“Harry Houdini’s a model. He continues to be useful I think as a character…. There’s a brutality and a physicality… that combination of accuracy and speed and violence”
Each of the Cremaster films focuses on a different central character.
Cremaster 1: Goodyear, a 1930s glamour girl.
Cremaster 2: Gary Gilmore, a convicted murderer.
Cremaster 3: the Entered Apprentice and Hiram Abiff, the mythic architect of the Temple of Solomon.
Cremaster 4: the Loughton Candidate, a tap dancing satyr.
Cremaster 5: Queen of Chain and her Diva/Giant/Magician.
Barney’s central theme requires that all of the protagonists undergo a rite of passage and overcome physical and emotional challenges. Barney believes that change cannot happen without struggle. This concept is based in part on his personal experience as an athlete, when he built strength and endurance by withstanding repetitive physical stress. The phenomenon of athletic training plays a central role in Barney’s work. So does the realm of organized sports and competition. “For Barney, the idea of ordeal is not negative. It is through the overcoming of resistance that a system grows. Barney sees both the artist and the athlete as alchemists who convert one thing into another.”—Jerry Saltz 
Some characters are inspired by historical figures; others are more rooted in fantasy and mythology. But even when a character is based on a real person, Barney’s translation is never literal. In Cremaster 2, Barney plays Gary Gilmore. In actuality Gilmore was executed by a firing squad for committing two murders, but rather than translate this literally, Barney constructs a metaphoric rodeo setting where Gilmore dies riding a bull.
Some characters appear to be totally invented. In Cremaster 4 the Loughton Candidate, (played by Barney) is a dapper half-man, half-goat creature in a three-piece suit. He gazes in the mirror, and inspects two sets of empty horn sockets beneath a head of matted red hair. Although this being seems totally invented, there is actually some basis in reality for his formation. The word Loughton refers to a sheep indigenous to the Isle of Man (the setting for this episode). It possesses two pairs of horns and its wool is reddish in color.
1. “The Next Sex,” Art in America, October 1996, pp. 83–91
View + Discuss
Matthew Barney as Gary Gilmore. Cremaster 2: Korihor, 1999. Gelatin-silver print in acrylic frame, (shown unframed).
Matthew Barney as the Loughton Candidate. Cremaster 4: The Loughton Candidate, 1994. C-print in cast-plastic frame, (shown unframed).
1. Look at the images of Barney as Gary Gilmore and as The Loughton Candidate. Describe your reactions to each image. List the attributes you think each character would possess. Discuss what kind of story you would construct for each.
2. The characters in Barney’s films are sometimes incarnations of real people. For instance within the Cremaster series, the magician Harry Houdini (played by author Norman Mailer) plays a significant role. It has sometimes been said that Harry Houdini is Matthew Barney’s alter ego. From what you have learned about Matthew Barney, and what you can research about Harry Houdini, what might Barney find interesting about Houdini? If you were to choose an alter ego who would it be and why? Research the life of the person you have chosen and write an essay that describes the affinities that you perceive to have in common.
3. Cremaster 2 is loosely based on an actual event, the life and death of Gary Gilmore. Think about and discuss significant events or times that might have sufficient importance to become the subject of a major work of art. Discuss what characteristics of an event might give it importance (e.g., the emotions it aroused, its uniqueness, its ordinariness, its implications for long-term consequences, and so forth).
4. In Barney’s films the protagonist endures a struggle or challenge. It has been said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Do you believe this statement? Why? Why not?
What aspect of your personal experience would you choose as the basis for a work of art? What medium and scale would you choose to work in and why? What would the title of this work be? Discuss whether your work represents how you see yourself or how you think others see you.
Using either words or images, build three views of yourself: as you are, as a historic figure, and as a mythological character.