Matthew Barney is the golden boy of postmodern aesthetics. In 1994, at 27, he began his epic Cremaster cycle. Eight years later, he finished the last of the five installments. The ambitious work defies singular description or even definition in which the Yale graduate-cum-artist fuses sculptural installations with performance and video and makes a feature-length film to go with each piece. He began with Cremaster 4 and, shunning any kind of chronological order, followed it with Cremaster 1 (1995), Cremaster 5 (1997), Cremaster 2 (1999) and his final work, Cremaster 3 (2002) (see James DiGiovanna's review in the Cinema section). Barney writes and directs each film--sometimes even playing one or more of its characters.
The consistent theme of the cycle swirls around the body and sexuality. Barney reflects his own past as an athlete. But he's also tuned into the politics of the body, something many contemporary artists are focused on these days. It's a cross between a training camp and a medical research lab. There are wrestling mats and blocking sleds, sternal retractors and speculums, props cast in viscous substances like wax or tapioca or petroleum jelly.
It all teeters under its odd-sounding name: The cremaster muscle controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli. That's the dictionary definition--use your imagination.
"I was drawn to his intense visual pleasure," says Julie Hansen, UA professor of art history, who, along with UA's Paul Ivey, introduces the marathon screening of the entire Cremaster cycle at The Loft Cinema this weekend.
"I'm a Baroque scholar, and I'm very excited to see Barney embrace this stylizing. When I think of his work, I think of words like lush and mesmerizing. I think of filmmakers such as Peter Greenaway or David Lynch--basically artists that come to film with this sensibility."
"But Barney's also astutely postmodern in his marriage of film, theatricality, even virtual reality," adds Hansen. "For example, in Cremaster 3, he's mimicking a video game. There's a constant starting over--a metaphor for the artist and also the body."
The films circulate around metaphors of ascension and descension. "He's very masculine about gender--closing all his orifices, for example, in one of his films. But unlike other male artists who focus on homoeroticism, Barney connects science and art and philosophy and religion. He's situated at the right place and the right time to bridge all these kernels of postmodernism."
Hansen says Barney's just lucked into film, like the painter Julian Schnabel. "He's hooked onto something here. Sundance is releasing the films to a mainstream art audience. It's astounding, but he's tapped into this generation, this hype," adds Hansen.
His films start at Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho--a male image if there ever was one. Then they move to an ice field in Canada, and from there, it's out to the salt flats in Utah where Gary Gilmore, the famed serial killer, is portrayed by Norman Mailer (a male icon who slashed his own wife at a dinner party back in the '60s and got away with it). Barney even changes his own gender. The hybridization of male and female shows up throughout his work. He manipulates a different theatrical genre in each of the films--a fusion of Busby Berkeley-style dance routines and Leni Riefenstahl's choreographic vision of Third Reich athletics. Chorus girls form outlines of reproductive organs on a football field. Gothic Westerns meet 18th-century opera.
"He creates a map. It's a portrait of the body and also of Matthew Barney. But it's also a map of where we are as a culture," explains Hansen. "He creates this dream environment. It's an amazing achievement."
The Guggenheim Museum has organized all the attending sculpture and installations and drawings and has sent them on the road--premiering at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in June 2002 and then traveling to the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and back to the Guggenheim in New York.
So why not Tucson?
"Well, Tucson museums and galleries have a tendency to sponsor 'safe' or 'good taste' exhibitions rather than provocative ones. I think Tucson audiences are hugely underestimated in their sophistication. We're just lucky that the Loft is innovative enough to bring us the films. It's not going to be screened everywhere," says Hansen.
"And what a great thing to schedule it around Halloween," she adds. "Barney's costumes alone are phenomenal. He's clearly influenced by horror films. I mean, in Cremaster 3, Gary Gilmore's body is excavated, mutilated and castrated!"
The marathon screening of the all-new 35mm prints takes place Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 1 and 2 and Thursday, Nov. 6, at 1, 3:30 and 7 p.m. UA professors Julie Hansen and Paul Ivey introduce the Saturday screening at 12:30 p.m. Additional single screenings take place on Halloween as well as Monday through Wednesday, Nov. 3-5, at 12:30, 3, 5:30 and 9 p.m. The Loft Cinema is located at 3233 E. Speedway Blvd. Those brave enough to see all five of the Cremaster films at one sitting get in for $10. Single tickets per program cost the usual $7 or $4.50 for students, seniors or matinee shows. Call the Loft for details at 795-7777.