Matthew Barney – Church of Cremaster

 In Matthew Barney

In 2003, when I made this documentary, Matthew Barney had just completed the Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002), the Sistine Chapel of our times. Perhaps, five hundred years from now, the Cremaster will not be considered one of the masterpieces of European civilisation, but in other ways Barney’s Magnum Opus – five films whose length varies between 40 minute and 3 hours – is art on the scale of Michelangelo’s frescoes – in its visual richness, artistic innovation,allegorical and symbolic strategies, spiritual meanings, and size.The Cremaster is not only a set of films, it is a Gesamtkunstwerk of drawings, sculptures and photographs, using a diverse array of materials from pencil to Vaseline, and an equally diverse array of styles, from the abstract doodle to costume drama. In 2003 an exhibition of these works filled the Guggenheim in New York.

Ben Lewis sitting in front of Matthew Barneys Drawing Restraint 8 Venice Biennale 2003 best copy

Born in 1967, Barney grew up in Idaho, and studied at Yale. There he excelled as a sportsman and enrolled in sculpture classes. He put the two together, and began producing a series of works from 1987 onwards, which enlarged the physical attributes of sport and biological processes into metaphors for artist creation. Taking as a model, the way muscles are built up in sport by encountering resistance (being strained and then healing stronger), Barney began trying to draw while encountering various ‘restraints’. In one early performance, he scaled the walls of a gallery, using rock-climbing equipment as if he was scaling a mountain. He made small drawings suspended awkwardly above the floor and smeared himself in the sports and body medication, Vaseline.In their form these works shared the utilitarian aesthetic of seventies body-art by Vito Acconci or Marina Abramovic, but, in the Cremaster Cycle, Barney translated these themes into colourful and complicated allegories, full of characters in strange costumes, incredible locations and bizarre storylines.


This was body art in fancy dress – Baroque conceptualism! The theme of the work was the process of creation from the moment in which ideas are conceived until the moment before the finalisation of the work. Barney drew parallels between the period of development of the human embryo, when its sex is not yet determined (the Cremaster is the muscle which raises and lowers the testes), the period when an artist is actually making a work, and sporting competitions, whose outcome is uncertain.Here was a work of art whose meanings had been very precisely formulated by the artist, yet were difficult to work out without reading extensively on the subject. To me this was one of typical pleasures and problems of art. The work looks great, you walk round it, contemplate it, and try to work out what it says. Often you get it wrong or you just can’t tell. Still somehow it’s a great work of it. That’s why most documentaries on art spend all their time ‘explaining’ the work. But in my film on Barney, I wanted to get to a moment before that – analogous to Barney’s moment of creativity in flux – when I was still trying to work out what all the symbols and stories in the work meant – and I wanted to see how the artist and his entourage of curators and interpreters would react, if I got it wrong.