Matthew Barney’s “The Cremaster Cycle”03

III About the Future

The impulse of the multimedia era – Matthew Barney’s “The Cremaster Cycle”

Matthew Barney is one of the most active contemporary artists in the United States over the past decade, and well-known for his films “The Cremaster Cycle”. “Cremaster”, also known as testicle levator muscle, is a small muscle in the male scrotum. After an embryonic pregnancy of seven months, it can assist the testicles to descend into the scrotum, which determines the gender of the embryo.

Once the gender is determined, it also controls ascending and descending the testis. Downward motions represent the differences or personality, when upward motions represent no difference or consistency. Compared with a male physical structure, “The Cremaster Cycle” series was the narrative of the creative system transforming from consistency to difference, from the ascending period in the first episode to descending period in the fifth episode. The entire work was full of suggestions of the gender’s split in the process of the embryonic gestation, exploring some mysterious initial stages of the gender’s formation in the process of fetal growth, in a biological perspective, it is the crucial moment in becoming pregnant with all the potential development of human beings in the future.

“The Cremaster Cycle” series consisted of five films of interrelated themes, similar to the four musical operas “Ring Cycle” by the German romanticism musician Wagner, on their structures. Barney avoided the chronological order, initially creating the “Cremaster 4” (1994), followed by the creation of the Cremaster 1 (1995), Cremaster 5 (1997), Cremaster 2 (1999) and Cremaster 3 (2002). In “Cremaster 1”, a story was expanded around an American football field and two airships suspended in the air. The olive-shaped rubber dinghy was like the woman’s uterus or a seed of expansion, a symbol of the initial stage of the development of the reproductive organs; in “Cremaster 2”, it described a barbaric Westerner – Gary Gilmore, whose behavior assaulted and split the steady social system. In the biological perspective, it is similar to the gender formation in the initial stage of the fetal development. In “Cremaster 3”, it fabricated a story of the construction of the Chrysler Building. During the construction of the automobile manufacturing center of the kingdom from 1929s to the 1930s, Mason and Metalworkers Federation had split. Under this background, taking the Masonic Legend as a model, it interpreted a battle between architects and apprentices. This contemptible race implied the climax of the human embryonic development or the ridiculously contemptible, and never changed private desire in the exuberant period of vitality, originated from the complex of Narses.

Still of Matthew Barney’s “The Cremaster Cycle”02

Still of Matthew Barney’s “The Cremaster Cycle”02

“Cremaster 4” was a story of the Loughton Candidate, Barney played a role of a half- man-and-half-goat monster – Loughton Candidate, seemed to be a satyr in Greek mythology, a symbol of the regenerative capacity of life as well as social and political alternation. One of the major scenes was a motorcycle competition on an island. Motorcycle contestants flew on the island, over the mountains, to challenge barriers and limits. This fierce rivalry like the “cremaster”, is constantly groped between the ascending and descending, symbolizing the rushed selection at the final stage of the embryonic development, or the panic-stricken in late creating process. In “Cremaster 5”, it is envisioned as an inevitable tragic love story, set in between the romantic opera and Roman-style suspension bridge of late-nineteenth-Century Budapest. It seems to be a metaphor of the inevitable loss of irreconcilable differences and idealism. Then, the “cremaster” finally descended back, to determine the gender of the embryo, at end of the creation system. The Cremaster Cycle series makes the male gonads activities a trajectory clue, inclusive of history, mythology and religious legends, full of symbols and metaphors about the vitality and creativity.

Restraint and constraint & desire of Drawing Restraint

In the odd space created by Matthew Barney, you can see some stage properties, such as wrestling mats, the sternal retractor, and mirror, and etc., as well as Vaseline, wax, and some serious material like starch, all of which are reminiscent of the gymnasium and medical research laboratory. Prior to the study of art, Barney was a student of Yale University majored in medical science, and athletic studies, his exploration of the body was in reference to the knowledge of Exercise Physiology: growth emerges only by inhibiting it. From the contradictory relationship of this pattern of motion, such as the cycle of desire, exercise, friction, and growth, Barney is associated with the issue about the differences and contradictions.

Still of Matthew Barney’s “The Cremaster Cycle”01

Still of Matthew Barney’s “The Cremaster Cycle”

Since 1988, Barney created a series of works themed on “Drawing Restraint”, while the body is performing: Leaping on the trampoline, jumping across obstacles, push-ups, and bundling the body with medical plastic tubes, were the means of demonstrating the skills and self-torture, through these works, Barney explored the relationships between the binding and the tension, like lifting weights, although the muscle tissue was destroyed in the exercise, they became more robust. “The Cremaster Circle” series of works were similar in operation to the basis of the patterns of the biological motion. Through the comparison of the two forces of inhibition and constraint, as well as the desire to break free, it constantly performed the process of an assumed biological creative system against the resistance from the target and moving forward. Harry Houdini and Jim Otto were the key characters connecting Barney’s works. Houdini was a famous magician in the early 20th Century known for his sensational escape acts, Houdini had experimented on “psychic surgery” in his later years, he desired to go beyond the barrier of death and to exchange with the living soul. Otto was an American football star in the 1970s, striker of the Oakland Raiders, noted for his fierce and decisive attacks. In the race, he was constantly injured, but even when he was fitted with an artificial knee, the force of his attack remained unabated. In Barney’s works, Houdini and Otto represent two contradictory personalities, of a dialectical significance. Houdini was the symbol of isolation, introspective force, representing a positive binding, refusing differences, desiring an escape from the binds of life by extremely strict training, on the contrary, even though Otto was also fanatical, and indomitable, he was open, outgoing, and dramatic, representing the sturm und drang force. When Nietzsche talked about Greek tragedy, he took Apollo and Dionysus for example, they represented the counter forces of rational and emotion, Barney considered Otto and Houdini as two distinct incarnations of megalomaniac thoughts, outgoing-oriented Otto desired to frantically devour everything, to conquer the universe, while the introverted Houdini tried to gain the almighty power through perseverance and will. Both of them were two faces of a coin, whose common goal was to avoid the shackles of fate. “OTTO Shaft” tells the story of the struggle between Houdini and Otto. In order to compete for the megalomaniac pill, they wanted to take advantage of a new biological method to change the mode of the energy conversion. However, they failed, the creative system is always wavering in the danger zone between the inner ruptured and the exploded outside, it has been unable to achieve a harmonious and unified state.

“Drawing Restraint 9”, Matthew Barney and Bjork wearing Kimonos

In the “Drawing Restraint 9” (2005), Barney had a fantasy made up of a free state completely breaking away from the binding. He and his girl friend Bjork – the famous Icelandic singer performed an ecstasy of the style of Dionysus, immersed in Eros. The story was expanded around two plotlines in a Japanese whaling fleet: firstly the love between Barney and Bjork, after a series of original ceremonies, they reached the climax of love by way of mutually cutting the carnal, and finally both were transformed into whales, swimming in the sea. Secondly it was a process of casting a large Vaseline sculpture. With the emotional and physical changes of two main characters, the sculpture simultaneously changed, from hot to cold, from tough to melted. Two circumstances were intertwined, and finally unified, which were peppered with unique Japanese whaling,a tea ceremony, and dancing. Vaseline emerged in Barney’s works many times, with multiple symbolic meanings. In Barney’s imagination, it was the spiritual lubricant, like alchemy and the ancient Greek philosophy in ancient Western culture, as well as the Hebrew prophecy, as a symbol of the spirit of harmony and unity. In real life, it is also a fine therapy and health care supplies. It was rarely noticed that the pure white grease was the remaining waste of refining gasoline. The raw material of gasoline is crude oil, which originated from ancient aquatic plants and animals buried under the ground for millions of years. The existence of petroleum jelly is the proof of the difference, which exists between the artificial and the natural, the pure and garbage, its evolution is a metaphor for the energy conversion of the food chain on earth. The breeding of life is bizarre, sometimes ridiculous, existing in the difference. In the perspective of artistic creation: It isn’t necessary to reconcile and assimilate the differences between the Oriental and Western cultures, men and women, and the original impulse and moral constraints. The impulses of artistic creation and reproduction of life exist along with the differences.

Photo of the film “Drawing Restraint 9”, Matthew Barney and Bjork wearing Kimonos

Photo of the film “Drawing Restraint 9”, Matthew Barney and Bjork wearing Kimonos

In the view of Albany, the world was never perfect, differences could be seen everywhere, and the pure identity was in essence dangerous, the status was impossible to maintain. It is a starting point, while also the end,the beginning of life, while also the death.

Only in “Cremaster 1”, embryos were at the stage of no difference, they existed in the same state as imagined. In “Cremaster 2”, there emerged the opposition between the whole and section, the fate and will. From “Cremaster 3”, the conflicts of the survival was intensified, differences and contrasts were more intense, which involved a variety of baroque contrasts throughout the entire series, such as depth and height, underground and on the ground, the darkness and brightness, water and stone, the tangible and intangible, the Catholic of a symbol of green and the Protestant of a symbol of orange. The contrasts between these different things pointed clearly to the theme of the entire series: the exploration of the differences. Although Barney also desired to go back to the initial moment, before all the contradictions and opposition appeared, he obviously didn’t hold any illusion to gain a perfect beginning and end, as the Symbolist poet Allan Poe said: It is equally destruction to get the secret which one is not supposed to have.” Surreal fantastic group dances in the “Cremaster 1”, were reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda videos of the Nazi period, a parade of the period of Soviet-style red-centralization, as well as Andres Gursky’s photos of the globalized capital markets, all of which have neoclassical visual effects of perfect balance, but hidden by the neat actions and a grim sense of order, there is a terrible binding to restrict freedom.

Total Art – the wonder of “After the Human”

In the process of shooting films for 10 years, Barney has created a set of both independent and interrelated works, including drawing, photography, sculpture and installation, etc. All modes of his exhibitions are the same: firstly screening videotapes for an hour in a theater, secondly a large-scale installation exhibition, performance photos and paintings are held at a museum, in addition, publication of the photos of the film. All of these works, along with the films, constitute the “Total Art”, which is beyond the artistic scope of ordinary concepts, and a mixture of sculpture, installation, photography, performance art, music and dance, etc. to explore all the feasibilities of the concept of “multimedia”. Matthew Barney embraced science with an attitude of a new generation of futurist artists, practicing the idea about Gesamtkunstwerk (total art) of Wagner in the 19th Century, in contemporary art. In the visual style, he had a continuation and development in the style of pop art in the USA, appearing since Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons; in imagery, he absorbed the Nordic mysterious and eerie allegories and symbolic visual symbol system. Generally speaking, Barney had built a mythical epic in the era of visual culture. Michael Kimmelman, commentator with the New York Times, praised the bold ambition of Barney, and considered him as “the most important artist of the same generation”.

Barney’ total art is the expression of his imagine for the future world, of both the impulsive passion, and the fear of loss. Electronic technology of the digital era has expanded our living space, when the biomedical extends our life and transforms our bodies. Our gastro intestine learns how to digest the genetically modified food; our brains learn to search for collective wisdom on the network. After all, we live in a world mingled with real and artificial, biological and mechanical, that is the so-called “post-human” world, cloning and genetic engineering have become popular topics, the difference of reality and the artificial is dismissing, we loss when we gain. “Cremaster” series show such a strange hybrid “human” world, where the mixed sexual biological people emerge, an island with digestion, buildings carrying respiratory and suicide machines. They are the products manufactured by human, animal, and machine, and capable to alter their shape, or genetic codes at any time. In this surreal world, there’s no difference between the spiritual and material, artificial and natural, male and female, intrinsic and extrinsic any more, as the metaphor of “Otto” in the film. In English, Otto is harmonic to auto, a symbol of autoeroticism. Double O is Otto’s nickname, and the 00 selected from his name, and his sport shirt number 00, reoccurring in the film in various forms, such as the oval football, the oval spaceship and the increasing grapes. Oval represents a closed system, seen as either a self-satisfied, or a self-restraint. Star Otto was a hero in this system, and constantly attacked but never escaped from it.

Barney was the director and star of his own films. His performance is reminiscent of the performance arts of some artists in the 1960s, such as Vito Acconci, Marina Abramovic, Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden, and Joseph Beuys. They all had explored the limits of their own bodies through a variety of odd rituals. Barney engaged in art at the end of 1980s, when it was a period of very intense social contradiction, the spread of AIDS led to some important social issues such as homosexuality, gender and ethnicity. Performance artists again stood at the forefront of the debate on social, aesthetic and artistic issues. A group of artists including Barbara Kruger, Robert Gober, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Kiki Smith, etc., considered the body in fighting positions, further protests against modernism, a single cultural model persisting in Europe and the male as the center, fighting for rights for the gay, women, ethnic minorities and other marginalized social groups. Barney was an activist participating in the trend of performance art and conceptual art, with the use of the behavior of breaking the convention or some weird images such as “hermaphrodite”, and “half-man-and-half-beast”, he raised the issues of political pluralism and gender identity.

However, different from the performance art in the 1960s, the extremely injured body is hardly seen until the 1990s. Generally speaking, artists will keep a certain distance from the audience, even if there is a performance of a physical violence attack only on a video, and it is makeup and a disguise. In the presentation form, the performance art in the 1990s was clearly influenced by the film and television performing.

In the last two decades, the combination of film and television media and fashion entertainment creates a new aesthetic system and value concepts, ​​greatly changing people’s lifestyle. This system not only induces you to spend money, but also tells you how to watch and display.

Performing is dominant in Barney’s artwork, the characters of multiple identities he shaped, echo the works of Cindy Sherman in the 1980s. Like Sherman, Barney served as the protagonist in the works, and constantly conceals his true face with the use of a variety of disguised identities. The man hidden behind a mask might die because of the loss of self, or might gain new opportunities by reinvent himself. Although Barney still portrays the pain of human existence, as the performance artists did in the 1960s, this pain is no longer real, but virtual. Different from the pain in early capitalist society, where there were explicitly hostile objects: capitalists, machinery, commercials and money, his pain accompanies a beautiful consumer culture and the comfortable sensuality entertainment. In other words, you are suffering, but cannot find the source. Barney’s works not only continue the tradition of performance art, exploring the limit of the body, but also use the operation mode of the fashion industry, which brings this avant-garde art to a new level, revealing the fetishism reality of the era of “post-human”.

Conclusion: Technology to Humanity: MTV and the Experimental Image

To understand either Viola’s slow meditation or Barney’s metaphysical thoughts, the audience should be patient. Compared with the bizarre commercial film and television works, the experimental images often seem extremely boring. Barney has been trying to cross the boundaries, enhancing the visual effects, to enable more people to accept experimental art. He spent a lot of money on the production of the “Cremaster” series, which imitated the production model of the Hollywood blockbuster series films appearing after Star Wars, pursuit of stimulation with visual perception through the use of high-tech, inviting the brightest stars to play the actors. The starring of “Cremaster” included Norman Mailer, the famous writer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Swiss actress Ursula Andres, the sexy woman who was the first Bond’s girl in the 1960s, and Richard Serra, a conceptual sculptor. “Break Free 9” was beyond the limit of experimental art in general, a blockbuster production of conceptual film, screening in the Venice and Berlin Film Festivals. However, Barney’s experimental films are fundamentally different from the commercial film and television. For example: it doesn’t have a coherent plot, and lacks dialogue between the characters, while always action at the same time, without any causal link or rhythm of music. During the production of the film, there is a hybrid of symphony, and plastic nature of sculpture, as if a huge collage, it leaves a lot of questions and uncertainties. In fact, it is a great irony of the American series of videos and soap operas, which curry favor with the audience.

MTV is the most representative among the commercial videos. The audience doesn’t need to focus on it, and the leaping images and the vibrating sound will constantly attract them, who can enjoy a moment of leisure at any time, in any case. However, MTV is not only a comfortable casual mode, but also the best advertisement of the concept of globalization, which sells us a single value of orientation and lifestyle. Situational theorist Guy Debord had talked about it in “The Society of the Spectacle” (1967) a long time ago, he had a detailed analysis about the role commercial images played in the capitalist economic production and exchange. In his view, the reified image was a part of a larger phenomenon – Spectacle. This spectacle and image were a sign of alienation that the capital system wants to cover up. Therefore Debord warned us that: the images were born in the interests of capital were spectacles too, which constantly invaded and devoured our real experiences.

From paintings to images, Richter, Viola and Barney constantly remind us that although the science and technology update quickly, humans’ nature has never changed. The question of humans’ nature is always the most important issue. Respectively in different perspectives, their works fought against the invasion of commercial images to our real experience, and helped us to transcend the barriers of time and retrieve the lost memories, contact the real problem, and to deal with the challenges of the future. Different from commercial images, their work doesn’t desire to please the audience, instead, it tends to break the inertia of our visual appreciation, to cross the boundaries between personal privacy and social space, exposing our real life experiences or inner fantasies against the alienation of a capitalist society. Deconstruct the repression of humans due to the global marketing strategy. Perhaps the contemporary images were disagreed upon, but full of human’s passion, they are the shadows under the aura of Disney, DreamWorks, and Nintendo, the alternative films were never screened by Hollywood.


1 Shao Yiyang, “Form and Anti-form”, “Art Research”, vol. 12, 2007

2 Cited “The Ambiguity of Image – Richter’s Art Notes and Interviews”, translation: Zhu Qi, Wang Chunchen, Wang Hongyuan, etc., Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2007, 24.

3.Barthes,Roland, translation: Richard Howard, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, 1981, New York, Hill and Wang, 96.

4. In the context of the freedom movement of anti-Vietnam War of the world students repressed by the governments, in 1968, the extreme leftist organization the Red Army Faction (RAF) emerged.

The founders of German RAF, were young students Bada, Enslin, and Ulrike Meinhof, chief editor of a West German political magazine, known as “Bada Meinhof Group”. During the 1970s and 1980s, they accepted the military training from Fatah, a Palestine liberation organization, and launched a series of terrorist actions such as arsons, kidnappings, bombings and etc. in the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany, with a banner of anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist.

5 Cited The Ambiguity of Image – Richter’s Art Notes and Interviews”, translation: Zhu Qi, Wang Chunchen, Wang Hongyuan, etc., Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2007, 179-181.

6 Freud, Sigmund, “The Uncanny”, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, vol.18. Hogarth Press London, 1955, page 241.7 Michael Kmmerman, “Gerhard Richter: An Artist Beyond Isms”, New York Times, January 27, 2002.8 Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham,NC, Duke University Press. 1991. 43.

9.Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham,NC, Duke University Press. 1991.76.10. “A World of Art: Works in Progress: Bill Viola.” Produced by Oregon PublicBroadcasting in association with Oregon State University, 1997. Distributed byAnnenberg Project.

11 The works was initially on display at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery.12 Gayford, Martin, “The Ultimate Invisible World: Interview with Bill Viola.” ModernPainter, 2003, no. 16, Autumn, 24-25.13 Viola, Bill, “A Conversation: Hans Belting and Bell Viola.” In John Walsh (ed.). The Passions, 2003, J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles, 199.14.Hansen, Mark BN New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.2004,267-8.

15 Cited in Viols, Bill, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, Writings 1973-1994. Thames and Huson, London. 70.16.Viola, Bill, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, Writings 1973-1994. Thames and Huson, London, 1995,71.17 Bewes, Timothy. Reification, or The Anxiety of Late Capitalism. London, Verso Press. 2002, 7.18 Viola, Bill, “A Conversation: Hans Belting and Bell Viola.” In John Walsh (ed.). The Passions, 2003, J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles, 203.19 According to Masonic legend, the ancestor of the Masonic is Hiram Abiff, one of the key mason of the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, killed by three masons who were jealous of his status and skills, and buried in the bronze tomb of the hall, but soon resurfaced. Therefore, when one participates in the Masonic, a ceremony symbolizing the death and resurrection is held.

20 With regard to the issue of differences in Barney’s works, cited Nancy Spector,, “in Potentia, Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys”, published on the occasion of the exhibition All in the Present Must Be Transformed: Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys. 2006, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 14-57.21.Edgar Allan Poe, “MS. Found in a Bottle,” in Poetry and Tales, ed. Patrick Quinn,New York, Library of American, 1978, 198. 22 Wagner (1813-1883) proposed the concept of “the whole art (Gesamtkunstwerk)” is a collection of different artistic forms including music, drama and poetry. He changed the development of classical music and opera, and established a new “music drama”.23 Michael Kimmelman, The Importance of Matthew Barney, New York Times, October 10, 1999.24 Barbara Kruger’s famous works “Your Body Is a Battle Ground became the declaration of body art in the 1990s

25 Debord, Guy, The Society of Spectacle, Black and Red. 1967, section 10. This article is published in Literary Studies, vol. 6, 2009.

The End.

Translated by Chen Peihua/CAFA ART INFO

The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of CAFA ART INFO.

This was published in “Literature & Art Studies”, Issue 6 in 2009.

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