With a snail trail of Vaseline in the wake of his wickedly chiseled frame, Matthew Barney squirmed free of the art world's voracious embrace and slithered into popular awareness in 2002, with the three-hour final installment of his five-part Cremaster Cycle. If you didn't see it, you definitely heard about it—this gorgeously empty or brilliantly allusive (or both) event overseen by a naked emperor or the most important artist of his generation (or both). An eight-year project that commenced in 1994 with Cremaster 1 and concluded in 2002 with Cremaster 3—the nonlinear sequencing is actually the least perplexing aspect of this profoundly baffling work—the movies spawned hoodies, patches, coffee-table books the size of Stonehenge slabs, and at least one or two of Lady Gaga's most striking poses. Barney's reputation hasn't had much of a chance to grow or diminish in the past seven years, at least out here in the humid air of pop culture, where Cremaster, still unavailable on DVD, rarely visits for too long.
Completed and finally screened in toto just before the Internet was capable of drowning anything even remotely highfalutin with soul-melting bile, the film cycle was conceived as a time-based element in what Barney (other claim to fame: He's Björk's partner) imagined as a "single sculptural work," the full complexity and scope of which can only be appreciated in a museum, where the abstract films complement Barney's uncanny, Cronenbergian objects, which also appear as essential props in the movies.
I've experienced the Cremaster installation bombardment, and I can assure you: The films are big and bold and bewitching enough on their own; clocking in at just under seven hours, they give you more than enough time in Barney's weird world. And what is in that world? Well. Um. Shit. See, there's this thing called the cremaster muscle that raises and lowers your testicles, and only men have it, obviously, but they don't have it in the early stages of fetal development, which is the sexless place where Cremaster begins. Barney uses the process of gender differentiation to structure a quasi-autobiographical journey of artistic heroism involving transcendent feats of strength and endurance, many of them involving Vaseline and prosthetics. Never has a film about testicles and lube been so unsexy and yet so utterly transfixing. I don't know what it all means, but it's been seven years since I've seen it, and I'm still thinking about it, still willing to wait in a late-September line to take another stab at grasping it.
opens Friday at Cinema 21. Parts 1 and 2 screen at 7 and 9:25 pm Friday-Saturday, Sept. 24-25; 1:45 and 4:15 pm Saturday, Sept. 25; and 4:15 pm Monday-Tuesday, Sept. 27-28. Parts 4 & 5 screen at 7 and 9:10 pm Sunday-Monday, Sept. 26-27; 2:30 and 4:45 pm Sunday, Sept. 26; and 4:45 pm Wednesday-Thursday, Sept. 29-30. Part 3 screens at 7 pm Tuesday-Thursday, Sept. 28-30.