The first time I saw Matthew Barney (or rather one of the many grotesquely strange manifestations of the artist) he stared me down from the front cover of David Hopkins’ book, After Modern Art 1945-2000. Adorned in prosthetic make-up with orange kiss curls and a dandy-esque white suit I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of him or the stills I saw of his epic art/film/sculpture work, The Cremaster Cycle. Unlike the majority of the films I have written on for this series, Barney’s series is not merely cinema, but art. Accordingly, you cannot just nip down to your local video store and rent out a copy and instead have to wait for special screenings. A number of years after I first caught a glance of Barney I made the overly enthusiastic but ultimately foolish decision to attend a screening that showed all five films in the order that they were made.
The forms don’t really take on life for me until they’ve been ‘eaten’, passed through the narrative construction.
- Matthew Barney
Composed of five films (Cremaster 4 , Cremaster 1 , Cremaster 5 , Cremaster 2  and Cremaster 3 ), the title of Barney’s opus is taken “from the cremaster muscle in the male genitals from which the testicles are suspended, and which is retracted in a reflex movement produced by cold or fear inside the body.” Each film involves a loosely formed, and yet highly symbolic, narrative that is concerned with myth, masonic rituals, the boundaries of the body and gender identity, movement and physicality, violence and sexual reproduction. All of these motifs are shrouded in hypnotically and intense visual imagery that increases in complexity and skill with each film.
The reason why I referred to my choice to watch the entire cycle in the space of a day as “foolish” is because the combined running time of the five films falls just under 400 minutes. If Luis Buñuel believed that going to the cinema is sometimes like being raped, then The Cremaster Cycle is a bit like being kidnapped and whisked off to a bizarre and chaotic world inhabited by satyrs and quasi-human creatures who proceed to torture you. I felt mentally exhausted, physically weak, had a splitting headache and didn’t know where to begin deciphering the hours of imagery that had forcibly entered my head.
That isn’t to say that The Cremaster Cycle isn’t worth viewing: Barney has produced an intricately constructed parallel universe that is as visually stunning as it is mystifying. Cremaster 5, in particular, stands out for its melancholic opulence that manages to cut through the bizarre symbols and incidences. For me, this part of the cycle was so beautifully stylised that I was too entranced by what I was seeing to worry about working out the subtext of the metaphors within every frame. Although Barney capably utilises intertexuality to broaden the scope of each film, he ultimately creates a space that is uniquely his own. My one tip for people who are keen to immerse themselves in Barney’s world is to do it one film at a time. Don’t make the same mistake I did.