First published in May 2002, in issue 67 of frieze: Neville Wakefield on the work of Matthew Barney. A survey of 'Drawing Restraint', curated by Wakefield, is showing at Schaulager, Basel, until 3 October 2010.
The band had been involved in the making of CREMASTER 2 (1999) specifically in the recreation of a supposed telephone encounter that took place between Gary Gilmore - the right-to-die murderer whose execution blurred the sacrosanct division of religion and state - and Country and Western singer Johnny Cash. No one knows precisely what words passed between the convict and the man in black. It’s believed that Cash sung Gilmore a ballad, and that belief lies behind the film’s most moving elegy: a song that plunges deep into the viscera of darkness, led by Dave Lombardo, the former drummer of Slayer, the fibrillating drones of the Mormon hive and the rending screech of Morbid Angel’s front man Steve Tucker. Barney was asking the guitarist of the re-formed band what he had made of the film. His response went something like this: ‘Dude, it’s unbelievable; fucking unbelievable. I could watch it a thousand times, frame by frame and never tire of watching it, but still never know completely what the fuck it was about.’
Belief is as much the key to Barney’s work as the ability to make us believe the unbelievable is the constitution of its aesthetic and moral will. Perhaps more than anything else it is the manifestation of belief in its various forms that is the territory of Barney’s recently completed ‘CREMASTER’ cycle. While some of the mythic nutrient that feeds the artist’s biological metaphor is by now familiar, the role of character in the play of that will is less so. Character, for Barney is sculptural material. Much as he used hypertrophy to model physical systems of self-imposed restraint, so he uses hubris to model conflicts of the will. Hubris takes moral fibre to the limit only to break it down again through exertion. For Barney it is the lactic acid of character development. It represents strength through humiliation, a representation that allows Barney to create out of grand tragedy his trademark laminations of the serious and the absurd. ‘Character’ according to Vince Lombardi, giant of American football coaches and architect of the modern game, ‘is the integration of habits of conduct superimposed on temperament. Will is character in action.’ CREMASTER 3 (2002), the final installment in the series of five, is the maximum equivocation of such a will.
Even though CREMASTER 3 reaches across the Atlantic in ways that touch upon the partition of Ireland and the social consequences of the diaspora, its geographic station is New York; its navigational station lying somewhere between Barney’s birthplace in San Francisco to the west, and Harry Houdini’s in Budapest to the East. And just as it straddles locations so it exists between two types of energy systems. In front of it the dark entropic wanderings of CREMASTER 2 lead us through the ancestry of Gilmore, to draw us from the blood-atoned confines of the Mormon Ministry, backwards through the moraine of Gilmore’s own past to his execution - the final metamorphosis of a fateful conception. CREMASTER 4 (1995), on the other hand, exchanges an economy of entropy and prescribed death for one of mobility and growth in a race to describe not just the internal conflicts but the exterior circumference of a newly posited island form. Which is to say that CREMASTER 3, the central chapter of the five ‘CREMASTER’ installments, functions as a double mirror, reflecting that which precedes it and anticipating that which follows. In the language of the biological metaphor, it is the pause between the ascent and descent of the testicles: the moment before sexual differentiation is established but after all efforts at its prevention and delay have been exhausted.
The film begins as it ends amid verdant mythology, where Celtic lores, causeways, caves, babies and giants, crash into unclaimed seas. But from these hilarious caricatures of conflicts yet to unfold we are taken to the grave: the doomed foundation upon which the principle structure of the film has been built. In a sequence pregnant with the heavy menace of counter-resurrection a hand reaches out from beneath the suffocating weight of interment. Clawing through the claustrophobic darkness a figure, newborn in death, slowly emerges from within the chrysalis. Where we are and what we are witnessing is anyone’s guess, though clearly it is a far cry from the Goodyear flights of fancy that opened the playing fields of the first CREMASTER or the operatic regalities of the last. Here the rigid articulation of the figure and subterranean setting plays to the zombie genre that has latent monstrosity lurking beneath every figure of civilization. Underneath these cobblestones lies not the beach but the darker compost of ritualized betrayal.
From the vaulted foundations of a structure yet to be described a posse of juvenile pallbearers struggle with an inert form still bearing the bullet hole stigmata of Gilmore’s execution. The ascension takes us up a slow spiral staircase and into a cavernous lobby where an automotive bier - a 1930 Chrysler Imperial New Yorker - awaits. To the melancholy of the corporeal dirge is added the sound of a single wavering chord, a gradually levitating harmonic that rises upward from the ornate Deco lobby into the attenuated glissando of a distant spire. At ground level, the grand Deco entrance has been afflicted by discord. Five liveried descendants of the 1930 car - Imperials whose date of manufacture corresponds to the artist’s own - enter the lobby and prepare to meet their maker. To the boot of each is affixed a Nirosta® steel ram. The Mason’s Apprentice, played by Barney, trowels wet cement into the negative space of the tool, and addresses the cars.
In a scene reminiscent of the earlier performances of OTTOdrone (1992) and AUTOdrone (1992) Barney literally stoppers the orifices of the cars’ rear-facing petrol tanks to create five completely hermetic systems, before taking to the elevator shaft by way of escape. What ensues in his absence is a demolition derby of majestically symbolic proportions. The five cars orbit their prey. Without warning the bleeding red tail light and glint of steel and chrome carries the full force of a punch as the progenitor Imperial is pushed backwards into the elevator bay and systematically punished. Choreographed as if to the deadly eroticism of a bullfight, the escalating impact of the machines compacts the once stately vehicle into the shape of a dental implant. With the chorus established, the tragedy of the surrounding building unfolds.
Set in New York during the 1930s, CREMASTER 3 is an epic paean to a vertical empire predicated on lateral mobility. The film’s centrepiece is the Chrysler tower at the time of its construction. Its form is contentious, articulated around the figure of the Architect, played with patrician austerity by Richard Serra; the Syndicate of Metal Workers, an Irish network of organized crime whose influence extended from Manhattan’s notorious Westside to the local sheet-metal workers’ union responsible for the cladding of the building; and the Masonic order, under whose umbrella the entire structure becomes a lodge, the architectural personification of inner potential. Within this matrix a series of betrayals interrogate the fortitude of belief supporting the edifice of character. At stake is nothing less than the possibility of spiritual and physical transcendence: the possession and desecration of the body as sacred temple.
As with much of Barney’s work physiological and psychological character is marked by partition and threshold. The palette of CREMASTER 3 is derived from the orange, white and green of the Irish national flag, colours which face the Catholic and Protestant orders across the symbolism of everlasting peace. Its structure derives from the Masonic belief in a ritualized ascension towards transcendence through levels of fellowship and the separation of the abased lower self from the geometries of intellectual perfection enacted through the punitive rituals of a daily death. These are the axes of opposition that run through the spine of the piece. Barney’s own role as the Mason’s Apprentice is one of epidural infiltration in an ascent that pits him in various ways against the moral order of self-referencing belief systems. His ascent to the lofty pinnacle of those beliefs takes the form of an on-going series of negotiations with the un-negotiable.
The first of these takes place in the ascending elevator car, from whose form the Apprentice casts the perfect ashlar, the foursquare stone that the Mason must, by rite of passage, carve. Thus desecrated, the elevator becomes a vessel of treachery locked in the undeviating course of vertical ambition. The ascent continues by way of a ballad sung to the accompaniment of the whistling passages of the airshafts; a lament to the false foundations betraying the spiritual purity of architectural conception. For his hubris the Apprentice is duly punished. Judged by the architecture itself, his trial is brought before a bar. Presiding behind its surreal fallopian form, an Irish bartender struggles to draw a perfect pint of Guiness. In a snug to one side, a Masonic meeting is in congress. To the other, the initiate - a 1930s gangster moll - uses a specially adapted heel to cut potatoes into pentagonal wedges. These she slips beneath the foundation of the bar, her labours adding cant to the geometric truths already betrayed by the Apprentice. In this, she is cast as temptress and subconscious to the upright desire of the building, her disruptions registered in the head of the poured Guiness.
What follows is pure physical comedy from which geometry yields judgement. The scene in the bar is a kind of ‘Carry On’ tribunal conducted by a barman whose slapstick owes less to Buster Keaton than to Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead 2 (1987) as he fights off his own afflicted hand. Nor do the parallels between Barney’s ‘CREMASTER’ cycle and Raimi’s trilogy end in the kind of physical and architectural treachery that has us crying our eyes out over spilt beer. Like the cabin of the Evil Dead, the Chrysler building serves as both structure and repository of a rampant id. This building is the personification of will in all its monstrous and redemptive capacities. More than just the exteriorization of interior conflicts it is those conflicts: you can run but you can’t hide, as Campbell duly discovers. Before you can say ‘psychosomatic’ his cabin in the woods switches character and what was once a refuge from the monstrosity without becomes a haven to the monstrosity within. Barney refigures and internalizes the Oedipal conflict by placing the relationship between architect father and miscreant son under the Masonic umbrella.
Tending the situation, the barman’s routine of pratfalls, pump failures and mishaps gradually transforms the complex of kegs and hoses into an intoxicated bagpipe. Like the instrument, the scene acts as an absurdist valve designed to purge the hermetic system of pressure and release the bottled-up momentum of the film. What follows literally escalates the physical and the visionary to the highest heavens, the very spire of the building from which the conflict is broadcast in amplified form to the Guggenheim, the second major site of Barney’s epic ontology.
For Georges Bataille, Oedipal tensions between father and son were part of a chain of symbolic linkage that connects the Ancient Tower of Babel to the priapic ambitions of the modern skyscraper: ‘We find here an attempt to climb the sky - that is to say, to dethrone the father, to possess oneself of his virility - followed by the destruction of the rebels; castration of the son by his father, whose rival he is.’ 1 The script, which follows the Mason’s Apprentice through the temptations and betrayals of the elevator shaft in his ascent towards the Architect godhead of the building, draws on similar symbolic logic.
Barney’s skyscraper is less the tower of Babel than the Temple of Solomon whose myth of Hiram Abiff, the mason whose refusal to divulge the secret name of God, provides the basis of the murder, death and resurrection of the Masonic rite. His castration, which takes place on the 71st floor (a former dental lab visited by the Architect played by Serra) exchanges testicles for teeth. What Freud would have had to say about this is open to conjecture, but the brutality of a scene that has the mason accepting the remains of the compacted Imperial into his mutilated mouth and shitting out his own teeth leaves little doubt as to the severity of phallic retribution. With this act the Architect becomes indiscernible from the architecture itself. Isolated in his cerebral foundry, his sacrament of concrete and steel is at once secret and corrupt. By destroying the mouth he closes the first orifice of betrayal thereby finalizing the Masonic credence that architecture’s best kept secret is that it is not only knowledge of form, but a form of knowledge which, like any religion, is only accessible to those who accept its lore.
Barney was brought up in a family of lapsed Catholics. His father attended a seminary and then abandoned the church in ways that were never fully discussed. As a kid his father recalls wanting to join the Boy Scouts, but fear of the Protestant church where the meetings were held, along with an indoctrinated equation of Boy Scouts, KKK and Freemasonry, prevented him. ‘The thing I realized’ says Barney, ’ is that I inherited a fear of both - Protestants and Catholics - while being equally ignorant of either belief system. And I think that in some ways CREMASTER 3‘s effort to mine a model for an undifferentiated conflict is informed by just that.’ As with much of his work abstract systems are vehicles for personal mythologies. His own character, the Mason’s Apprentice struggles to give dimension to the partition of belief - a space represented by the white threshold that divides the fields of orange and green. Within the elevator shaft is a calling for the creation of a third undifferentiated territory that can exist between both but belong to neither. But in doing so he must betray the hermeticism of the self-referential system, marking his infidelity as the agent of truth.
In biblical terms what might be referred to as the Judas complex is applied hubris; theologians and heretics alike have long argued that Judas’ betrayal was not accidental, but rather a preordained fact in the economy of redemption. ‘The Word, when it was made flesh passed from ubiquity to space, from eternity to history, from limitless satisfaction to change and death; in order to correspond to such a sacrifice, it was necessary that one man, in representation of all men, make a sacrifice of nature’ writes Jorge Luis Borges in his elucidation of Nils Runeberg’s much refuted claim that that it was Judas alone amongst the apostles who sensed the secret divinity and terrible intent of Jesus: namely the lowering of the Word to the mortal condition.2 Included in the symbolic death to which Masonry alludes is a similar understanding of man’s physical abasement and his passage through the figurative rituals that cast the body as the temple of all religion. As they would have it the perfect cube must pass through the metamorphosis of the Cross. Within the cosmology of the ‘CREMASTER’ system so too must undifferentiated aspiration pass through the elevated passages of introspective betrayal.
All of which says little or nothing of the vertiginous and intoxicating beauty with which Barney crystallizes the moral order within an extraordinary three-hour abstract field in which nothing is without intention. But out of the paroxysm of detail you return not to the narratives but to the ineffable state of suspension at the film’s core; a state, which regardless of whether or not one knows what it is about, holds in constant thrall.
1. Georges Bataille, ‘Skyscraper’, in Encyclopædia Acephalica: Comprising the
Critical Dictionary and Related Texts edited by Georges Bataille and the Encyclopædia Da Costa, eds. Robert Lebel and Isabelle Waldberg, Atlas Press, London, 1995, pp. 69-72.
2. Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Three Versions of Judas’, in Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings, Harmondsworth, Penguin, London, 1970, pp. 95-101.
Neville Wakefield is curator of Frieze Foundation
frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at firstname.lastname@example.org.