We are a narrative species. Events happen, pictures are made, memories are collected, songs are sung, news turns into history. But regardless of media or moment, it ultimately comes down to storytelling. From cave paintings to oral epics, novels to the invention of the movies, it is the tyranny of the linear narrative that has come to define all our experiences. Somewhere near the end of all this is an artist whose vision is so internalized and ornately wrapped in metaphor that it defies our conventional notions of plot. His name is Matthew Barney, and he is out there making movies that even most of his fans would have a hard time explaining. But that is a story in and of itself.
Barney is perplexed about the bizarre cult of personality that has surrounded his career. He appears to be a very private, unassuming figure, yet the press he has received over the past decade is for the most part centered on superficial biographical sketches and overreaching hyperbole. The constant refrain of "super-handsome, ex-football player, Yale boy, former J. Crew model, young art star" seems to be permanently attached to him, as is the oft-quoted line from New York Times Magazine art critic Michael Kimmelman that called him "the most important artist of his generation." Barney has his own theories about how to avoid the stereotyping. "The question is, how do you defeat it, how do you get people to just talk about the art?" he asks. "It's hard."
Thoughtful, with desperately long gaps before he responds to many questions, Barney has boundaries that no degree of fame can corrupt. When we ask him how his aesthetic has been changed by the child he is having with singer/actress BjÃ¶rk, we hit a wall of utter silence. I rephrase the question, but still nothing. He finally offers, "There's not much I'd have to say about that. It's great." That is, it simply isn't any of my business.
Perhaps just as remarkable as the sublime beauty that marks every aspect of his epic, five-film Cremaster cycle is the fact that Barney's movies have actually made money. The economics are certainly not the same here as with your typical theatrical fare. Instead, the Cremaster films have operated very much within the confines of the contemporary art market. It would be easy to think of his movies (which are financed by and large through the sales of his art) as something of a dilettantish vanity. This, however, would be as wrong in spirit as it is in reality. Barney's films are very much his art, and what is sold in galleries are those props, sculptures and installations that are not only in his movies, but are, indeed, their true stars. Add to that the delicious books produced for each film, the drawings and photographs and the exquisite, limited-edition packaging in each movie's final retail format, and what you get is a kind of aestheticized merchandising franchise that would make the executives at Mattel and McDonald's cream with envy. "The films kind of become a text that produces sculpture," Barney observes. "I've tried to engage the spaces between objects and find how video narrative can inhabit some of those negative spaces as ways to activate objects into a story."
What remains beyond the riddle of how Barney has managed to create five ambitious 35-mm feature films out of the pure language of conceptual art and gotten them released (albeit in limited runs) in theaters around the world? Not only has it taken nearly a decade for the entire project to unfold in its myriad pieces (including all the books, videos, movies, installations, sculptures, photographs, drawings and exhibitions), but also the films were made non-sequentially. Cremaster 4, the first in the series, was shot on the Isle of Man. Here the land and sea become metaphors for sexual orifices and passages to be navigated alternately by motorcycle racers, a tap-dancing satyr and perverse fairies. In Cremaster 1, downtown Manhattan starlet Marti Domination appears in a spectacle that is part TV sportscast and part '30s musical extravaganza. Then came Cremaster 5, a baroquely tragic opera shot in Budapest starring ex-Bond babe Ursula Andress as the lovelorn queen. Cremaster 2 is a "gothic Western," a riff on executed killer Gary Gilmore, complete with prison rodeos, sÃ©ances, author Norman Mailer in the role of magician Harry Houdini and an unremittingly nihilistic landscape.
Now, with the recent release of Cremaster 3, a gangster-noir starring New York City landmarks and artist Richard Serra within a complex, shifting tableau of Masonic symbols, demolition derbies and mythological references, the cycle is complete. And soon audiences will have the rare opportunity to view the entire production in a traveling retrospective of the Cremaster project, which will be coming to New York's Guggenheim Museum this spring.
But even when we see it all together, there's a good chance that, beyond some fundamental level of recognition, there will always be something about the cycle we simply do not get. This will neither constitute a failure for the art nor even mark its critics as philistines. Barney resists decoding and believes that self-expression doesn't require explication. What for cineastes might seem willfully obscure is to those more versed in the strategies of conceptual art a matter of poetics. "I tend to gravitate toward visual language and feel very comfortable reading them," says Barney. He's not speaking across some unfathomable gap of understanding but merely noting a different manner of reading his film, a matrix that is one of pictures and signs, not linear text.
"I wasn't thinking practically about people sitting in the theater," Barney admits. "The intention of the work didn't change, but the way people consumed it did. When you could go to a cinema to watch it, then maybe a new audience started coming to it, and they began to be understood as films. Maybe in some ways they are, but they never stopped being texts for creating sculpture." Why do his films resist defining, and why for that matter does he offer little help in explaining them? "I'm trying to let the films be what they set out to be," he says. "Honestly, if you sit down and write a synopsis of the films' plot lines, I don't think it would be a very interesting story. It's setting out to be something a little bit in between, to describe a form in an abstract manner as a way to tell a story. I think it's comfortable in that place, and when it's forced into another place, it doesn't resonate."