Created by the American artist Matthew Barney, Cremaster 5 1997 is a colour film with sound and accompanying sculptural elements. The film, based around a five-act lyric opera, is a tragic love story featuring elaborate costumes, ornate set design and frequent imagery of biological reproduction. Its main characters include a queen played by the actress Ursula Andress and three roles – a diva, a giant and a magician – performed by Barney. The work was originally shot on digital betacam and subsequently transferred to 35mm film (the format on which it can be shown in a seated theatre) and high definition video (for viewing within a gallery). In its gallery installation, the work is shown as a video on a loop on two fifty-inch screens tilted slightly downwards and mounted back-to-back on a bracket suspended from the ceiling in the centre of the exhibition space. The distance from the floor to the lower edge of the screens is 275 cm, meaning the work is positioned much higher than eye-level. Four pairs of wall-mounted speakers, situated level with the lower edge of the screens, provide the sound. Directly underneath the two screens are the sculptural elements of Cremaster 5, which are displayed in a plastic case with a black metal frame. The base of the case is lined with black velvet and it contains a series of items arranged in a horizontal row. In the centre is a cast black plastic pillow that sits on a black case with silver hinges. On the left side of the case is a black velvet pouch, designed to house a laser disc version of the film that is itself displayed on the right side of the case. The version of this work owned by Tate is number ten in an edition of ten plus two artist’s proofs.
Cremaster 5 was shot in Budapest with post-production work carried out in San Francisco. The story mostly takes place onstage at the empty Hungarian State Opera House, but the film also includes sequences involving watery sprites shot inside the Gellért Baths, night-time scenes on the Széchenyi Chain Bridge (from which the magician jumps into the river below) and aerial shots of Budapest in which the city is covered in snow. The film features a libretto written by Barney that is sung in Hungarian and lip-synced by the actors in the film, and is set to an operatic score written by composer Jonathan Bepler and performed by the Budapest Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra.
The work is the final part of The Cremaster Cycle, a series of five films completed by Barney between 1994 and 2002, each of which has a large number of accompanying elements such as photographs, drawings, sculptures and installations that have been displayed independently. The films in the series were not made in chronological order: Barney initially created Cremaster 4 in 1994, followed by Cremaster 1 in 1995, Cremaster 5 in 1997, Cremaster 2 in 1999, and lastly Cremaster 3 in 2002. In a 2001 interview with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Barney explained the origins of this multifaceted project:
I think that from the beginning, the Cremaster series was trying to take on a cinematic language that I had not dealt with before. I wanted to see how this sculptural project could align itself with the cinematic form, and still come out as a sculptural project.
(Quoted in Obrist 2007, p.16.)
The title of the series refers to the cremaster muscle which is responsible for raising and lowering the male testes in order to regulate their temperature, and each film explores different stages of gender development amid a wider consideration of creation and reproduction. While the series as a whole investigates the formation of a man, curator Nancy Spector has described the tenor of Cremaster 5 as ‘decidedly female’:
The opera issues from the Queen’s memories and the open wound that is her heart. Barney’s characters are defined in relation to the mirror of her imagination. There is even the possibility that they only exist as shadows of her desire, figments of a forlorn mind.
(Spector 2002, p.65.)
A concern with gender and bodies, alongside references to a wide range of cultural forms and figures, from ancient mythology to contemporary sport, has characterised Barney’s work throughout his career. Drawing Restraint, an ongoing project begun in 1987 while Barney was an undergraduate at Yale University, examines muscle development and artistic form through drawings, photographs, performances and videos, including the film Drawing Restraint 9 2006, in which Barney appeared on a whaling ship alongside his then partner, the singer Björk. In 1991–2 Barney made the Jim Otto Suite, a trilogy of works (which includes Ottoshaft 1992, Tate T06964) named after Jim Otto, an American football player of the 1970s. In 2014 Barney completed the film River of Fundament, a nearly six-hour-long opera that also features music by Bepler and was inspired by the American author Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel Ancient Evenings. This was the culmination of a seven-year project that included site-specific performances in cities such as New York, Detroit and Los Angeles.
Matthew Barney, Cremaster 5, New York 1997.
Nancy Spector, Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 2002, pp.65–73, reproduced pp.394–459.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, Matthew Barney, Cologne 2007.
Supported by Christie’s.