Body of Evidence

The big tease: Matthew Barney in 'Cremaster 4'
Palm Pictures

Anyone who has seen an installment of the Cremaster cycle, Matthew Barney's five-part, seven-hour film phantasmagoria, is bound to have a few questions. Such as: Why is Norman Mailer, playing Harry Houdini, locked in a vagina-shaped cocoon by a pair of Canadian Mounties in Cremaster 2? Why does Barney, fitted with a red wig and a grotesque prosthetic nose, squirm up a Vaseline-coated birth canal in Cremaster 4? Why does Richard Serra, playing a mystical architect, implant a crumpled 1967 Chrysler Imperial into Barney's mouth in Cremaster 3? Why are a flock of pigeons tethered by ribbon to Barney's scrotum in Cremaster 5? Or while we're at it: What does any of this mean?

Central to Cremaster's peculiar power--and unsurpassed weirdness--is its tendency to confound exegesis. (Consider, for example, a note I scribbled while watching Cremaster 1: "On Goodyear Blimp/zygote, a woman with suction-cup shoes. Also, many, many grapes.") Most fans of the cycle agree that Cremaster is some kind of masterpiece. The question is: What kind?

"Normally when you go into a studio and look at something, it comes from a tradition you're aware of," says Richard Flood, an early Barney supporter and chief curator at Walker Art Center, which is currently hosting a retrospective of the first four Cremaster films. "I mean, a painting, even if it's very abstract, is still something that hangs on a nail on the wall. I can't tell you how rare it is to wind up in a brand new world, one that's still remarkably coherent."

Barney himself, while thoroughly pleasant, is not much more help in unpacking the variegated narrative and visual motifs of his magnum opus. "With the films," he says, "I was interested in creating a system that would generate sculptures. I thought maybe the stories should come first, and then objects would inevitably come out of that. It was very liberating. And the film exists for me as a sculpture in itself. You could think of it as a text for generating objects."

But perhaps critics who argue over whether Cremaster is a major work of art--a millennial Nibelungenlied--or a distended, self-indulgent exercise in spectacle are missing the obvious: that it might be both. It has always been the case, after all, that American genius contains within it the kernel of hucksterism. To put it another way: Every Harry Houdini needs a bit of P.T. Barnum.

That's not to suggest that there's anything counterfeit about the Cremaster cycle; indeed, the faintest hint of irony would bring the films' entire self-contained cosmos crashing down upon itself. And Barney, who appears in four of the films in various guises--Houdini, a satyr-like creature, and the murderer Gary Gilmore, to name but three--approaches his work with an almost endearing earnestness. At their best, the Cremaster films, with their near-free-associative riffs on Celtic and biblical myth, esoteric Masonic ritual, athletics, architecture, and biology, achieve a Whitmanesque expansiveness: The epic is large enough to contain multitudes.

For all such metaphysical excursions, Barney locates the center of his cosmology in a rather earthy place: his balls. In case you were wondering, the cycle's portentous-sounding title actually refers to the muscle that raises and lowers the male testes. And Cremaster's central narrative arc has to do with the process of sexual differentiation in the womb, wherein the gonads descend or ascend, producing male or female sex organs. The entire epic, in fact, may be best understood as a biology lesson by way of Ayn Rand--the organism in revolt against its genetic destiny.

It's not so hard to put the pieces of this allegory together once you know where to look for them in Cremaster's swelling profusion of images. For example, in Cremaster 1 (screening Wednesday, May 7 at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday, May 28 at 8:00 p.m.), which is actually the second film that Barney made (the series was shot out of order), a chorus of Busby Berkeley-type dancing girls act out the formation of the sexual organs on the blue Astroturf of Boise State's stadium (where Barney played high school football). In Cremaster 2 (Saturday, May 10 at 8:00 p.m. and Thursday, May 29 at 8:00 p.m.), which is a kind of dream extrapolation from Mailer's The Executioner's Song, the gonad's progress is frustrated by inertia. Later, in Cremaster 4 (Wednesday, May 14 at 8:00 p.m. and Friday, May 30 at 8:00 p.m.), the struggle between male and female tendencies is re-imagined as a road race between two motorcycle teams. And in the climactic scene of Cremaster 5 (Wednesday, May 21 at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday, May 31 at 8:00 p.m.), set amid the serene blue waters of Budapest's Gellert baths, Barney's scrotum is pulled earthward by a trio of nude, androgynous nymphs, only to be borne aloft again by a flock of birds, leaving him in asexual limbo and sending the narrative back to its starting point.

Despite the obvious gender ambivalence all that suggests, though, Barney's world is an essentially hyper-masculine one. By and large, the cycle's female characters are desexualized--as is Cremaster 5's Ursula Andress, who looks as though she has been floating in formaldehyde since Dr. No--or rendered as vaginae dentatae--as is the double-amputee athlete Aimee Mullins, who appears in Cremaster 3 as a snarling cheetah. And let's just agree that it takes a special sort of machismo to cast the Chrysler Building as a stand-in for one's phallus.

None of that detracts from the experience of seeing the Cremaster films, of course. It's a peculiarity of Barney's work that not even frequent bafflement and occasional boredom take away from the pleasure of watching it. And the Cremaster series is stocked with tableaux so beautiful and so mesmerizingly weird that they're nearly impossible not to gaze at in wonder. There's Barney's satyr burrowing through the floor of the sea, for instance; or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir digitally rendered as a ghostly vision of Heaven; or bright streamers unfurling from the spire of a skyscraper; or Barney, in a kilt and pink headdress, scaling the walls of the Guggenheim in a rollicking sendup of The Odyssey; or the ominously hushed, lacquered baroque interior of the Budapest opera hall; or Barney plunging off a bridge over the Danube on a starry winter night.

If one still wonders whether Barney is employing this host of ravishments in service of some pretty silly ideas, well, so did Wagner. Art will survive.

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