Review: What a Body Can Do

*Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle, 10.10.02 – 05.01.03

Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (métro  Iéna)

*Sonic Process, une nouvelle géographie des sons, level 1 until 06.01.03

Musée National d’Art  Moderne, Centre Pompidou (métros Rambuteau and Hôtel de Ville)

Mathew Barney’s body of work, and it is certainly the body that we are asked to address here through various stages of formation and deformation, invites us to venture into an unfamiliar, often disturbing aesthetic universe. We are confronted with a filmic epic of overwhelming proportions supported by sundry sculptural artifacts, intriguing diagrammatic sketches, and photographic portraits that introduce us to some of the main characters and scenes. The Cremaster Cycle is the culmination of over eight years worth of construction. Its apparent object of investigation centres around the sexual differentiation of the genitals of the embryo, and the subsequent ascent and descent of the gonads in response to their environment. The cremaster, we are informed, is the muscle that controls this movement. In its present arrangement at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Barney’s universe requisitions the entire upper level and spreads itself out like a vicious infection. The floors have been recovered in astroturf, like a condensed football stadium (this being the setting of the first cycle), doorways have been padded and wrapped in white vinyl, and the sculptural artifacts, which feature as props in the five cycles that make up the Cremaster, are arranged in loose groupings in the vicinity of flat-screen monitors where Barney’s curious and highly complex filmic narratives flicker endlessly through their circuits. Attempting to capture a glimpse of the action on these screens, visitors sprawl on the floor and bundle like frightened children in awkward groupings. The cinematic images begin to leak into the space of our viewing and threaten to engulf us. Barney himself plays characters in all but the first cycle, which is peopled entirely by women. Slender threads tie one cycle to the next, often through the figural ciphers of grotesque and fascinating corporeal transformations or through Barney’s fixation on such viscous materials as petroleum jelly. It is across the perpetually reinvented body of the artist and in the specific region of the genitalia, often rendered unrecognizable, that we witness much of the action. Beyond this fascination in the genitals and the work of sexual reproduction, and in amidst the innumerable themes and influences that this work explores, there persists the recurrent motif of competition. What seems to be at play is the logic of an ideal game, where rules are invented as one proceeds, where there are neither winners nor losers, and nothing is finally achieved. We are drawn into the agonism of competition, Sisyphean tasks, and elaborate, fruitless games. It is apt then that the first film opens with an aerial view over a football field, claimed from the interior of two Goodyear dirigibles that hover above the action. As it turns out, the field emblem lifted from the American football stadium recurs throughout all the cycles as both a graphic and organisational symbol. But no conventional football game is in play here. Instead, an immaculately costumed chorus line of women with paste-on smiles have taken to the field. Their performance, we discover, is being choreographed from above. In each of the dirigibles, there is to be found a table laden with either white or red grapes, beneath both of these tables there hides the very same gorgeous blond in white satin knickers. With her hairpin she has carefully picked a hole through the tablecloth, so allowing for the surreptitious theft of a number of grapes. It is by arranging and rearranging these grapes, now white, now red, that she controls the action below. And so a kitch ballet unfolds that supposedly tells us the story of sexual reproduction, surely one of the most dangerous games of all. The fourth cycle in the Cremaster series, which was in fact the first that Barney completed, features a racing car event set on the Isle of Man. Here the rules demand that the two so-called competitors set off from the starting line in opposing directions, and proceed at breakneck speed toward a head-on collision. Barney, made over as an impeccably dressed hybrid creature with floppy, rabbit-like ears, and two extra orifices hidden away beneath his thin orange hair, joins the action. By way of a series of athletic antics, beginning with a tap-dancing routine, he makes his way across the island toward the site of the climactic collision. At the close of the third filmic cycle it is amusing to witness Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim museum being requisitioned for a mini hard-rock concert and as a climbing gym for a pink quilted Barney with a blood soaked serviette shoved down his throat. I was drawn three times into the elaborate display of the Cremaster, three times I departed overcome by a profound sense of disorientation and visceral unease. Barney draws us inexorably into his obsessive universe, and the mysterious logic of his vision leaves its mark on the spectator.