Best known for his Cremaster Cycle (1994–2002) of experimental films and related art works, Matthew Barney has changed the way we look at and make film. His background as an athlete has fed the physiological aesthetic and process behind his Drawing Restraint series, an ongoing multidisciplinary project begun in 1987. He’s hijacked film genres, merged them with sculpture and his interest in sports, and filtered them through a highly individual aesthetic. Among the best-known artists of his generation, Barney joins the Festival for an onstage conversation ahead of a screening of his latest cinematic creation.
The latest installment in his monumental Drawing Restraint series, Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 17 stunningly merges sculpture, awe-inspiring athleticism and cryptic symbolism into a silent meditation on artmaking and physical exertion. It’s a trip down a wormhole into an otherworldly zone only Barney could conjure. North American Premiere (Switzerland 2010, 32 min)
Established in 1997, the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award each year honors the achievement of a filmmaker whose main body of work is outside the realm of typical narrative feature filmmaking, crafting documentaries, short films, television, animated, experimental or multiplatform work.
Matthew Barney: Between Artist and Auteur
By Glen Helfand
"Film is a liberator for me,” Matthew Barney said in an interview near the 2005 theatrical release of his enigmatic epic, Drawing Restraint 9. It’s an ironic and perfectly fitting term for an artist who makes video, sculpture and full-fledged masterworks (that would be his notorious Cremaster Cycle) dealing with notions of resistance, control and release. Cinema sets him free to work on an enlarged conceptual canvas, to inhabit a dynamic role between artist and auteur and to pave the way for subsequent generations of artists to push further the boundaries of the medium. Film also helps to tap his audience-building potential—he’s one of the best-known artists of his generation, one with movie- and art-star charisma.
Barney changes the way we look at and make film, from conception to distribution. He’s hijacked film genres, merged them with sculpture and physiological interests in sports, then filtered them through a highly individualized aesthetic. Like Andy Warhol, he has his own troupe of “superstars” in front of and behind the camera—notably the legless athlete Aimee Mullins and composer/collaborator Jonathan Bepler. He’s lured an illustrious roster of cameos— Norman Mailer, proto-Bond girl Ursula Andress, country singer Patty Griffin—all of whom he cast for their cultural mythologies.
Barney hit the art world in the early 1990s with his Drawing Restraint series of sculptural objects, photos and single-channel tapes—unforgettable and somewhat perverse videos derived from endurance- and obstacle-based athletic actions. These were black-and-white or lower-res color pieces that express an indebtedness to the body-based art videos and 8mm and 16mm films of Bruce Nauman (see Nauman’s fittingly testicular Bouncing Balls, 1969) and Vito Acconci. These artists also worked in color, but Barney, being of another media generation—born in 1967 in San Francisco—evolved his focus on the corporeal to infinitely more phantasmagorical proportions.
It seems he was as inspired by the expansive acid trip surrealism of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain as much as by more minimalistic gestures—and Barney had the wherewithal to mobilize his widescreen vision. One of Barney’s gifts is his ability to think big and long-term—an attribute more akin to indie filmmakers aiming for general release than to visual artists working at more intimate scale. The five Cremasters, and their culmination in a massive multimedia exhibition at the Guggenheim, took eight years (1994–2002) to realize.
He started his Cremaster Cycle with Cremaster 4 because the 42-minute work included elements he could leverage at the time. The film’s initial run at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, in New York City, took place in conjunction with an exhibition at Barbara Gladstone Gallery. Merging sports spectacle, motorcycle cinema (those peach-colored tires with testicles!), aerial photography, Edith Head on-acid costumes, Vaseline-covered biological narrative and the entire metaphor-laden Isle of Man as back lot, it was art in uncharted territory.
While certainly there had been artists working in cinema before (Robert Longo made Johnny Mnemonic in 1995, while Julian Schnabel debuted Basquiat in 1996), Barney’s appropriation of feature film scale was unrivaled. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, reviewing Cremaster 4 in the film section, noted, “You can find yourself thinking of Buñuel and Dalí. But you can also think of The Fly and Alien, not to mention Ghostbusters when Mr. Barney is slimed by goo.”
While Barney’s works more generally inhabit the world of contemporary art, Kimmelman’s references are apt—Barney has cited Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws as notable influences. Not that you’d ever confuse a uniquely paced Barney film with a blockbuster— Drawing Restraint 9, in which he costarred with Björk aboard a Japanese whaling ship, pulled in just $225,000, a figure that speaks to the fact that Barney is operating on different terms in regard to box office figures. Barney has carved his own path, distributing his work his own way. The Cremasters are unavailable on DVD, sold instead like editioned prints, with collectors owning a disk in sculptural “jewel cases.” Barney reserves the right to periodically screen the full cycle in cinemas, not unlike festivals of Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle.
Barney remains a pioneer in his artistic experimentation as well as in his channeling of a particularly American spirit of vast landscapes and can-do attitude. With the Cremaster films, which essentially make characters of football stadiums, salt flats and the Chrysler Building, among other iconic sites, he made the connection between epic cinema and large-scale sculptures—similar to massive Earthworks projects such as James Turrell’s decades-in-progress Roden Crater. Now Barney is in the midst of staging a series of seven massive performances, Ancient Evenings, of which two have been produced. Even though they are live presentations, they allude as much to performance art history as to biblical epics and CSI TV shows. Barney patiently operates in time frames that seemingly exist in centuries, his influence likely to extend past the 21st.
Glen Helfand is a writer, educator and curator who contributes to Artforum and other publications. Helfand teaches in the graduate fine arts programs at California College of the Arts and Mills College.
2007 De Lama Lamina (short)
2005 Drawing Restraint 9
2002 Cremaster 3
1999 Cremaster 2
1998 March of the Anal Sadistic Warrior (short)
1997 Cremaster 5 1996 Cremaster 1
1995 Cremaster 4
2010 Don Hertzfeldt
2009 Lourdes Portillo
2008 Errol Morris
2007 Heddy Honigmann
2006 Guy Maddin
2005 Adam Curtis
2004 Jon Else
2003 Pat O’Neill
2002 Fernando Birri
2001 Kenneth Anger
2000 Faith Hubley
1999 Johan van der Keuken
1998 Robert Frank
1997 Jan Svankmajer