Perhaps the most complex work to have emerged in the last ten years, Matthew Barney’s sculpture, installations and five Cremaster films have left the art world awestruck and mystified.

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  • Matthew Barney Goodyear, principal character in Cremaster 1 1995–6

    Matthew Barney
    Goodyear, principal character in Cremaster 1 1995–6

    Production photo
    © Matthew Barney; courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

  • Matthew Barney as Gary Gilmore in Cremaster 2 1999

    Matthew Barney
    Matthew Barney as Gary Gilmore in Cremaster 2 1999

    Production photo
    © Matthew Barney; courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

  • Matthew Barney Richard Serra as Harim Abiff, The Architect, in Cremaster 3 2002

    Matthew Barney
    Richard Serra as Harim Abiff, The Architect, in Cremaster 3 2002

    Production photo
    © Matthew Barney; courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

  • Matthew Barney Barney as The Loughton Candidate in Cremaster 4 1994

    Matthew Barney
    Barney as The Loughton Candidate in Cremaster 4 1994

    Production photo
    © Matthew Barney; courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

  • Matthew Barney as The Queen of Chain's Diva in Cremaster 5 1997

    Matthew Barney
    Barney as The Queen of Chain’s Diva in Cremaster 5 1997

    Production photo
    © Matthew Barney; courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

  • Matthew Barney Goodyear Field from Cremaster 1, detail 1996

    Matthew Barney
    Goodyear Field from Cremaster 1, detail 1996

    Production photo
    © Matthew Barney; courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

  • Matthew Barney Field of the Ascending Faerie from Cremaster 4, detail 2002

    Matthew Barney
    Field of the Ascending Faerie from Cremaster 4, detail 2002

    Production photo
    © Matthew Barney; courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

  • Matthew Barney The Cloud Club from Cremaster 3, detail 2002

    Matthew Barney
    The Cloud Club from Cremaster 3, detail 2002

    Production photo
    © Matthew Barney; courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

  • Matthew Barney Field of the Ascending Faerie from Cremaster 4, detail 1995

    Matthew Barney
    Field of the Ascending Faerie from Cremaster 4, detail 1995

    Production photo
    © Matthew Barney; courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

  • Matthew Barney The Ehric Weiss Suite from Cremaster 5, detail 1997

    Matthew Barney
    The Ehric Weiss Suite from Cremaster 5, detail 1997

    Production photo
    © Matthew Barney; courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

Major exhibitions this year, curated by long-time collaborator and expert on his work, Nancy Spector of the Guggenheim Museum, have been shown at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne and now at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris. They have brought Barney’s work newfound public attention.

James Lingwood, co-director of Artangel, which will screen the Cremaster cycle in London this autumn, introduces this interview between Barney and Tate contributing editor Hans Ulrich Obrist.

The Cremaster cycle

With the completion of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3 this year, the magisterial Cremaster cycle is fully formed. It is without parallel in contemporary culture – an odyssey of pyscho-sexual drive and desire, spanning five films set in different geographical locations, from a stadium in his home town of Boise, Idaho, to an opera house in Budapest. Dense, compacted and multi-layered, the cycle reaches back to the mythology, biology and geology of creation and forward into a world of modified genetics and mutating identity. Our culture attempts to articulate such changes, but struggles to keep pace with the speed of development.

Barney is journeying alone in his efforts to build a parallel mythological world that probes deeply the dilemmas and traumas that shape our time. Much has been made of the idea that Barney has built a self-contained, enclosed system and iconography. Cremaster, as a sculptural project, has its own codes, signs and forms, almost its own genetic imprint. Yet the building blocks of its ‘DNA’ are easier to recognise than to decode. It feeds on itself, sometimes almost devours itself. But, like every system, every organism, it needs nourishment from without.

Cremaster ingests material from a dizzying range of sources: Manx, Mormon and Masonic; sporting, cinematic and sculptural. Barney’s work feeds voraciously from histories and cultures and offers back forms and fictions, which may help us understand what we are and where we are going.

James Lingwood

Interview

Hans Ulrich Obrist
Before the Cremaster cycle, your work suddenly became visible in 1991, with three shows in the United States.

Matthew Barney
Before Cremaster, my work had more to do with live performance. Those shows, which were probably understood as video installations, had much to do with documenting real-time action. At time I became more interested in telling stories. That was a turning point, rather than a beginning. The Cremaster cycle is in itself a narrative, but not neccessarily a linear one.

Hans Ulrich Obrist
For the first time in your work one saw links to mythology.

Matthew Barney
It started with OTTOshaft 1992, shown at Documenta 9. OTTOshaft took place in the parking garage and various elevator shafts at the museums in Kassel. Using different locations, a bagpipe was drawn. The parking garage became the bag and the elevator shafts became the drones. The piece aligned itself with the myths of Pan and the Pan pipe. Several known myths came forward in an unexpected way, and that excited me. Maybe I wanted to see if the OTTOshaft project could live inside a known story, and still remain an abstract piece.

Hans Ulrich Obrist
How did Cremaster start, and when did you give it the name?

Matthew Barney
It probably started as a literal extension of OTTOshaft, and how five locations could be assigned to the mouthpiece, the chanter, and to the bass and tenor drones. Something that was fractured, but local, could be projected on to a landscape at a much larger scale. It began as five locations, but the narratives would not fall together in a linear fashion. So I decided at that point to start with Cremaster 4 and establish a kind of boundary, and then go back to Cremaster 1. I felt pretty certain that ending in the middle would be the way to finish. There was a kind of system that I laid out before Cremaster , which started in a place called ‘Situation’, a sexual place trying to define drive or desire. That impulse would then pass through a kind of visceral funnel, called ‘Condition’, that would shape that raw drive. And then ‘Production’ was an anal or oral output that would be bypassed by connecting those two orifices and making a circular system. ‘Situation’, the sexual station, was always drawn as a reproductive system, before its embryonic point of differentiation between male and female. As for the title, well, I was at my sister’s wedding, sitting next to a doctor, Dr Lung, a man I grew up with in Idaho. I was talking to him about this system, about an unfixed, general point of sexuality, and he said I should look at the Cremaster muscle, which is associated with but not actually related to the height of the gonads during sexual differentiation in the womb. A story could be developed about a sexual system that could move at will, and within this fantasy the Cremaster muscle would control that, although in fact it does not.

Hans Ulrich Obrist
In the Cremaster cycle there are many strong narratives, a polyphony of beginnings and ends.

Matthew Barney
The Cremaster cycle tries to take on a cinematic language that I had not dealt with before. I wanted to see how this sculptural project, which is what it is, could align itself with the cinematic form, and still come out as sculptural. And this was also the first time that I had made single-channel pieces, knowing that they would be seen from the beginning to the end in a way that my other work had not. I enjoyed the way the other installations could be seen for a number of minutes, even in the middle of one of the channels, and you could move on to the next channel and gain a perfectly adequate experience from it without seeing all channels in any particular way. Cremaster is different. Another shift was in somehow putting a musical narrative on top of the visual narrative and, in the case of Cremaster 5, developing the two simultaneously. This really solidified the experiment. Up to that point, I was still straddling two different types of structure. Something changed with 5, and it probably has to do with the music. It ended up being an opera. We went to Budapest with the finished work of music, where Ursula Andress could lip-sync over the recording. In developing the work in general, it was so helpful for me to have a sense of how it might sound.

Hans Ulrich Obrist
It has been said that you infiltrate or infect closed systems, like the opera, by bringing in some disturbance or shift or virus. Yet Cremaster 2 is more like a landscape.

Matthew Barney
Yes. At least for my understanding of Cremaster 2, it is important for that landscape to be drawable as a discrete object. That it should be possible to make a sculptural form from the Canadian Rockies or the Utah Salt Flats, for example. It’s the only way that I could make the piece, as a contained form, in the same way that the stadium in Cremaster 1 is a contained form, or the Isle of Man in Cremaster 4, the opera in 5 and the Chrysler Building in 3. The initial concept was to put together five locations as singular sculptural entities, on a line from west to east, so that a line could be drawn between them – not just by me but by anybody.

Hans Ulrich Obrist
Every time I visit your studio I am impressed by the storyboards you produce, which include drawings, postcards, photography, cut-outs of many things – a lot of research material. What is your method of working?

Matthew Barney
The storyboards start as a drawing practice. In fact, the storyboards that precede the Cremaster cycle have little other than drawing in them. Cremaster combines source material from the five locations and those elements were organised into vertical lines around the studio, which became individual scenes in the narrative. As the filming for one of the films approached, aspects of a scene would be drawn more specifically for camera composition. These drawings would function more practically for the production, but the preliminary conceptual storyboads were a critical step for me in building the pieces.

Hans Ulrich Obrist
In the Cremaster cycle you have brought in several actors who are not actors. In Cremaster 2 it was Norman Mailer, whose The Executioner’s Song is an important point of departure in that film, but why did you bring in Norman Mailer himself, especially to portray Harry Houdini?

Matthew Barney
In Cremaster 2 there is a paternal constellation of Mailer, Gary Gilmore and Harry Houdini. That made the choice seem obvious. Mailer becomes paternal to Gilmore as the author of The Executioner’s Song. Although it is brief in Mailer’s book, the relationship here to Houdini is that Gilmore’s grandmother may or may not have had an affair with Houdini at the 1893 World’s Fair; whether or not it is true is unknown. This would make Gilmore Harry Houdini’s illegitimate grandson. The Cremaster 2 story is to do in part with this leap from Gilmore’s generation to Houdini’s. When he was younger Mailer looked an awful lot like Houdini. But the issue of likeness was not really the point. It had to do with that constellation, and with Mailer’s physicality. I think of these characters as physical states rather than as developed narrative characters. Somebody like Mailer brings to that role everything that he stands for. The types of characters that I gravitate towards, the types of icons, tend to have a heavy physicality in that way.

Hans Ulrich Obrist
That leads us to sculptor Richard Serra, whom you cast in Cremaster 3.

Matthew Barney
Yes, Richard is very good that way too. And so is Ursula Andress in Cremaster 5. There is a slight brutality to her, in the way that she is a proto-athletic sex symbol, whose shoulders are bigger than her hips.

Hans Ulrich Obrist
Can you tell me the reasons why Richard Serra was very important for the Cremaster casting?

Matthew Barney
I suppose there was an expectation that I would take a logical step in this last Cremaster piece, Cremaster 3, towards conventional cinematic form and dialogue, something that the previous Cremaster pieces took baby steps towards. I felt pretty strongly against casting somebody who would advance the project in that way.

Hans Ulrich Obrist
Why in Cremaster 3 did you choose the Chrysler Building in New York as your principal location?

Matthew Barney
A number of reasons. One, that it is the corporate headquarters of a maker of vehicles. And two, that it lends itself to other aspects in the project, where a vehicle is necessary to move the narrative across the landscape or to connect one story to another, almost as if the entire project was about UPS, the United Parcel Service! It would give the project a colour, brown, and an air fleet and a ground fleet that would carry the story from one location to the next. Each location could still have its own logic and story, but there would be a company in place to move it. The Chrysler Building satisfies those interests and it is also a reflector, in that it sits between the two halves of the story. The piece is set in 1929-30, when the Chrysler Building was constructed, and relates somewhat to the conflict between the stonemasons’ union and the metalworkers’ union. The story moves through the different floors of the building as it is being constructed, towards the top, which is effectively a transmitter. From there it moves into a space that is not really set in time. This scene was shot in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum on the different levels and feels almost like a video game. Many of the actors and characters in earlier parts of Cremaster 3 appear in this game. There are five levels, which take on five different allegories of the five Cremaster chapters [films]. Once that transmission is finished, the story is transported back to the Irish Sea, where Cremaster 3 begins, and gets involved in old creation myths of the Isle of Man, between a giant in Scotland and a giant in Ireland. We tried to shoot those scenes like a fairytale.

Hans Ulrich Obrist
The Cremaster cycle has been shown in cinemas, and it might appear on TV in the US. Your work has gone far beyond the usual boundaries of the art world. What then is the function of the art world for your work today?

Matthew Barney
For me it is critical that all of these forms come together as one piece. The films, the sculpture, the photographs, the books. And the museum is the place for that to happen. Probably the moving image aspects can travel most easily beyond the walls of the museum. The further, the better. But the museum is the place to make the overall form very clear, as we have done with the exhibitions at the Guggenheim and in Paris.

Hans Ulrich Obrist
Books have played an important role in your work from the beginning. Should the books be seen themselves as pieces?

Matthew Barney
They certainly are pieces. I tend to think non-heirarchically in the way that the different aspects of the Cremaster project are symbiotic. It’s the books that end up having the widest distribution, and that interested me in the way that the moving image is slowed down and crystallised in a particular way in the books, and how that informs some of the questions raised in the films and installations. Aspects of the films that are elusive become clearer in the books. For instance, the photography in the books, which is photographed rather than videotaped, tends to have a resolution and a stillness that makes it possible to study the detail in a way that cannot happen in the moving image. The books function as manuals, and bring clues to the narrative questions. In the designing of the books, and I like the way that every spread in a book has a gutter, it started to align with sculptural notions deriving from the natal cleft of the body, that line, the residue of initial cell division. From that symmetry, asymmetry can be introduced. The form of the book, and the gatefold in particular, lends itself to that idea. There is a gatefold in this Artist Project that uses two new drawings as its double-door. The drawings are an attempt to distil the narrative arch of the five episodes of Cremaster down to a single line drawing, and eventually down to an abstract sculpture. They are more or less plan drawings for the installation I’m building in the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton.

About the artist

Born in 1967 in San Francisco, Matthew Barney was brought up between Idaho, where he lived with his father, and New York, where he first encountered art during visits to his mother. He was a wrestler and gridiron football quarterback at high school, and enrolled at Yale to study medicine before transferring to art. Graduating in 1989, he made a rapid impact on the art world with exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1991, 1996 and 2000), Documenta 9 (1992), and Tate (1995). He embarked on the 300-minute Cremaster cycle in 1994, completing it this year. Featuring Barney himself in a variety of roles as well as such iconic figures as writer Norman Mailer, artist Richard Serra and actress Ursula Andress, Cremaster is a Wagnerian meditation on what Barney has called ‘desire in the guise of a digestive system’. Its title refers to the muscle that determines the height of the human testes in response to such stimulae as cold and fear, but beyond conscious control. Barney uses imagery, narrative and character, but no dialogue, to weave his unique mythology. The project is scheduled to reach its finale next year in an installation taking over the whole of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where Barney is based.

Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle, an exhibition of the films, related sculpture, photographs and drawings, is at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris until 5 January and will be shown at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in February 2003. Nancy Spector’s book The Cremaster Cycle is published by the Guggenheim Museum and distributed in the UK by Thames & Hudson, £45.

Artangel will be screening the Cremaster cycle at the Ritzy Cinema, Brixton, London, until 14 November 2002. For details call 020 7733 2229 or visit www.ritzycinema.co.uk. Matthew Barney has also created an installation, Cremaster Field, for the Ritzy Cinema foyer.

A longer version of this interview will appear in a book to be published by the Museum in Progress, Vienna.

This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 2.