Matthew Barneys Cremaster Cycle is
on view at the Guggenheim now through June 11th
2003. The exhibition is a project of five
films with some of the sets and props that have doubled as
installations. A few of the more unique mediums he works with are
tapioca and Vaseline. The theme of the entire project (1994-2002)
is based on the cremaster, which is the involuntary muscle that
creates the rising and falling of the scrotum.
An art critic for the Village Voice
coos that he has loved everything Barney has done since a 1990 group show:
Suddenly, this 22-year-old appeared naked, in a videotape,
climbing ropes, then lowering himself over a wedge of Vaseline
and applying dollops of it to his body. I think the critic was blinded by
visions of a lubricious Barney lowering himself over a whole other kind of wedge.
He continues: Since then, Barney has
been able to do no wrong by me, which is exactly the kind of
unequivocal wet kiss from a critic I hate.
Nancy Spector, the curator of the
Guggenheim, wrote the synopses of the five films of the Cremaster
Cycle. Here is an
embodies this regressive impulse through its looping narrative,
moving from 1977, the year of Gary Gilmores execution, to
1893, when Harry Houdini, who may have been Gilmores
grandfather, performed at the Worlds Colombian Exposition.
The film is structured around three interrelated themesthe
landscape as witness, the story of Gilmore (played by Barney,)
and the life of beesthat metaphorically describe the
potential of moving backward in order to escape ones
destiny. Both Gilmores kinship to Houdini (played by
Norman Mailer) and his correlation with the male bee are
established in the sťance/conception scene in the beginning of
the film, during which Houdinis spirit is summoned and
Gilmores father expires after fertilizing his wife.
She steers clear of
evaluating the work in print, playing it safe by merely cataloging the
content. Yet, she saves her normative abstractions for throwing
the weight of Guggenheim behind her as she erects the artist's exhibition. Now,
we are talking about another kind of wedge.
A scene from the Cremaster 3 film was
set inside the Guggenheim. It is loaded with references to Las
Vegas showgirls, game shows, mythology, blood, and ambition.
dressed in Scottish garb, climbs artificial mountain panels on
the outer ramp-walls of the Guggenheim rotunda, reminiscent of
televised athletic contests. Symbolic of competing for and
scaling the heights of the art world. Along the way he solves a
spatial puzzle proving that he is adept at aesthetic technique.
He overcomes a physical challenge by the half-woman half-tigress
that bites him on the mouth, drawing a substantial amount of
blood. This creates the double symbolism of Barney being Christ and the half-woman
representing the predatory nature of dealers and
agents. The wound to the mouth is suggestive that it is better to
remain silent if you are to pursue your ambitions no matter how
much of your life force it drains. The climax is when he reaches
the upper most heights of the Guggenheim to find a zombie-like
Richard Serra, monumental minimalist sculptor, decked out in
industrial garb shoveling boiled Vaseline onto the top of a
mini-ramp. Then there is a close-up shot of the oozing
lubricants downward path. Either due to the spectacle of
Serra at the top of the art world or to the absurdity of his
shoveling slime on the inner ramp-walls of the Guggenheim
rotunda, Barney falls over the ramp to splash into a bubble bath
filled with showgirls. Ah, success! The denouement is
that he takes revenge on the woman/tigress and kills her.
Barney is following in the wake of the
anti-art aesthetic of the Dadaists, but he is dangerously close to
taking his expression seriously. Barney is more
like a beginning
filmmaker; being just incoherent enough to qualify as a postmodernist. In other
rooms of the Guggenheim, Barney includes
the films sets in the exhibition, such as the scores of
plastic 6-foot pillars. For someone who enjoys art and intelligence, it was
ridiculous to see an exhibition space littered with plastic pillars.
Also on exhibit are some of the quite
brilliant still photographs taken from the films. A great deal of
credit must go to the cameraman, Peter Strietmann. He has a great
eye for composition and essential details.
As Barney slithers up and down the heights
of the art world, I think it is a good time for us to step back,
way back, and question the viability of postmodern art. There is
a shift of attitude by the contemporary postmodernists such as
McCarthy, Huyghe, and Barney, a nuance of difference between them
and the Dadaists. Duchamp had an overpowering sense of cynicism
but he also had his wits about him, like his comment on the use
of a Rembrandt canvas as a cover for an ironing board. He knew
and played with the fact that he was an anti-artist. These post
postmodernists dont have this type of awareness. They
sincerely express, as if it were a value, chaos, morbid states,
unintelligibility, temporal mediums, and an overall negative view
of humanity without any sense of irony; not that irony makes the
absurd any less so.
David Rockefeller speaking of MoMA, though
he could be speaking of museums in general, says: As for
the polemics over whether MoMA should choose a period and just
not collect beyond itmaybe Abstract Expressionism; Modern
but not post-ModernI feel the museum has an obligation to
continue to collect into the present, to identify the best, most
creative artists of today.
In a spirit of goodwill towards humanity, it
would be fantastic if curators and critics would reevaluate the
meaning of postmodern aesthetics in light of human values; and,
then, perhaps, we would see more than blarney at the
Guggenheim. But then, they didn't assume the position of mounting postmodern art
by using reason and values.
2003, revised in New York, 2007