Arts Curriculum

Matthew Barney – The Cremaster Cycle

February 21, 2003–June 11, 2003

"Anyone can have an intimate relationship with the Cremaster films or the sculptures ... anyone can access them from any point; from fashion, horror movies, architecture, drawing, photography, football, plastics—or just story-telling. The whole project is so porous; there are a million ways to enter it."

–Matthew D. Ryle, production designer, Cremasters 1, 2, 3, and 5

Matthew Barney is best known as the producer and creator of the Cremaster cycle, a series of five visually extravagant films created out of sequence (Cremaster 4 began the cycle, followed by Cremaster 1, etc.). The films generally feature Barney in myriad roles, including characters as diverse as a satyr, a magician, and even the infamous murderer Gary Gilmore.


Sculpture and Drawing
Sculpture and Drawing
Genre and Narrative
Genre and Narrative

Exhibition Overview

Matthew Barney is best known as the producer and creator of the Cremaster cycle, a series of five visually extravagant films created out of sequence (Cremaster 4 began the cycle, followed by Cremaster 1, etc.). The films generally feature Barney in myriad roles, including characters as diverse as a satyr, a magician, and even the infamous murderer Gary Gilmore. The title of the cycle refers to the muscle that raises and lowers the male reproductive system according to external stimuli such as temperature or fear. The films themselves are a grand mixture of history, autobiography, and mythology—an intensely private universe in which symbols and images are densely layered and interconnected. The resulting cosmology is both beautiful and complex.

Barney sees the human body as a biological instrument and a sculptural tool. His works combine obsessive athletic endeavors with his own highly personalized mythology. Crossing from sculpture to film to video, he seamlessly creates dramas that inhabit a zone that is both psychological and physical.

As the cycle evolved over eight years (1994–2002), this biological model was joined by other paradigms such as biography and mythology that have added to Barney’s fantastical narrative constructs. In Barney’s eccentric universe, nothing can be construed as simply one thing or the other. He challenges our dualistic categories (male/female, entropy/order, motion/inertia) with new possibilities.

For each of the films comprising the Cremaster cycle, Barney appropriates a different theatrical or cinematic genre.

CREMASTER 1 (starring Marti Domination as Goodyear) parodies the musical extravaganzas of Busby Berkeley as filtered through the lens of Leni Riefenstahl’s Third Reich athletics. Chorus girls form shifting outlines of reproductive organs on a football field, their movements determined from above by a blonde starlet, who miraculously inhabits two Goodyear blimps simultaneously and creates anatomical diagrams by lining up rows of grapes.

CREMASTER 2 (starring Norman Mailer as Harry Houdini and Barney as Gary Gilmore) is a gothic Western premised loosely on the real-life story of Gary Gilmore, who was executed in Utah for the murder of two men. Gilmore’s biography is conveyed through a series of fantastical sequences, including an occultist séance enacted with ectoplasm and bee pollen to signify his conception, and a prison rodeo staged in a cast salt arena to represent his death by firing squad. The film’s plot unfolds to question the inevitability of man’s fate as it is reflected in, and witnessed by, the expansive landscape.

CREMASTER 3 (starring Richard Serra as Hiram Abiff, Barney as the Entered Apprentice, and Aimee Mullins as the Entered Novitiate) is part zombie thriller, part gangster film. As the final installment in the cycle, the film is a distillation of the artist’s major themes and signature aesthetic devices, filtered through an elaborate symbolic matrix involving Freemasonry, Celtic lore, and Art Deco design. Set in New York’s Chrysler Building, the film also includes detours to the Guggenheim Museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright building, to the harness track in Saratoga Springs, to Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and to Fingal’s Cave, on Staffa, an island in the Scottish Hebrides.

CREMASTER 4 (starring Barney as the Loughton Candidate) is set on the Isle of Man—a topographical body punctured by orifices and passageways—where a feverish motorbike race traverses the landscape, a dandified, tap-dancing satyr writhes his way through a treacherous underwater canal, and three burly fairies picnic on a grassy knoll. Part vaudeville, part Victorian comedy of manners, and part road movie, this film portrays sheer drive in its eternal struggle to surpass itself.

CREMASTER 5 (starring Ursula Andress as the Queen of Chain, and Barney as her Diva, her Magician, and her Giant) is set against the Baroque backdrop of the Hungarian State Opera House. Performed as a lyric opera complete with ribboned Jacobin pigeons, a love-lorn queen, and her tragic hero, this narrative flows from the gilded proscenium arch of the theater to the aqueous underworld of Budapest’s Danube River to humid Gellért baths inhabited by hermaphroditic water-sprites frolicking in a pool of pearl bubbles.

About the Artist

Matthew Barney was born in San Francisco in 1967; at age six, he moved to Boise, Idaho. When his parents separated, Barney continued to live with his father in Idaho, while his mother, an abstract painter, moved to New York City. As a teenager Barney played football on his high-school team. His experiences as an athlete informed his earliest work. For his thesis exhibition at Yale University, he created an installation of video and sculptural objects that combined the physicality of sports, the fetishistic nature of athletic equipment, and the endurance involved in performance art. After graduating college Barney moved to New York City and entered the art world to almost instant success.

Between 1988 and 1993, Barney developed the Drawing Restraint series. He devised situations of self-imposed restriction, such as jumping on a trampoline, climbing over obstacles, or restraining himself with surgical latex hosing, through which he would produce artworks. In this series he explored the feasibility of creating something under severe physical constraints.

Between 1990 and 1991, Barney also created video, photography, and sculptural pieces such as The Jim Otto Suite (1990), which features fictional characters who function as metaphors for thematic motifs throughout the work. Barney has enlisted historical characters such as football hero Jim Otto, escape artist Harry Houdini, and convicted murderer Gary Gilmore as symbolic characters within his narratives.

In 1994, Barney began work on his epic Cremaster cycle, a five-part film project accompanied by related sculptures, photographs, and drawings. Barney’s work continues to explore the transcendence of physical limitations in a multi-media art practice that includes feature-length films, video installations, sculpture, photography, and drawing. At age 36, Matthew Barney is the youngest artist ever to have a retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum.

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