Matthew Barney's "Cremaster" Cycles into a New York Theater

Matthew Barney's "Cremaster" Cycles into a New York Theater
Matthew Barneys Cremaster Cycle is that rare bird: a deeply experimental, abstruse art film that has entered the quasi-mainstream consciousness. Even if you’ve never seen one of Cremasters five parts — and many people haven’t, given the paucity of theatrical screenings and the absence of affordable authorized DVDs — you probably know that it involves Barney, elaborately costumed, and most likely slathered in petroleum jelly.

Barney has been much in the news recently. There was the announcement that MoMA and the Laurenz Foundation in Basel had bonded together to jointly purchase Drawing Restraint, Barney’s cumulative “archive” of work that he’s been making since 1987. And in New York, the IFC Center has been showing all five installments of Cremaster on the big screen, through June 3. Last night, following a screening of numbers four and five, Barney, wearing an Oakland Raiders T-shirt, sat down with New Museum chief curator Richard Flood to talk about 1970s Earthworks, bagpipe music, and “the number of rings attached to each of the testes.” Oh, and Kanye West was in attendance. (We spotted him drifting off during the post-screening dialogue. All that talk of “genital gravity” can get a bit soporific.)

But first, the films. Cremaster 4 is set on the Isle of Man; tap dancing and motorcycle riding play pivotal roles. Barney explained how he looked at the island itself “more in terms of sculpture,” akin to the Earthworks pieces of Robert Smithson; in the film, the Isle of Man became “an object,” “an organism.” Barney’s character, a sort of “Victorian dandy,” according to the artist, spends most of the film tap dancing in a sterile white structure that sits at the end of a long pier. He slowly wears a hole in the floor while being attended to by a troupe of nude female bodybuilders. The 42-minute film climaxes with a claustrophobic, subterranean voyage in which Barney squeezes through a tight, jelly-lined tunnel. This segment was inspired by the escape artist Houdini, a favorite of Barney’s: “I’ve always imagined him internalizing the restraints that were put onto him. I’ve always visualized him eating the lock somehow.”

“Was that a happy ending?” Flood asked, referring to the finale of Cremaster 4. “I wouldn’t think about it in those terms,” Barney said, noting that he has a hard time viewing his films as discrete units. They’re parts of a whole, or “words in a longer sentence.”

Cremaster 5 takes place in an opera house in Budapest, devoid of an audience. Perhaps the best way to get a feel for the non-plot is by investigating the film’s credits, which give shout-outs to a prosthetic make-up team, a glass blower, Jacobin pigeon trainers, and a catering company called the Marquis de Salade. There’s highly emotive Hungarian singing, a mysterious man (Barney) on a dark horse, another man (Barney) whose legs are made out of what appears to be splayed meat, and a final number that takes place in a pool, with yet another troop of naked women. (There’s nothing prurient about all of this nudity, really. That ‘prosthetic make-up’ guru has turned everyone’s private parts into mutant riffs on the idea of male and female sex organs. “I was quite determined to remove the genital gravity from the image,” Barney explained matter-of-factly.)

Perhaps these well-attended IFC screenings point the way toward a Cremaster box set — something that Barney fanatics have been slavering over for years. (Rumors about an impending release from Palm Pictures have gone precisely nowhere.) Regardless, it’s a unique opportunity to actually see the major work of a major artist, rather than pondering the films’ petroleum props in a museum collection. And if Daft Punk-collaborating, Takashi Murikama-loving Kanye West is a newfound fan, maybe Barney’s professional oeuvre is about to get a whole lot weirder.