all mediums willing to execute their vision irrespective of algorithms and trending topics. It was a great pleasure traipsing through Barney’s neocortex and attempting to understand each detail and how it fits in with the broader story he was telling. Corny artists may come and go, but good fucking art lasts.


———————————————————————————


Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle and Select Early Works was screened at Metrograph on the occasion of the appearance of Barney’s new studio installation, Secondary.

More Articles: