The Mythology of Matthew Barney | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 09.06.2002
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The Mythology of Matthew Barney

With his five eccentric "Cremaster" films, the New York video artist Matthew Barney has rendered his own mythology. The entire cycle is now being screened at a summer-long retrospective in Cologne.


A parallel universe: A peek inside the world of "Cremaster."

An elderly woman visiting the new Matthew Barney show at Cologne's Ludwig Museum is dazed and confused.

For about 15 minutes, she's been wandering from gallery to gallery trying to make sense of the bombardment of surreal and metaphorical images coming from Barney's videos.

"It's overwhelming," she says of the New York video artist, whose exhibit opened this week.

She's not alone in her state of perplexedness.

"There's so much going on in his videos that I have no idea what he's trying to say," one young woman remarks. Her male companion says the work is "very interesting," but a little too "abstract."

"A sexually driven digestive system"

That's not surprising given that the metaphorical premise tying the films together is the cremaster muscle, which controls testicular contractions. Barney has described the "Cremaster" cycle as "a sexually driven digestive system." A critic recently described the work as Barney's "exploration of the creative process."

But even though some see a Theater of the Absurd quality in Barney's creations, others think it's the work of a genius, a modern-day successor to the surrealist filmmakers Bunuel and Dali. The New York Times chief art critic recently called him "the most-important American artist of his generation."

There's little by way of dialogue in the films, but the dramatic and often funny imagery and Day-Glo colors are enough to keep the viewer compelled throughout. With the videos' myriad mythic creatures - from faeries with orange pom poms for hair to half-human, half beast mutants - it's tempting to compare Barney's work to "Star Wars," even though his films are staged entirely on terra firma.

Broadway and a Bond girl

Through his "Cremaster" tales, Barney has created his own mythology, borrowing from different periods and historical events. There's a little bit of everything here – from the Busby Berkeley musicals of Hollywood to Leni Riefenstahl's glorification of the human body in "Cremaster 1."

Another installment is based on the story of Gary Gilmore, the first man to be executed in the United States after the reinstitution of the death penalty in 1977.

"Cremaster 3," which concludes the series and just had its European premiere in Cologne, is a baroque lyrical opera starring former Bond girl Ursula Andress as the lovelorn Queen of Chain.

The Cologne exhibit is the first major European retrospective for Barney, who was born in San Francisco in 1967. He grew up in Boise, Idaho, and later attended college at Yale University in Connecticut before settling in New York. There, he lives with his girlfriend, the pop icon Björk.

Curated by the Guggenheim Museum, the exhibit is also the first to screen the entire cycle of Barney's surreal "Cremaster" films. It also includes sculptures, photos and digital images taken from the "Cremaster" films.

"Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle" runs until September 1 at the Ludwig Musuem, Bischofsgartenstr. 1, Cologne.

  • Date 09.06.2002
  • Author Daryl Lindsey
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  • Date 09.06.2002
  • Author Daryl Lindsey
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink