Self-Portraiture Meets Mythology: Matthew Barney Talks About His “Cremaster Cycle”
by Scott Foundas
Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster 3” — which is actually the fifth and final installment in his quintet of highly personal, avant-garde fables — opens and closes with scenes set at Fingal’s Cave in Scotland and Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. These two real locations are home to crystalline volcanic rock formations that bear an eerie resemblance to one another and, as a result, are deeply entrenched in explanatory myth. As one version of the legend, here adapted by Barney, has it: the Scottish giant Fingal built the Causeway to cross from the Isle of Staffa to Ulster without getting his feet wet, whereupon he was confronted by another giant, Fionn MacCumhail. MacCumhail chased Fingal away by hurling a large boulder into the North Irish Sea, destroying the causeway and creating the Isle of Man (the setting for “Cremaster 4,” which was actually the first of the films to be produced) in the process. Get it?
It doesn’t really matter if you do, because there’s lots of other stuff about “Cremaster” that you won’t get. But the important thing is that “Cremaster 3” (and to a certain extent, the entire “Cremaster Cycle,” which opens Friday in Los Angeles as part of this summer’s national release) is itself a causeway of sorts, bridging the gap between narrative and experimental cinema and hurtling us to and fro, through lightning connections of time and space, without ever getting its feet wet. A decade in the making, Barney’s hugely ambitious project (which encompasses not only the films, but also an entire catalogue of books, drawings, and sculptures), transports us from an Idaho football field festooned with dancing Rockettes to a Budapest bathhouse inhabited by Ursula Andress, all the while a variety of characters (or possibly the same, metamorphosing character, like the astronaut from “2001”) portrayed by Barney himself serve as our guides.
The imagery is ravishing from the start: horned creatures; petroleum jelly caves; a Cronenberg-ian fascination with bodily orifices. The subject matter — first and foremost, a study of gender identity in America and the myth of the American male — is always intriguing. But as Barney’s canvas expands over the course of the films — if one views them in the order in which they were made, starting with part four and ending with part three — the intoxicating power of his perversely original universe grows inescapable. Viewers will find themselves either entranced or repulsed. But either way, this is hard stuff to take your eyes (or your mind) off of.
As Jim Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum write in their superb book “Midnight Movies,” “The ideal surrealist spectator breaks open a film’s continuity to liberate individual images from the prison of the narrative.” Such is the viewer demanded by the “Cremaster Cycle,” with the added bonus that the films themselves work in tandem with the spectator to break free from that narrative prison. There are stories here — musical stories, western stories, horror stories — layered within other stories, but coded in a breathtakingly new language of symbols and metaphors that rivals anything this side of Middle Earth. The “Cremaster Cycle” doesn’t ask to be understood in a straightforward, representational way, but rather to be surrendered to.
Barney has been an art-world cause celebre for some years now, almost since he first appeared on the scene in his early 20s. But Barney’s work is relatively new to cinema audiences, most of whom will have their first chance to see the “Cremaster” films with Palm Pictures’ theatrical release in select cities this summer. During his recent visit to L.A., and on the eve of bidding “bon voyage” to the work that has occupied his life for most of the past decade, indieWIRE spoke with Barney about the “Cremaster Cycle” and its impact on both the art and film worlds.
indieWIRE: It’s somewhat interesting to note that this interview is being conducted for a film publication, whereas up until the release of “Cremaster 3” last year, almost everything that had been written about you and the films was confined to the realm of art criticism and art-world publications.
Matthew Barney: It probably has to do with the fact that the project began as an extension of a sculpture practice, and it wasn’t originally intended to end up in cinemas. “Cremaster 4” was made with the intention of showing it on television, which didn’t ever happen. It was made with the thought that it would appear a year after it was filmed, during the time of the TT race on the Isle of Man, so that it would exist as a false sports broadcast of some sort. When that didn’t happen, we looked into different ways of showing it as a single-channel piece and inevitably ended up thinking that we should put it in the cinema. So, the decision for it to be delivered as a film came in a roundabout sort of way.
iW: Indeed, you’ve spoken before about the influence of sports broadcasting and, specifically, NFL Films highlight movies. Yet, there also seems a more conventional filmmaking influence present in your work: the specter of Kubrick looms large in “Cremaster 3,” while the entire series seems informed in some ways by the work of the early surrealists, like Bunuel and Dali.
Barney: In the way that “Cremaster 4” had a relationship to sports broadcasting, as did “Cremaster 1,” that had to do with a couple of things. One was my interest in using an athletic arena as a way to tell a hermetic narrative, and to do it in the way that the image in sports broadcasting often goes flat and sort-of floats in a way as compared to cinematic space. The way the stadium light removes the shadow; the way the even color field behind the figure makes the figure pop from the ground: all of those were things that I found to be interesting tools if the goal is to try to relieve this moving image from gravity and from those qualities that make object-making a bit restrictive. To make an object stand in space you’re always battling with gravity, and I think one of the things that led me to video in the first place was the fact that it could suspend that. As “Cremaster 5” was made — and on to “2” and “3” — and they became looked at more and more as films, it was a bit of a surprise in the beginning. But I think what it did was to influence my decision about what vessel was going to hold this narrative. What had been a kind of broadcast-sports vessel became a cinematic-genre vessel.
iW: So in a way, the films are a journey — if we regard them in the order in which they were made as opposed to numbered — from this anti-gravitational, video way of recording images to a more cinematic sense of discovery.
Barney: I think that’s very true. I think particularly with “Cremaster 2” and “Cremaster 3,” it became about trying to make as resonant a cinematic statement as possible while still asking it to answer to all of the other criteria that the project had placed on it.
iW: On a similar subject, it seems worth asking if there are two different experiences to be had here: one from watching the films in the order that they were made, as those of us who have been following the series from the beginning have; another from watching the films in the order in which they are numbered, as audiences now have a chance to do. Certainly, in the latter case, there will be a noticeable schism, in terms of length, format and production values when one transitions from “Cremaster 3” to “Cremaster 4.”
Barney: It’s probably worth talking about what may be the third experience, which is to see how the moving image has created a family of objects. That, for me, is the success of the project. That’s what it set out to do in the first place, and I think that was quite consistent — its ability to generate sculpture. So, when I look at them side by side, that’s the first criteria for me in terms of judgment. If I separate them and judge them as individual films, I would experience that same sort of schism that you’re talking about.
iW: I’m reminded of something you said to Michael Kimmelman in an interview published back in 1999. “Art needs to be defended,” you said, adding, “If a work is shown too many times, something gets stolen from it.” This seems to me a particularly prescient sentiment in light of the fact that the “Cremaster Cycle” is now going to travel on its own to many cinemas across the U.S., where it will have to defend itself against all manner of possible projection problems and audience perplexity.
Barney: I think I was more concerned when they were released as chapters, one by one, that they didn’t have the self-defense mechanism that they have now, as a complete group. After seeing the work operate in the traveling exhibition this last year, I feel that it can defend itself that way, as a whole.
iW: With regard to that traveling exhibition, which was in museums: Do you feel that it is essentially the same experience if one sees the “Cremaster” films in the museum setting versus in the cinema setting, as a moviegoer?
Barney: It’s a different experience at the museum, because you’re in that space between the object and the moving image, which I’m very interested in. I think that the project can be read in a much more accurate way in that environment, where the secondary and tertiary information is there, in the drawings, photography and objects, which attempt to distill character groups and different aspects of the narrative. All those things are useful in reading the project. I think another experience can be had by watching the films sequentially.
iW: It seems somewhat self-defeating to write or talk too much on the subject of what these films are “about” — at least, in a literal, representational way — given that it’s largely their abstract, free-associative qualities that are key to their fascination. And yet, many audiences — such as those at Sundance this year — and even certain critics seem hung up over a quest for literal meanings in the work.
Barney: There are a number of different ways of making decisions in making one of these things. What happens when you put a piece of porcelain next to a piece of leather? What resonance does that create? These sort of questions belong to sculpture, and I think that as the project became more of a project of cinema, I never stopped making decisions that way, right down to the way people were cast and the way scenes would develop. I think when things like that happen in the story, it doesn’t carry narrative as much as it does this attempt to create presence, in the sculptural sense of the word. As a viewer myself, things like that excite me very much.
iW: But the films also do seem to be telling narrative stories, albeit with a different set of syntax and symbols and meanings than we’re accustomed to from the legacy of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.
Barney: As the films stood on their own more, in the case of “Cremaster 2” and “3,” it sort of elevated my interest in trying to make them resonate as films while still functioning within the cycle as object makers. I suppose while doing that, there was more and more a willingness to make them communicate, and by doing that it became more to do with what you’re talking about. They were already satisfying my interests as a sculptor, and as I tried to make them more communicative, they started to speak to a different audience, which I found very exciting and very satisfying.
iW: Filmmaking itself does seem very sculptural, just with regard to the chemical reactions that take place on the celluloid itself and the physical-mechanical processes of cutting together and then printing film images. It also seems that the filmed image affects us in different ways than the video image. And while all of the “Cremaster” works have originated on video formats, you’ve eventually transferred back to film for theatrical showings.
Barney: One of the things that the 24P medium [used to shoot “Cremaster 3”] has really showed us is that the frame rate difference is so psychological. When you look at 30-frame HD next to 24-frame HD, the difference is very interesting. You realize that watching something at 24 frames per second is what your mind is used to, and watching it at 30 is television — it’s a different experience altogether.
iW: One of the subjects of “Cremaster 2” is Harry Houdini, portrayed in the film by Norman Mailer. But your interest in Houdini and his appearance in your work dates back further than this, as does the interest in climbing and rappelling that figures prominently in both “Cremaster 5” and “Cremaster 3.” For you, are these motifs representational of a desire to escape from one’s surroundings or, rather, to transcend them?
Barney: That question has been content in several of these pieces — that misunderstanding, that claim that Houdini makes as a magician that it’s all illusion. In retrospect, it seems that his pursuit had much more to do with transcendence. I think that question is, for instance, what “Cremaster 5” is based on; the whole story is about that question. I think that the climbing in “Cremaster 3” and several of the other pieces is an attempt to try to align the conflict in the story with a biological conflict, one that has a predetermined outcome in some ways. And if that were true, it could propose that those elements within this body are trying to overcome their predetermined condition.
iW: I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that you as an artist are in some ways trying to overcome your own predetermined condition, at least to the extent that we, in our often narrow-minded view of the world, have certain preconceptions concerning the predetermined condition of a kid from Idaho who grows up playing football, goes to college on a football scholarship and then pursues a career as a male model. Which is to say that you, in many ways, defy our stereotypical notions of who an artist is and where he comes from.
Barney: I think that the “Cremaster Cycle” definitely belongs to the tradition of self-portraiture. It begins in Idaho on the field where I grew up playing, and as it moves eastward, it carries an autobiographical thread that I think, at a certain point, trades places with a mythological thread. And it ends in Houdini’s birthplace. Like a snowball, it starts to gather myth as it moves on, but I think the core of it is still my own story.
iW: As the films become more mythic, they seem to suggest that the world is a much smaller, more closely interconnected place than we give it credit for (or want to), which strikes me as a particularly topical discussion given the state of world affairs at the moment.
Barney: It’s sort of an assumption that the piece makes, that it’s possible to make a drawing that way across the map and believe that a single form can communicate across that. On the other hand, what has been interesting is to see the way that the individual chapters have had different resonance in different places. The Mormon content in “Cremaster 2” is obviously going to have a different meaning in a cinema in Idaho than it does in Frankfurt. It was always really interesting to show the Jim Otto works [a series of early Barney works drawing upon the image of the famed Oakland Raiders center] in Europe, to an audience that had absolutely no idea who Jim Otto was.
iW: There’s also a fairly radical upending in the films of conventional notions of gender identity and the roles occupied by men and women in society. Many of your characters, including those portrayed by you personally, often exhibit semi-formed or mutated genitalia and, henceforth, an unidentifiable sex.
Barney: It comes out of wanting to create a field that would try to locate eroticism and desire in an undifferentiated way; wanting to make work that would meditate on the creative process in some way, to try to locate the source of that ambition in that field of desire somehow, and not wanting the elements within that field to be grounded or concrete, but to be an open and undifferentiated mass. So, as the work became more open to storytelling, became more narrative and the characters became more defined, I wanted them to be erotic characters without grounding them in the genital universe.
iW: Are there other contemporary filmmakers whose work excites you, or whose work you feel evidences the same sort of commitment to breaking down the barriers between experimental and more traditionally accepted forms of cinema?
Barney: I could list horror filmmakers for sure, like Raimi, Carpenter, Cronenberg. But it feels a little bit like those films aren’t being made any more. Part of that has to do with the fact that I’m probably looking at film less than I used to — when I was devouring it was sort of before I was making it. And at that time, those were the films I was really excited about, these films that would take a single, simple condition — a shark in the water, for example — as their main character. They would often relieve the characters from being the sole carriers of emotional content and I think that’s what excited me.
iW: On the flip side of that coin, are you troubled by the occurrence of images from your own work and that of some of your contemporaries, such as Damien Hirst and Mariko Mori, as out-of-context design elements in any number of big Hollywood science-fiction and fantasy movies?
Barney: People will call up and say, “Did you see this thing or that?” which has clearly been influenced by something I’ve done. And every time I look at one of these works, I always have the same feeling, which is that it isn’t true. I think it’s because when something becomes an image, I don’t recognize it anymore. I feel like these things are so invested in their relationship to object that they can’t operate as image somehow. That thing you mentioned in the beginning, that thing about protecting the work — I think this is what that has to do with. You’ll see it from time to time, when somebody makes a piece of sculpture and it’s reproduced over and over again to the point where it begins to become an image. I guess that’s the fear that I would have about something I would make, that you’d stop having the desire or the ability to move around in it because it had become a two-dimensional thing.
iW: Does that also have something to do with the reason why, up until now, the distribution of the “Cremaster” films has been very limited, consisting primarily of museum engagements and limited-edition laserdiscs sold to collectors?
Barney: Part of it had to do with figuring out a way to fund it. Looking to the thing we knew best, which was how to edition and distribute artwork, that’s what we did. We made an edition of 10 out of the [first] film, divided the budget by 10 and sold it for that. So, at least the film would break even and the work that was generated out of it could start to fund the following film. But it is true that I was interested in finishing the whole project before it was delivered in a bigger way, to give it a chance to develop that quality of self-preservation that I think it needs in order to stand on its own.
iW: And now that the project is complete, do you know what’s next? And might that next thing concern a further exploration, perhaps even a more conventional exploration, of filmmaking?
Barney: The “Cremaster” cycle is finished for sure and feels very resolved. But on the other hand, I feel that this territory is very fertile, that the different aspects of the project — from the moving image to the object making — are very fertile. I don’t feel like now would be the time to change my way, because I still feel like I’m learning a lot and that the medium is still giving a lot back to me.
[DISCLOSURE: indieWIRE Managing Member and Co-Founder Karol Martesko-Fenster is part of the executive management team of Palm Pictures.]