The Cremaster Cycle

(Matthew Barney, USA, 1994-2003)


I sat through all five parts and seven hours of Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle, largely out of a sense of duty to alternative forms of cinema, and admiration for the distributor bold enough to acquire and showcase such difficult, image-driven, non-narrative work for Australia.


But the international fame of Barney’s so-called ‘epic masterwork’ rests far too much on such cultural good will. So now it is time for me to put aside my allegiance to the cause of non-mainstream film and ask squarely: is The Cremaster Cycle actually any good?


Hybrid works that exist in the fuzzy area between the gallery and the movie theatre tend to be treated with vast indulgence and granted special dispensation: they are evaluated neither as art nor cinema. But The Cremaster Cycle, it seems to me, fails spectacularly both as art and as cinema.


One cannot judge this art without judging the artist. Heaven knows, Barney presents himself as the supra-auteur of all that we see and hear. Like many of his contemporaries, he turns narcissism and exhibitionism into the very principle of a performance-based art that places his own ‘body in question’.


This means that we must watch Barney, in every conceivable permutation of costume and make-up, tap dancing, climbing walls, crawling through tunnels, diving into the ocean, and much more. Unfortunately, he is one of the least appealing presences in the entire history of the moving image, and thus a rather imperfect hook on which to hang seven hours of celluloid.


Barney can be fairly taken as an embodiment of everything that is wrong in modern art. Firstly, there is the grand folly of hoping to sustain a series over many years (in this case, ten), grimly sticking to ideas and motifs sketched at the outset. This can be done, but Barney is no Marcel Proust. His ‘cycle’ plods through its levels and stages, instalment by instalment, with a bland, relentless determination that makes for joyless viewing.


Secondly, there is the not small matter of the quality of those ideas and motifs. Barney bases the Cremaster films on an enormous conceit regarding the biological ‘life force’ as it struggles its way into being. As a whole, the cycle plays like an over-extended version of the ‘Dawn of Man’ prologue in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).


But at least Kubrick took us on a gripping and entertaining ride through the cosmos. Barney lazily plays the card that so much contemporary art does, hoping that some vague gesture in the direction of science, chemistry, biology or mathematics will be enough to impart a weighty, fundamental significance to the woolliest spectacle.


Hip art critics are keen to tell us that Barney’s work addresses the processes of ‘sexual differentiation’, which makes it sound very political. But why does he then base the entire project around a celebration of the “male cremaster muscle which controls testicular contractions” – setting endless images of masculine striving against complementary images of women as liquid pools which surround and dissolve the master-male who is always played by Barney himself?


If this is the best gender politics that supposedly advanced modern art is capable of, then we are all in deep trouble.


Thirdly, we come to the readability of any of this as it passes before us on screen. To put it bluntly, The Cremaster Cycle marks the absolute triumph of the art catalogue. It is impossible to follow or understand most of what happens without a close consultation of the accompanying, explanatory notes. The work itself is cryptic to the point of total incomprehensibility – which may well be why it tricks so many art fans into a state of quasi-religious devotion.


At the same time, Barney’s cryptic way with storytelling and concept-building is married to an over-cultivated weakness for supposedly primal symbols. Certain biological diagrams become the artist’s obsessive graphic motifs, while a barrage of nature metaphors (fire, ice, honey, flood) is used to plug any yawning intellectual gap.


So that’s the bad art quotient. What about the cinema quotient? Barney has said in an interview that he is “more interested in problems of sculpture than problems of cinema”, and you would be well advised to take that as a warning. The Cremaster Cycle is based on a single cinematic device, primitive enough to remind us of film’s earliest days: alternation.


Cremaster 4, the first to be shot back in 1994, sets the pattern: Barney’s tap routine is intercut with colour-coded motorcycle teams burning around the Isle of Man. The piece goes back and forth so repetitively that we soon want to scream. In every part of the cycle, something finally does happen – but Barney gives the kiss of death to that time-honoured technique of cinematic suspense and intrigue known as the slow burn.


Such ‘problems of cinema’ should have concerned Barney a little more, especially after so many years of trotting out the same alternating template. Cremaster 5 (1997), a lush, operatic piece featuring a game Ursula Andress (one of several celebrities featured across the series) shows how completely clueless Barney is when it comes to energising space, time, sound and image in a truly filmic way.


Cremaster 1 (1995) – in which Goodyear blimps hover over a sports stadium – is the funniest and most successful of the series, but it too takes a cute idea and slaughters it through dull repetition.


Cremaster 2 (1999) is the most ambitious and serious film of the cycle. It is also easily the least comprehensible and the most pretentious. Early on, images and sounds worthy of David Cronenberg or David Lynch – such as the brilliantly orchestrated aural contest between a heavy metal drummer and a swarm of bees – make an indelible mark.


But by the time, an hour later, that we arrive at a pleasant image of old-time dancers which is meant (according to the program notes) to symbolise real-life killer Gary Gilmore’s “chronological two-step that would return him to the space of his alleged grandfather, Houdini”, we realise how weak this piece is at articulating its wildly diverse elements.


Cremaster 3 (2002), which includes a long section called “The Order” apparently designed to sum up the whole cycle, is no less grand in its scope. But it depends heavily on Barney’s facile, camp humour – proving once and for all that, in modern performance art, the only things that people understand are the jokes. If that.


Finally, what is there to see in The Cremaster Cycle? The much-vaunted ‘fusion’ of art, cinema, theatre, music, design, fashion and celebrity? Wagner must be turning in his grave at this mangled incarnation of his dream of a ‘total art form’ merging all means of aesthetic expression. In fact, as in so much multi-media, inter-disciplinary art, each component suffers in the haste and sloppiness with which the grand ensemble is glued together.


Some will argue that Barney’s work is best taken as pure spectacle for our dislocated, postmodern age. If so, I believe there is more fun to be had channel surfing during an average night on television. But it must be conceded: as a cultural event, The Cremaster Cycle is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. At least, I sincerely hope so.


MORE artist’s movies:The Ghost Paintings, Feeling Sexy

© Adrian Martin February 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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