In ancient Ireland, an overgrown baby chomps a finger off the hand of an ugly giant. At the Guggenheim museum, sculptor Richard Serra flings melted Vaseline onto black metal slabs. And in a room of the Chrysler Building, a paraplegic beauty slices potato wedges with a device attached to the sole of her stiletto-heeled prosthesis. And so Matthew Barney's Cremaster 3 meanders for three agonizing hours, without narrative or dialogue, from one dream-like tableau to the next.
The film is the last installment of filmmaker-sculptor Barney's five-part Cremaster Cycle, screening at the Cinematheque for the next two weekends. The psychological peep show was shot out of sequence from 1994 to 2002, most likely to heighten its mystique. Unfortunately, inscrutability often masquerades as genius in today's art world. In the almost seven-hour epic, Barney creates a hermetic universe, cross-pollinating his personal symbolism and fantasies with geography, biology, choreography, Celtic mythology, Masonic mysteries, and bumblebees.
His world has two preoccupations: gender identity and artistic creation. Viewers are held hostage by mute characters absorbed in private rituals and bizarre objects carrying esoteric meaning. (A 528-page iconographic decoder catalogue is available for $65.) The American art world's hottest new Big One is either a rambling lunatic, a staggering genius, or a brilliant marketeer.
The 35-year-old from Boise, Idaho, was once an All-American boy: star quarterback on his high school football team, good-looking senior class president, honor student. His only apparent flaw was his height (he's barely six feet tall), which he claims prevented him from playing pro ball. At Yale, he studied pre-med and paid his tuition with modeling jobs for prepster fashion houses like Ralph Lauren. After two semesters, he traded his anatomy charts for paints -- and petroleum jelly. For his senior thesis, "Field Dressing," Barney dangled nude from Yale's gymnasium ceiling, strapped into an ornate harness. Below him was a bed of Vaseline, from which he scooped handfuls of goo and then wiped them on his orifices.
Barney's big break came soon after graduation: He posed on the cover of Artforum's summer 1991 issue in shoulder pads and an athletic cup. Then he created a surreal gym in Barbara Gladstone's New York gallery, complete with a weight bench slathered in Vaseline and a weightlifting bar made out of pearly tapioca. A video of Barney in a black cocktail dress and pumps, pushing a heavy football blocking sled, played on perpetual loop. Gladstone, giddy with Barney's star potential, soon began financing his nascent epic.
Barney created The Cremaster Cycle's sculptural forms and installations. The series, he's repeatedly said, is a vehicle for his sculptures and a sculpture itself -- statements which underscore the epic's fatal flaw. While Barney is a master at "sculpting" stunning scenes -- which make for powerful stills -- he's unable to string the scenes together to make a coherent film. The result is the visual equivalent of a writer who crafts lively sentences, but can't make a paragraph out of them. His cinematic sculpture is sometimes mesmerizing, sometimes repulsive, but mostly so plodding and convoluted that it feels like a new form of sadomasochism.
The center of the Cycle's mythic universe -- Barney's balls -- is repeatedly transformed by a Cher-like series of costume changes. Which brings us to the cremaster, the epic's leitmotif: It's the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles, depending on temperature and sexual arousal. The cremaster's first big job comes during the seventh month of pregnancy, when it lowers the testes from the abdomen into the scrotum; only then is the fetus a male. Barney's also fascinated by the first seven weeks of pregnancy, the pregenital stage of development, when all fetuses have the same primitive gonads. This moment before genital development, Barney says, represents "pure potentiality." So we get seven hours of Barney resisting biological fate, struggling to become a new sexual hybrid. Androgynes -- like the "faeries" in Cremaster 4 and water nymphs in Cremaster 5 -- are the only smiley, happy people in Barney's world.
In this era of blurry gender roles, Barney serves up a new definition of sexuality, packaging it in over-the-top spectacle, Las Vegas-style. Cremaster 1 is a candy-colored, Busby Berkeley-like musical that glorifies undifferentiated sexuality, which he depicts as two Goodyear blimps and an elaborately costumed chorus line recreating patterns of cell division on an empty football field. The one film that doesn't feature Barney onscreen, it's also the happiest of the quintet.
Cremaster 5, a 19th-century tragic opera that spotlights the cremaster's descent, is Cremaster 1's antithesis. Playing a giant, Barney enters an opulent bathhouse, where happy hermaphroditic water nymphs hasten the process by tying multicolored ribbons to his scrotum. At the same time, a flock of pigeons flies into the air, carrying in their beaks another set of ribbons, also attached to the giant's scrotum. To descend or not to descend? Barney's balls similarly appear in the final shot of Cremaster 4, but this time the ribbons are clamped on with metal pincers held by two motorcyclists in the distance. In Cremaster 2, the phallus of a headless torso becomes a beehive that drips honey.
In Cremaster 3, Barney's jewels undergo metamorphosis. He plays the Entered Apprentice, named after the initiate level of that boys-only club, the Masons, which allegedly holds the secrets of the universe. Here, Barney sports a newfangled prosthetic sexual apparatus, hidden under an apron of flesh -- a reference to the lambskin sash worn by new Masons during their initiation ceremony.
The Cycle's imagery is worthy of attention -- preferably in small doses (three of the films are less than an hour each). A handful of music references blast you back to the real world: Two 1980s hardcore bands, Murphy's Law and Agnostic Front, symbolize brute masculinity in Cremaster 3. The epic's coolest scene comes in Cremaster 2, when former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo plays a solo to a symphony of swarming bees, written by soundtrack composer Jonathan Bepler. It's truly a cinematic moment.
New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman calls Barney the most important artist of his generation. Other critics claim he's the Michelangelo of genital art -- and even a new Picasso.
Let's be honest. Did Barney's sex appeal or his artistic talent catapult him to stardom? Is he manufacturing a cult of personality, or is he an artistic visionary? Sometimes curators and critics on the hunt for the next Big One -- who might give them a shot at stardom -- become sycophants who don't exercise their critical powers.
Bogged down with glacial crane shots and the same scenes shown from a half-dozen different angles (a shallow homage to cubism), Cremaster 3 is at least 90 minutes too long. Nobody wants to tell the "It Boy" that his Achilles' heel isn't his height, but his inability to make the tough and crucial editing decisions that all great art requires. Sting once wrote a three-minute song ("The Secret Marriage") about each man's inner femininity. Barney's muddled origin myth (or is it Jungian analysis?) rambles for almost seven hours.
Next time, Barney, don't subject us to your rough drafts.