The Cremaster Cycle

July 11-24 at the Varsity. See movie times, page 77.

Matthew Barney grew up in Boise, Idaho, where he was the star quarterback on the high-school football team. But at six feet tall, he was too short to play college ball. He decided to go to Yale, starting in premed before switching to art, and took modeling jobs to put himself through school. After graduating, he managed to take the art world by storm. Now, with the five-part Cremaster Cycle given limited release throughout the country, he is poised to take the "art film" world by storm, too. I was able to sit down and talk with him at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

You had been very successful doing installations early on, so what inspired you to make The Cremaster Cycle?

I started exhibiting my work pretty quickly, right out of school. I had been making work that needed a context, a site. An interesting thing happened right as I was graduating [in 1989]: The stock market crashed and really changed the landscape of the art world in New York. It made the kind of work I was doing interesting to galleries that wouldn't have normally been interested in it. I was continuing to make work that was site specific, but it was happening in galleries. I did that for a couple of years, and I started getting the itch to get back to very specific places in the world as the primary site for the work. This is what the Cremaster project grew out of.

Your work is quite visceral. Tell me more about your connection with Vaseline.

I think that the Vaseline is part of a family of materials that I use over and over again: prosthetic plastics, Teflon, things that can live inside and outside the body, both architecturally and biologically. I think that Vaseline belongs to this family of plastics as a sort of lubricant. One of the interests that the project has is to create a landscape that's both internal and external, and that there's often a need to moisten that landscape and make it internal. The jelly in some way fulfills that. It's sort of the mucous that binds things.

Your work draws from personal mythology. Instinctive but also well thought out.

I think there's a fair amount of things in it that I don't completely understand. There are other things that are interests which are integrated with those things that I don't understand. I think I'm interested in creating a language that can communicate.

Is this a language that you would want other people to learn and use?

I think it's more a moment where I'm comfortable with and interested in the work going out into the world and communicating, now that it's finished.

How is the series similar to or different from the series as you imagined it?

The things that were predetermined were the locations and a sort of primary narrative arc. The individual stories weren't predetermined. So in other words, those were developed one at a time as each piece [was being created].

And the Chrysler Building was the location that you built the third movie around.

I was interested in making a spine in the middle to operate as the center of the project. And I wanted it to have a problematic character in it that was guilty of hubris. Along with '30s New York came the desire to build higher, shinier, and the construction of the Chrysler tower became the thing that I focused on as a kind of building of a false idol.

Wanting it to be the tallest and not quite making it.

[Laughs] Right, right. I ended up looking into the Freemasonic myths and finding that the myth of Hiram was really useful to this story. Hiram, the architect of Solomon's Temple, was never able to finish it. He was killed by apprentices because they believed he could communicate with God and had the answers to everything, but he wouldn't divulge this to them. So again, it is sort of a layering of a couple different stories, similar to the geological and genealogical layering of Cremaster 2, I would say.

I understand why Cremaster 3 had to be made last, but what about the order of the other films?

Other than the fact that I wanted 3 to be last, there wasn't any sort of reason to do them in the order that they were done. I had just finished, before Cremaster, I had finished up a project that was essentially a trilogy, where one part of it occurred in Los Angeles, one part occurred in New York, and there was a spine in the center that was executed in Germany. So it had that similar kind of structure, and I enjoyed very much ending in the middle that way. When I started this, I knew I wanted to end in the middle. But I took on locations as they became available. For practical reasons.

Your early piece Field Dressing, where you lower yourself from the ceiling of the gallery, grab handfuls of Vaseline, and shove it into every orifice, now seems like something you could see on Jackass.

Pretty slow-paced, Field Dressing. [Laughs] You might need to cut it.

Isn't Jackass: The Movie great, though?

It's great. [Laughs] I think it's in the tradition of physical comedy, which I'm really interested in. Its relationship to gravity, and how gravity acts on the body. There's a whole slapstick scene in Cremaster 3, which is a completely different thing. All these things are things that I'm very interested in, in their relationship to sculpture. I think Jackass is right in there with early performance art, Buster Keaton.