Matthew Barney by Design

Working well over a decade now, the thirty-something year old artist Matthew Barney has recently completed the final installment of his epic five film series The Cremaster Cycle. As a blockbuster show opens this spring 2003 at the Guggenheim in New York, the art world and art admiring public are forced to seriously consider the social and political manifestations of this monstrous endeavor in its entirety. Moving beyond all the current hype surrounding the young artist (a Yale graduate and once fashion model now married to the Icelandic singer Bjork) who is of the moment being touted as a modern day Duchamp, or even as Richard Flood of the Minneapolis Walker Art Center states, the "increasingly dominant artist of our era;" The Cremaster Cycle is in fact a stunning achievement if not solely for the grandiose scale and complex sets, striking in their elaborate detail and imagination (Spayde). If nothing else, the films are fascinating exercises in productionism, fuctioning as design extravaganza. The films encompass a vast design vocabulary, referencing styles from Art Deco to Baroque to contemporary eclecticism. In fact it is these allusions to both historical and contemporary design elements Barney employs as conduits for his narrative.

As the title of the work implies, it is in fact a cycle. The films were produced out of sequential order (4, 1, 5, 2, 3) and instead progress only to fall back on themselves (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). There is no linear progression. Geographically speaking, the cycle follows an eastward path, beginning in the American Northwest and ending in Eatern Europe, which if continued we know would land us eventually back in North America. Taking the cremaster muscle, the muscle that pulls the testicles upward in response to cold or fright, Barney sets forth a symbolic reference to the height of the gonads during the embryonic process of sexual differentiation, as a conceptual departure point for the series. Cremaster 1 represents the most "ascended" state while Cremaster 5 presents the most "descended" (Spector 30). As the cycle progressed over a decade, however, this model became less prominent, while others such as history, biography, and codes of behavior emerged as vehicles for the construct. Thus, the cycle has definitively no beginning or end, but functions instead as a loop, especially in the chronology it reveals (Spector 31).

If this sounds bizarre, rest assured the strangeness only escalates. [Nancy] Spector [curator of the Guggenheim show] recommends how to approach the art: "spend a week! " She adds, "the ideal way to see the show is to go through it once to get a sense of the language," keeping in mind that "everything—the choice of fabrics, the colors—is deliberate" (Strickland).

Furthermore, J. Hoberman of the Village Voice states "His [Barney's] movies exist less for their own sake than to provide content—in the form of clips, production stills, and props—for his epic installations ( He uses art history, fashion, Celtic lore, Houdini, Mormonism, heavy-metal music, football, and horror films to bring his ideas to life. For Barney, "drama is psychodrama and cinema is essentially a recording device and delivery system" ( .php). Design is the driving force that sets it all in motion.

Set in Barney's hometown of Boise, Idaho Cremaster 1 is a musical revue representing the state of total ascension, the point at which a fetus is neither male nor female, but in an undifferentiated state of sexual ambiguity (Spector 33). Barney envisions this ambiguous state on the Bronco stadium field at night. Above the stadium floats two Goodyear Blimps, corporate icons which often record live sporting events.

The interior of each blimp is outfitted in futuristic retro chic: shades of the mod-yet-minimalist space station of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) merge with the stream-lined ocean-liner sensibility of Warren McArthur. Four air hostesses, uniformed in trimly fitted 1930s suits (designed by Isaac Mizrahi), silently tend to each blimp. The only sound is the soft yet persistent ambient music, which suggests the hum of the engines (Spector 34).

In the cabin of each of the blimps there exists a single table draped with white tablecloth and mounted with an Art Deco style abstract centerpiece crafted out of petroleum jelly. A cluster of grapes surrounds the centerpiece. The grapes are green in one blimp and purple in the other. A blonde character named Goodyear lurks miraculously under both of these tables, inhabiting both of the airships at once. She is dressed as a 1930s Marlene Deitrich-type movie star, wearing white satin lingerie, clear plastic high heel shoes with a funnel attached to one sole, gartered stockings and bright red lipstick (Spector 34). Her actions within this sequence consist of plucking grapes from the table above through a tear in the tablecloth. Upon ingestion the grapes are then expelled through a funnel on her shoe. The acts of bodily digestion are omitted. Furthermore, Goodyear also produces diagrams for the action that is occuring on the field below. Dancing girls move in patterns on the Bronco field corresponding to the formations in her drawings. Aerial views of the dancing girls depict formations such as parallel lines, a barbell, multiplying cells, and a gender-neutral reproductive system.

Gliding in time to the effervescent musical score, the smiling chorus girls delineate the contours of a still-androgynous gonadal structure, which echoes the shapes of the two blimps overhead (Spector 34).

The ambiguous, gender-neutral sense of sexuality which Cremaster 1 evolves derives primarily from the two design styles that frame the narrative. The first, Art Deco, referring to the popular geometric style of the 1920s and 1930s, is in essence a sexualization of the machine. According to Meggs, Art Deco displays "streamlining, zigzag, moderne, and decorative geometry—these attributes express the simultaneous desires to express the modern era of the machine while still satisfying a passion for decoration" (255). This eroticism meshed with industry creates at once a sexuality that is cool, formal, and unattainable, and which, all angles and steel (symbolic of unlimited possibility) defies the constructs of masculine or feminine identity. It is unisex and otherworldy. Goodyear in her lingerie and heels may seem initially the object of masculine desire, but as we witness her control of the playing field below (a masculine realm) and her cool demeanor, we realize she is not feminine, not a passive being to be attained by a masculine force. Instead she is inhuman, feeding on fruits she has no need or desire to digest. The grapes present the second design concept to consider—Classic or Dionysian. Nancy Spector remarks,

[Here] Barney adds a subtle reminder of the dangers inherent in the hubris of absolute self-enclosure: the bunches of grapes on each table are the attributes of bacchus, greek god of wine, and a symbol of orgiastic abandonment. Such coded references to Dionysian excess in this tightly choreographed musical number of a film hint at the very fine line between self-love and loss of self (34).

The Dionysian element of abandon is earthy, organic and free—at odds with the severe formalism of Art Deco. Combined, these two elements, instead of polarizing and existing in a magnetic harmony, melt into one another, creating another world which is at once discombobulating and free of sexual differentiation. Barney uses Art Deco and the Classic element as design metaphors to depict the underlying theme of Cremaster 1—the pleasure principle incarnate (Spector 34).

Cremaster 2, biologically speaking, presents the next stage of fetal development, or as Spector states "the initial stirrings of the drive toward sexual division from an originary state of innate bisexuality" (35). The gonadal system remains neutral at this point but begins to restructure itself internally. "One set eventually regresses and atrophies while the other proliferates and differentiates" (Money 4). Barney abstracts this process narratively through a "kinda gothic western unraveled in the Columbia Icefield in Canada and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah," conveying the life of convicted killer Gary Gilmore ( According to Spector, Barney reinterprets the physiological process—the organism fights the progressive division trying to maintain the state imagined in Cremaster 1 (35). This regressive impulse emerges through a "looping" of events, beginning in 1977, the year of Gilmore's execution, to 1893, the year Houdini (suspected of being Gilmore's grandfather) performed his great escape at the World's Columbian Expo (Spector 35). Thus, as if capable of double vision, we are forced to look simultaneously forward and backward.

[This] is manifest in images of landscapes doubled by reflection, a leitmotif of the film. The opening sequence shows the vast horizon line of the Bonneville Salt Flats bisecting a mountain range, which is reflected in the transient lake that seasonally floods the ground. In the Columbia Icefield the camera zooms into crystal-blue glacial crevices, the sides of which appear as mirror-images of themselves, as if seen in a kaleidoscope. Rotating these views ninety degrees to create abstract vertical images that recall Rorscach shapes, Barney alludes by mere form to the psychological dimensions explored in the narrative (Spector 35).

This psychology is put forth literally by the unfolding of the life of Gilmore, played by Barney himself. Geography, spirituality, and fashion merge to create the thematic design language that tells the story. Mormon symbolism and fin de siecle fashion mesh in a hodgepodge of design that creates the film's hallucinatory landscape inhabited by "bees, bison, magicians, mediums, murders, heavy-metal drummers, twosteppers, and mounties" ( vaexhibbarney.html). Thus, Cremaster 2 is staggering in its esoteric allusions and metaphors. If we, however, keep these two major design elements in mind it is possible to weave through the film's dense, symbolic tapestry arriving at a narrative and a realiztion of the film's central theme—"the emancipatory potential of moving backward in order to escape one's destiny" (Spector 36).

The first of these elements, Mormon symbolism, pervades both the landscape (primarily Utah) and Gilmore's life, himself a Mormon. The behavior of the bee colony (the beehive a symbol of the Mormon church and Utah itself) is crucial to Cremaster 2. In one scene set in a recording studio, Gilmore becomes aware of his own condemnation. Depicted in utmost Barney style, this scene unfolds with Dave Lombardo, member of the thrash-metal band Slayer drumming to the buzzing of thousands of swarming bees (Spector 36). A man shrouded by bees and clad in black leather sings into a telephone (Spector 37). This is an allusion to American country musician Johnny Cash, a figure alluded to in Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song and who is said to have fulfilled Gilmore's wish by calling him on the night of his execution (Spector 37). The lyrics being sung were written by Gilmore and published in Executioner's Song. They refer to a swarm of "ghostly bees" preying on the killer himself.

The ghosts have descended and set upon me with a force I smack ‘em down but they sneak back and climb in Demons that they are tell me foul jokes They want to sap my will, drink my strength, Drain my hope (Mailer 362). The bee colony theme is mirrored later in the film after the execution. It takes place during the scene of Gilmore's judgment, realized and enacted in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's elaborate pipe-organ-studded hall (Spector 39). "Replicated in 1:8 scale and digitally animated, the Choir itself echoes the beehive—industrious, ordered, guarded, defensive—an emblem of the self-contained Mormon community" (Spector 39).

Another reference to the Mormon Church existing in the film is the idea of blood atonement.

An avenging people with occultist tendencies, the original Mormons taught that redemption could only be obtained through "blood atonement," the actual spilling of a sinner's blood on the earth. Such was the legacy that Gilmore, himself a Mormon, inherited (Spector 36).

In the Tabernacle scene the beehive bears witness to the "murder of one of its own," thus seeking revenge through blood atonement, or in contemporary society, state-sanctioned execution (Spector 39). Gilmore welcomes his death by execution so that his blood may be shed in order to obtain salvation (Spector 39).

The other relevent, yet more subtle design motif in Cremaster 2 is the use of fin de siecle fashion. This design presence occurs most predominantly in the opening scene in which Gilmore relatives, via séance, attempt to summon Harry Houdini's spirit. The three participants in the séance, Frank, his mother Fay, and his wife Bessie all wear corsets under their turn-of-the-century clothing. They are perched in stylized chairs that reflect the extreme constriction of their waists. "Less a fashion than a fetishistic process promising pleasure through the endurance of pain, corseting is a verb" (Spector 36).

In an attempt to understand the relevance of corseting and fin de siecle fashion it is beneficial to address gender issues at the turn of the century. In the first years (of the twentieth century) there occurred fierce debates about the social position of women (Ades 19). Women were demanding changes to the civil code so that they might have greater control of family finances (Ades 19). In 1906, women were given the right to work as taxi drivers (Ades 15). In 1907, married women won the right to freely dispose of their own salaries (Ades 19). Because of the 1880 introduction of secondary education for girls, more women were beginning to enter the professions (Ades 19). A conservative backlash spawned anxiety about the changing roles of women, which came to find expression in two popular stereotypes of the day—the "femme-homme," or dandy, and the "belle epoque" (Ades 20). Modern women were becoming more outgoing and assertive, while many men were becoming aloof, observant, and withdrawn. The rebellious male Bohemian of the early nineteenth century was giving way to the dandy of the early twentieth century.

This new female liberation is significant in the séance scene sequence and to Cremaster 2 on the whole because it acts as a metaphor for the force that is attempting to break out of the gender-neutral state of equilibrium of Cremaster 1. The séance scene depicts the figures just before this liberation. While the clothing is domineering and appropriate for the new belle epoque, the characters, including the male Frank, are still corseted and dominated. It is significant that Frank is corseted along with the two women. His masculinity has been usurped and his body molded into a bee-like form. However, it is Frank who, at the moment of Houdini's metamorphosis, breaks free of his binding, a bee flying from a hive at the head of his phallus (Spector 36). This transformation later gives way to Gilmore just before the murder sequence. The fin de siecle fashion morphs into Gilmore changing into jeans and a t-shirt, "revealing a tiny bud penis and no scrotum to speak of—a condition alluding to Mailer's hypothesis that Gilmore was sexually incompetent—and functioning as a reminder of the undescended testicles in the early stages of embryonic development" (Spector 39).

Completed in 2002, Cremaster 3 was the last installment of the series to be produced, yet it functions as a centerpiece for the cycle. In keeping with the biological vein, Cremaster 3 focuses on the halfway point where the realization occurs that differentiation, the division of the sexes is inevitable. However, as Spector remarks "acceptance is not a passive state: it represents a shoring up of internal resources for the battles between entropy and growth that lie ahead" (43). In an interview produced by PBS, and enacted on location at the Saratoga racetrack in New York state, Barney was asked "Could you explain the significance of this film in the Cremaster series?" The artist's response is as follows:

Well, this is central. It's number three in a series of five stories that, in a certain way, meet in the middle. It's a cycle, in a sense, but the central theme is shaping up to be a bit of a mirror—a two-sided mirror that's sending the entire cycle into two elliptical paths. So in that sense there's a character—the Chrysler Building—which is reflected by its architect, whose character is functioning in the same way. I don't want to get too esoteric on you here, but it's sort of in the fashion of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. The architect is guilty of hubris. He's feeling that he can look out over the two halves of the story (chapters one and two, then four and five) and resolve them (

Thus, "the most self-reflexive of the cycle's chapters, Cremaster 3 occupies a space of narcissism" (Spector 43). It is as if all the other sections of the cycle begin here and flow onward in both directions. Cremaster 3 once again involves an elaborate web of symbolism, this time including Celtic lore, Freemasonry, and Art Deco once more. Division, so crucial to the cycle, is approached in this film as a story involving Irish labor unions and organized crime in 1930s New York (Spector 43). The colors orange and green, the scheme of the Irish flag, are central to the film's design. Originally introduced in 1848 the flag symbolized "perceived opposites:" green representing the older Gaelic faction of the nation, the orange the Protestants, and the white between them everlasting peace (Spector 43). The film begins with an aerial view of the Irish Sea, which is proceeded by a prologue steeped in ancient Celtic mythology. The first scene involves two rock formations, Fingal's Cave on the Island of Staffa, and the Giant's Causeway on the coast on Northern Ireland (Spector 45). These two structures are geologically linked in their identical, naturally formed basalt columns and harbor a story of two giants. As told in Celtic lore, the Irish giant MacCumhail was said to have challenged the Scottish giant Fingal to a battle (Spector 45).

As a bridge for his opponent to come from Scotland, he builds the causeway and extends it out to sea, but as Fingal approaches, the thunderous vibrations of his steps reveal that he is twice MacCumhail's size. The Irish giant's wife, Oonagh, dressed in blue tartan with legs hewn from peat and moss, strategizes how to save his life. Learning that Fingal's Achilles' heel is his brass finger, the secret of his strength, she urges her husband to dress as a baby and bake twenty-one loaves of bread, each with a cast-iron frying pan baked into its heart (Spector 45).

In Barney's version of this story, the loaves contain white plastic wedges. The scene ends with MacCumhail disguised as a baby waiting in a gigantic cradle for Fingal's arrival (Spector 45).

This moves us into the film's main narrative which begin's deep under the foundation of the partially erected Chrysler Building. The setting is an ancient burial ground for goats (Spector 45). A female corpse, after attempting to dig herself out of a tomb, is assisted by five young undertaker boys who carry her up a series of staircases, into the lobby of the Chrysler building, depositing her in the back seat of a Chrysler Imperial New Yorker (Spector 46). The Chrysler was the epitome of Art Deco formalism and luxury.

Introduced on July 1, 1930, the Imperial is Chrysler's premier luxury car, the New Yorker is a style within this deluxe line. Here it is customized with an interior of plush green velvet. A golden eagle perches on the headrest of the front seat (Spector 46).

The following scene involves the New Yorker in a demolition derby with five Chrysler Crown Imperials. The New Yorker is encircled by the Imperials as if they are about to attack. The character referred to as the Entered Apprentice who has been inside the New Yorker until now, slips away as the Imperials approach to kill the automobile (Spector 46). Inside an elevator shaft the Apprentice lights a cigarette, intentionally activating a sprinkler system. As the elevator begins to fill with water, he starts pouring cement, casting an ashlar, a symetrical stone of utmost quality used in monumental constructions (Spector 46). The ashlar is also an important symbol in the initiation rites of freemasonry (Spector 46).

An entered apprentice is taught that "by the rough ashlar we are reminded of our rude and imperfect state by nature, by the perfet ashlar, of that state of perfection at which we hope to arrive." In some Masonic lodges, newly initiated apprentices are asked to chisel a piece of rough ashlar to signify their readiness to learn the ways of the craft (Spector 46).

But because he has used a car as a mold during the process, the Apprentice has cheated and betrayed his guild by laying a false foundation (Spector 46). For this act he must be punished, and three Master Masons meet in the Chrysler Building's Cloud Club Bar on the sixty-sixth floor to determine his ultimate fate (Spector 46). The club is designed to look like an Irish all-male pub and accented with Art Deco touches (Spector47). Images of Masonic tools are embroidered into the orange and green carpets. The bar is lit by scalloped deco lights and furnished with stools sculpted of frozen Vaseline. After a brief interlude at the Saratoga racetracks where the Apprentice is attacked by hitmen who smash his face into a railing, knocking out his teeth, the sequence continues in a dental office on the seventy-first floor of the Chrysler Building (Spector 49). There he is stripped, and beneath his worker's garb he wears the costume of the First Degree Masonic initiate, originally worn by medieval heretics condemned to death (Spector 49). In freemasonry, First Degree candidates wear aprons of pure lambskin, "signifying the innocence of the newborn child and the state of man before the Fall" (Spector 49). Similarly the Apprentice has an apron of flesh covering his abdomen. After being helped into the dental chair, a hitman lifts the fleshy apron revealing no genitalia, but a frozen "splash" formation instead. As part of Barney's symbolism, the Apprentice and the Masonic rites suggest an organism that struggles with its own formation internally (Spector 49).

Cremaster 4, the first of the cycle's installments, and thus adhering to the biological model most uniformly, presents the drive toward descension (Spector 59). The film is set on the Isle of Man, focusing on the island's rich history of folklore and myth, and furthermore, the contemporary incarnation of the famous Tourist Trophy motorcycle race (Spector 59). Thus, mythology and machine combine in the design scheme to propel the narrative. Cremaster 4 is largely a fairy tale comprised of satyrs, faeries, and rams dressed in Edwardian and Baroque fashion.

The main character, a red-haired satyr, played by Barney himself wears a white Edwardian suit and fashions himself as a "dandified gentleman" (Spector 60). The satyr has two sets of sockets in his head—four horns, which will grow into those of a ram native to the Isle of Man. According to Spector, these horns are significant in that they…

Form a diagram that proposes a condition of undifferentiation, with ascension and descension coexisting in complete equilibrium. The conceptual space between the candidate and his ram is the "Laughton Field." It is the realm of pure potential that borders on the hubristic threshold of achieving the impossible (60).

The movie begins on a pier with the satyr parting his hair in a vanity mirror. After fingering the horn sockets in his head, he begins tap dancing on a white plastic floor. The dancing becomes more and more intense until he crashes through the floor and into the Irish Sea. He explores the floor of the ocean, gradually moving toward the island. Meanwhile, the motorcycle race has begun on land. The riders' torsos protrude ambiguous sex organs seen oozing from holes in their jumpsuits (Spector 62). During a pit stop, three female faeries service their bike, replacing the wheel with a flesh colored tire equipped with a set of descended testicles. Finally, the satyr reaches the island, swimming through a channel of petroleum jelly. This channel functions both as birth canal and as intestines (Spector 62). The final sequence occurs once again on the pier where a curtain opens to reveal a lone pair of testicles submerged in vaseline. The drive toward differentiation is in process and the division is obviously male.

Cremaster 5 depicts the state of total differentiation. Barney envisions this stage as a Baroque love story set in nineteenth century Budapest. Inside the Hungarian State Opera House we find the film's three main characters, the Queen of Chain played by Ursula Andress and a Magician and Giant, both played by Barney. The Queen reclines on a throne in a booth of the opera house as a Diva performs on stage. During the performance the Queen dreams of an embrace she had with her Magician on a day in the past:

Preparing for a leap into the dark frigid waters of the Danube below. Stripped naked, he positions white plastic shackles over his wrists and ankles, then fits molded gloves on his hands and places weighted balls between his toes. Standing on the very edge of a plinth jutting out from the bridge, the Magician embodies the hermeticism of Houdini's practice (Spector 68).

Houdini was born in Budapest in 1874. The Magician represents every metamorphosis he ever performed. The next scene takes place somewhere inside the Queen's body as the camera zooms up her skirts and into bathing pools where hermaphroditic sprites frolic. The Giant enters the bath. Baroquely styled, he is a Neptune figure with hair made of glass bubbles. Except for an abstracted scrotum, the Giant lacks genitalia. The sprites begin to surround him and attach a garland to his scrotum. Finally, the cremaster muscle relaxes and the testicles descend. This is the climactic moment—the differentiated state, the end of the cycle and its beginning.


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Mailer, Norman. Executioner's Song. New York: Random House, 1979.

Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1998.

Money, John. "Psychosexual Differentiation," Sex Research: New Developments. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc, 1965.

Spayde, John. "Matthew Barney Delirious Dreamer." Utne Reader. February 2003: 55.

Spector, Nancy. The Cremaster Cycle. New York: Harry Abrams, 2002.

Strickland, Carol. "Matthew Barney's Bizarre Work Transforms Guggenheim." The Christian Science Monitor. March 1, 2003.