Penetrating the media like an electronic bomb, Matthew Barney's alluring, subversive Cremaster Cycle exhibition at New York City's Guggenheim Museum marks one of the most controversial artistic events the art world has ever seen. Daunting imagery and disturbing characters from the films are featured on posters all over New York City subways -- polymorphic, devious visions neatly encased in plasti-glass. The images offer a stark contrast to the look of train passengers, who are mostly preoccupied with blending in with each other or finding a rail to hold onto. The cre-mastery is right there, permeating innocent bystanders with surrealistic visuals (buried, smiling faces) and luring them to the master's house (take the 4,5 or 6 train to 88th St. to get to the Guggenheim).
Completely mesmerized by all I read and envisioned in these Cycles (Mr. Barney has been working on this project for ten years), I set out in frantic anticipation, expecting a toxic and introspective version of Matthew Barney and Alice In Wonderland -- for mature audiences. I expected something a little dreamy and a little crazy, brought to me by "the most important artist of his generation" (according to the New York Times). The Guggenheim's evil resident until June 11th, Mr. Barney's installation takes up the entire rotunda of the Frank Loyd Wright-designed building. The artist's "prosthethic" aesthetics are stretched from basement to ceiling like a gigantic, degenerate piece of bubble gum.
Besides the five fantasmagoric feature-length films that "explore the process of creation" (beware -- it takes a day to watch them all, and it does not resemble Discovery Channel programs or Woody Allen's Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Sex), the installation also covers concepts including embryonic stages, reproductive organs and sexual differenciation. The exhibit takes clues and props from the five films (screenings also take place in the basement), along with photographs, sculptures, videos and gargantuan presentations resembling sperm-origami (the art of molding sperm) that narrate the artist's introspective research in a three-dimensional way.
Plastic, metal and vaseline are Barney's signature material. They are disturbing modems, ultimately giving shape and form to Mr. Cremaster's obsessions. The materials feed his creative instigations by means of biography, mythology and geology. His explorations turn the Guggenheim into a gigantic interractive maze swarming with ants (the visitors) and full of strange activity on screen: prosthetic surgery, dancing feasts, racing cars, fairies, satyr with horns, a lusty leopard creature, Ursula Andress, Richard Serra, Marty Domination... Metaphors abound to the point of no return. Supposedely the entire concept of this over-scaled production stems from Barney's mystification of the male cremaster muscle, which controls testicular contraction to external stimuli. Walking around the museum, one can't help but wonder not only about the origin of creation, but also about the origin of all these "ready-made" creations: Is it elaborate visual diarrhea or anally un-retentive allegory? Matthew seems to be the grand master illusionist, alluring and eluding, breeding the psyche with the real and creating a monster... Watch-out for mutant art offspring, Mr. Barney has a fertile stigma.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave. at 89th St., (212) 423-3500. Sat.-Wed., 10 a.m.-5:45 p.m. Fri., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sat. & Sun. $15, Fri. 6-8 p.m. Voluntary Donation.