Barney Follows in the Wake of the Anti-Art Aesthetic of the Dadaists
My review of a one-day visit to the Guggenheim’s Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, June 2003.
The Cremaster Cycle exhibition is a project of five films with some of the sets and props that have doubled as installations. A few unique mediums he works with are tapioca and Vaseline. A cremaster is the involuntary muscle that creates the rising and falling of the scrotum.
Jerry Saltz, art critic for the Village Voice, comments 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.” 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 excerpt:
“Cremaster 2 embodies this regressive impulse through its looping narrative, moving from 1977, the year of Gary Gilmore’s execution, to 1893, when Harry Houdini, who may have been Gilmore’s grandfather, performed at the World’s Colombian Exposition. The film is structured around three interrelated themes—the landscape as witness, the story of Gilmore (played by Barney,) and the life of bees—that metaphorically describe the potential of moving backward in order to escape one’s destiny. Both Gilmore’s kinship to Houdini (played by Norman Mailer) and his correlation with the male bee are established in the séance/conception scene in the beginning of the film, during which Houdini’s spirit is summoned and Gilmore’s father expires after fertilizing his wife.”
She steers clear of evaluating the work, but merely catalogs the content.
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. Barney, dressed in Scottish garb, climbs artificial mountain panels on the outer ramp-walls of the Guggenheim rotunda, reminiscent of televised athletic contests. Could be symbolic of competing for and scaling the heights of the art world? Along the way, he solves a spatial puzzle, showing aesthetic savvy. He overcomes a challenge by a half-woman half-tigress that bites him on the mouth, drawing a substantial amount of blood. Implied might be the double symbolism of Barney being Christ and the half-woman representing the predatory nature of dealers and agents? The wound to the mouth might also be 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 uppermost heights of the Guggenheim to find a zombie-like Richard Serra, monumental abstract 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 lubricant’s downward path. Either due to the spectacle of Serra at the top of the Guggenheim or to this artist 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. Falling to success then leads to the denouement in which 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 filmmaker, but being just incoherent enough to qualify as a postmodernist. In other rooms of the Guggenheim, Barney displays props from the film’s sets, such as the scores of plastic 6-foot 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.
After viewing this superficial spectacle, 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. He knew and played with the fact that he was an anti-artist, note his use of a Rembrandt image as a cover for an ironing board. These post-postmodernists don’t have this type of awareness. They sincerely express, as if it were a value, chaos, morbid states, unintelligibly, temporal mediums, and an overall negative view of humanity without any sense of irony.
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 it—maybe Abstract Expressionism; Modern but not post-Modern—I feel the museum has an obligation to continue to collect into the present, to identify the best, most creative artists of today.”
Might curators and critics reevaluate the meaning of postmodern aesthetics in light of human values? Perhaps then, we would see more than “blarney” at the Guggenheim.
2003, revised in Santa Monica, 2011