OCHO # 14
guest edited by Nick Piombino.
Charles Bernstein, Alan Davies, Ray DiPalma, Elaine Equi, Nada Gordon, Kimberly Lyons, Gary Sullivan, Mitch Highfill, Brenda Iijima, Sharon Mesmer, Tim Peterson, Corinne Robins, Jerome Sala, Mark Young and Nico Vassilakis.
Cover art by Toni Simon
181 pages, 6" x 9"
a few thoughts on
Todd Haynes's movie I'm Not There
The Poetics List
(founded 14 years ago & now moderated by Amy King)
Water Control Officer Report
The New Yorker
percent of poems with water images: 100
Charles Simic, line one: “I’m a child of your rainy Sundays”
D. Nurkse, title: “Picnic by the Island Sea”
Kevin Young, penultimate line: “in the rain”
The New Yorker
poetry like a warm bath
Mike Hennessey continues to put together a
daily RSS feed
of PennSound highlights & new acquisitions
most recently In the American Tree
radio show from the Bay Area from the late 70s
1 December 2007
“we interact as presence within presence
as spirit twice its equal in spirit
so that a range of beasts burns between us”
Will Alexander, Exobiology as Goddess
Love and Peace,
Will Alexander on PennSound
Matthew Barney, The Cremaster and the Markers of an Invisible Masculinity
What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how
express and admirable, in action how like an angel,
in apprehension how like a god.
The Measure of a Man
In Hamlet, the young Danish student spends the entire play pondering the heavy questions—life, death, and not surprisingly, what it means to be a man. In fact, as long as there have been men who think and write, this question has been a reoccurring one. Men have always searched for proofs of their manliness, a measure, a marker and even a map to guide them. They nearly hysterically know that there must be something that must alert them to their manliness, to masculinity, something which they can use to take the idea of masculinity outside of the abstract and make it clear, real and actual. They instinctively know that these signifiers must exist; like baseball cards, they collect, catalogue, trade and compare them. These markers, have always been used by men to identify themselves, to mark themselves as separate from the realm of beasts and more importantly to take them out of the supposedly inferior realm of the feminine, which has, historically been marked by the absence of these masculine signifiers.
Hamlet, like every man, seeks the difficult answers to questions that have not lost their significance or currency today. How is a man supposed to act? What should a man believe? How should he face death and what kind of death should a man die? Who does he f*ck? In essence, these are all the same question, reiterated—“What is a real man?” For Hamlet, the answer is found in man’s reason, his apprehension, those ways in which mankind is closest to the gods, in which he is elevated from the beast, his nobility and his action; later in the play, the last marker is mankind’s own physicality, specifically the bodies we leave behind us when we die.
Today, our markers have not changed so drastically nor do we seek to define a different set of questions. We are just as anxious as Hamlet to find the measures of men, and while we now find these markers in action movies, WWF wrestling, celebrity, western steakhouses, sports bars and sporting clubs, the importance of these signifiers, their necessity in identifying and marking the masculine remains.
We use masculine markers to identify, delineate and locate masculinity. Recently, masculinities scholars have suggested that masculinity should be free of such traditional markers—that men should be free to construct their own senses of self, while never being forced to give up their identities as masculine beings. But what if, rather than separating masculinity from such socially constructed markers, we were to instead free the markers themselves from their generally accepted gendered meanings? Is it even possible to separate the markers from their understood masculinity? Is it possible to purge these signifiers of their masculinity? What would happen to our understanding and perception of masculinity when these markers cease to function in the ways that they are expected to through custom, through expectation? What happens if and when we can no longer depend on these objects and their accompanying ideas to locate and ultimately to define masculinity? What happens to masculinity when and if it becomes unlocateable, when masculine landmarks cease to function as they are expected to–because there is nothing for them to point to?
Contemporary, sculptor, performance artist and filmmaker Matthew Barney expends much of his energy contemplating questions of masculinity. Barney is, for all intents and purposes, obsessed with gender—performing various masculine types, dealing with several icons and images of masculinity and even, perhaps most uniquely, examining the biology of men with the incisiveness of a physician opening up the interiority of men to the viewer’s gaze. In doing so, he focuses on the things that make up difference between men and women. His performance artwork and video filmmaking turn a keen eye on the masculine, inspecting and measuring what it means to be a man. He takes on different masculine types and plays them out to sometimes laughable extremes. Along the way, Matthew Barney, one of contemporary art’s “enfants terribles” points to several issues that continually arise in masculine texts. But what he finds may prove to be very surprising, even unsettling.
Born in 1967, in San Francisco, Matthew Barney is an artist who tends raise more questions than he answers, blending several types of media and interweaving many kinds of artistic language in order to carry out his examinations. Partially because Barney can be deeply obtuse, he has also been accused of being difficult. Like other New Mannerists, his work is often “typified by a cerebral “dandyism” taken to the limit, (an) immoderate use of complex metaphors, a willingness to dress up the real in rhetorical figures, (showing) concern for the marvelous and esoteric while using stylized language refined to the point of excess and having a taste for the strange, unusual, the extravagant, the horrific, the repulsive and the bizarre.” Because of this and because of the scarcity of the original texts (the Cremaster videos) I will attempt to describe as well as possible what one sees when viewing Cremasters 1, 2, and 4.
Within his work, there are three sets of signifiers that have special meaning in any discussion of gender and how masculinity is used in the Cremaster series. These are his frequent use of sports imagery, his performance of masculine types–including the dandy and the serial killer–and his literal and symbolic travels through the body.
The Cremaster Videos
The Cremaster videos are abstract fantasies, which are devoid of language and wreak havoc with narrativity, and as such can be difficult to decipher even for someone who has viewed them in their entirety. Each Cremaster videois part of a series that serves as the primary text of Barney’s artistic opus, and each appears as part of a larger set of sculptural and multi-media installations. The Cremaster series is a cinematic epic, consisting of five parts. Each video ranges in length and can be very tense as Barney uses a non-linear, non-Hollywood visual style that has more in common with abstract, artistic video and performance art than with anything that viewers of mainstream contemporary film might be used to. Because of this, interpretation of his films are left to be done by the viewer without any of the assistance that we are used to getting in normal film; instead, images and events are left to hang, with no real closure, no comment and nothing in the way of traditional narration.
A Sporting Male
That sports has been used to signify masculinity goes almost without saying. From the time of the Greeks to now, sports has been given an important position in the creation, representation, and transference of masculinity from boy to boy, man to man, man to boy, and from father to son. Sports holds an extremely important place in our definition of society, especially homosociety. It has become part and parcel of our accepted customs. We expect to watch football at Thanksgiving, we smile when we see a father take the time to play catch with his son. Sports have become part of our societal expectations—the very logic that we use to define ourselves as a people—and as men. Each man is expected to be both good and knowledgeable at/about various popular sports. They are judged by their ability to juggle dates and facts–“stats”—of various players and teams, just as they are expected to be able throw and catch a ball. Those that are best at these are respected by their peers and become popular amongst other males.
However, while sports is incredibly popular in today’s society and is one the most important markers (if not the most important) of contemporary masculinity, it has not found much popularity in the art world. Matthew Barney is perhaps the first post-modern artist to successfully utilize sports imagery in his work. He does so by taking elements of sports—objects such as football fields and football equipment, racing bikes, weightlifting benches, sports stars and the (almost magical) pageantry inherent in sports matches—and removing them from their natural contexts. In doing this, however, his use of sports imagery is not directed towards, nor is it about sports itself. His interest does not lie in generating a discourse around sports. Instead, when Barney presents us with football, as Renee Magritte might say, “This is not football.”
It would be very easy for Barney to employ the imagery he does to make work that is about sports and continue the process of gendered enculturation that sports is part of, or even overtly critique that process. But Barney has other plans for the symbols of sport. He employs the language of sports, one which most of us are familiar with, in order to make a larger statement about masculinity.
In Cremaster 1, the opening scene is of an illustration of an unrecognizable shape, floating in the center of the screen as loud bagpipes play a single, droning note which becomes louder and louder. Slowly the shape becomes a football stadium. This space fills with dancers in yellow cheerleader-like costumes. From the center of a parade-like scene comes a male transvestite who is holding two ropes in his hands. He is dressed in an evening gown and looks like he might be ready to attend the opera. At first, the dancers watch and wait; then he directs them in a choreographed dance that looks like a Busby Berkeley routine. The camera follows the ropes that he/she is holding, and we see that a large Good Year blimp is attached to these ropes. Aboard the zeppelin, we find the same transvestite playing with pearls which she/he has scattered on the ground. Below, we see the dancers follow with their eyes the upward and downward motions of the floating zeppelin. On board again, female flight attendants stand around smoking brown cigarettes as the transvestite attempts to keep these pearls from scattering. Using them, he/she slowly builds up the outline of the interior of male genitals—specifically the Cremaster muscle—but as the blimp descends, the outlines that she/he makes are disturbed by turbulence. The film ends with a complexly choreographed dance routine, and an external shot of the football field and blimp, which dissolves into the same symbolic drawing that we now recognize as a mix of the football field and the Cremaster muscle.
Matthew Barney seeks to rework and denature the signs of sports. They are overwritten and re-contextualized; new associations are created which have little to do with the original meanings of these signifiers. Within his oeuvre, we will see that Barney relegates sports to the level of the symbolic quotation, the linguistic metaphor/sign: for example, he takes objects that are associated with sports and changes them remaking them out of new materials: weights, workout benches or other sports objects are remade out of silicone gels, tapioca or Vaseline, kept refrigerated, but not kept from their natural decay. In doing so, according to Norman Bryson, Barney seeks to trip up our expectations, hard sports equipment are made soft, physical like the flesh and gore of the body. Our expectation that these objects should function as sports equipment is confounded when we are confronted by these soft, malleable, melting objects. He reworks these signs so that they no longer function as they are supposed to and instead become about:
…a mad interplay of forces—the storage and expenditure of energy, motion and rest (the snap and the delay of game penalty), friction and slippage (tapioca and Teflon), expansion and contraction (testicles), opening and closing (orifices), bursts and sudden reverses and cliffhanging arrests (the frenetic, pointless dash of the sidecar racers around the Isle of Man in Cremaster 4 
What Barney does not do is make work in which, say the “tapioca and Teflon” is about tapioca or Teflon, but instead he is more interested in creating new meanings which are generated through the interplay of new associations.
What Barney seeks to do is to use sports as a tool: consisting of an already existing set of icons and language through which he arranges larger scenarios. For Barney, sports is only one element in a larger set of signs that he uses to paint his visual tableaus. Among these other signs are his use of Victorian feminine imagery, bees, beehives, rock music all of which are reworked in the same ways that he reworks his sports imagery. He ignores the commonly understood meanings that sports imagery has, denying and actively tripping up associations that do not serve his ends. He reworks the images and objects making them into a symbolic iconography that serves the Cremaster, so that they become a language that he can then control just as an artist would control the paints or brushes that he works with. In doing this he negates and distances entire sets of signs from their intended associations and makes them strange/estranged from their original contexts.
Barney plays with the complex nexus of language and meaning by disconnecting these images from the constructed associations that they original have and making new connections for these signifiers and giving them new nexes of meaning. By showing that these signifiers can be made to mean something entirely different, he questions the general perception that sports must define masculinity or that it is a fundamental part of masculinity. Instead, for Barney, sports like other masculine signs, informs masculinity, but need not stand in for masculinity—it is not a metonymic association. Masculinity is only one of several associations that sports can and does have. The signs of masculinity become free to generate new texts, new complexities in multiple gendered associations, homoerotic desires and dancing girls.
An important example of Barney’s transformation of the imagery used in sports into his own personal language is visible in his use of the football stadium, by changing the activity that would normally go on within this site, he not only subverts our expectations, he alienates this site from its context and its history; it is rewritten into a fantasy space—no longer the football field, it becomes a stage where strange and unfamiliar events can occur. That this sports location is the first scene to be viewed in the entire Cremaster series might make one think that sports will have an overpowering importance within the series. However, while the ground that he sets up is sports-like, the activity that takes place within is anything but. Instead of a ball game, Barney fills the space with dancing girls and airline stewardesses. That we are meant to see these women as exhibiting clichéd feminine behavior is obvious, especially as they preen and prance on the field their actions become more and more elaborately and stereotypically feminine. Then, at the fifty-yard line, an almost dominatrix-like figure arises, holding the guide-wires to a Goodyear blimp. Upon closer inspection, we can see that this figure is in fact a man—in drag. He proceeds to direct the women around him through kaleidoscopic, multi-leveled acrobatics. Here, Barney creates a dreamlike space, which Nancy Bless describes as “a state of potential.” Matthew Barney actively takes this masculine encoded space and makes it sexually ambiguous, not only feminine—he specifically queers the space, because that is part of his larger narrative on the fluidity of masculinity.
This space has more in common with Busby Berkeley’s mise en scene dance routines than with any actual football game. Busby Berkeley was known for his elaborate Technicolor fantasy dance routines, which were placed within popular movies of the thirties and forties. His scenes have very little to do with the rest of the motion pictures they are set in, and the effect, as Steve Martin highlights in his own film Pennies From Heaven, is a surrealistic break from the narrative space of the movie. Basically a film within the film, these scenes have their own internal logic, often turning gravity and basic ideas of realism on their heads.
Berkeley himself never cared much about the story line and regarded it merely as a convenient skeleton on which to flesh out his fantasies, much in the manner of Rossini draping his gorgeous solos, duets and ensembles all over the framework of whatever hack libretto an impresario handed him.
Berkeley instead sought to create a space in which his own logic applied and in which the familiar was made to act in novel and at times bizarre ways, but always with an aesthetic panache that became his trademark. For Berkeley, the artistic space was paramount; it mattered little that characters that had been behaving seriously in one scene would suddenly break into dance and song, or that water suddenly poured forth and “bathing beauties” filled the screen. Matthew Barney evokes the language, visual style and even some of the dancing moves of Berkeley, does he seek to show us that he too wishes to create an artistic space, where only aesthetic rules apply?
In Cremaster 1, the scene that Barney presents us with is only casually about football, football is the playing field so to speak, but the activity within becomes mysterious and detached from the idea of sports. In essence it becomes clear that Barney is preoccupied with other things. Like Berkeley, Barney ruptures the logic that we are familiar with, giving a space like New York or a football stadium a more mystical and magical form, in which anything is possible because the logic of football, in fact any but Barney’s own logic does not apply to the space he creates.
In the words of Keith Seward, writing for Parkett Magazine, “He creates an aesthetic of athleticism and an athleticism of aesthetics. Athletic means have aesthetic ends…” The signs, setting and even the players are separated from their routine and made to do what the artist pleases. Dancing girls and men in drag break the narrative space and logic that we are expecting and the Cremaster wallows in its own blend of the real and the surreal. In this new space the laws of physics, logic and narrative break down and are replaced by a logic system that is visual rather than narrative. The ends that Barney uses any means to get to are purely aesthetic in that the playing field is separated from its own logic and employed to Barney’s own conceptual ends.
In another scene, this time from Cremaster 4—sports cars traverse the rocky crags of the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man is an ancient island situated on the Irish Sea and has been a site of myth and legend. This works in Barney’s favor as the location serves to further take his imagery out of the familiar context of the everyday. According to James Lingwood, the Isle of Man is a place where mythology and topography become one. Where the space is as fantastic as the events that will happen there.
The island is known for its annual “Tourist Trophy” motorbike races, in which bikes race through the island’s villages and back roads. Barney utilizes this imagery in the video, by creating bizarre sexless raggedy-Ann doll drivers who circle the island while a bizarre Dandy watches and tap-dances effeminately. But here again, the sporting event (the motorbike race) is secondary to the overall narrative that Barney is trying to work with, which instead is about the body and especially the internal muscles that control the rise and fall of the testicles. According to Barney, “The narrative of Cremaster is based on the stories that nearly take place within the body. The kind of action films that go on inside the body.” Here, sporting language is used to examine a narrative structure that is based on the internal logic of the body, which he abstracts into a narrative system, moving the state of the story up and down. It is a narrativity that is based on the reproductive system.
What becomes clear is that these events are not meant to follow the logic that they have been associated with, Bike-riders are meant to show the flow of narration, a football field becomes a “Berkleyesque” stage. Barney deconstructs and rewrites these spaces (and their markers) that so many have made into primary sites of masculinity—the wide world of sports, masculine performance, and even the penis. Instead, Barney shows that like the costumes that are worn by dancing women, like the advertising and marketing symbols that appear on Adidas and Nike shoes—these are separable and ultimately separate from the masculine. These markers do not define masculinity in any real or meaningful way. In fact, these sports signifiers operate at the same level as any of the other images that Barney employs and which generate new meanings—aesthetic meanings. But there is a difference between turning these icons into aesthetic objects–that is into beautiful objects and retaining their “thingness” (das ding,) which Barney is also not interested in, instead he is attempting to move us into yet another space, a purely conceptual, aesthetic space.
Dressing in Daddy’s (and Mommy’s) clothes
Matthew Barney began his artistic career as a performance artist by climbing the walls of art galleries, recreating a mountain climber’s experiences but placing them within an art context. Barney has always had a penchant for performativity. He has always invested his performances with odd, ceremonial repetitions, creating onanistic dramas, while dressing in outlandish costumes that mesh Hollywood-quality theatrical, horror make-up and Victorian costumes.
In the Cremaster movies, Barney continues his interest in these odd juxtapositions as he and others take on the roles of many bizarre characters. From figures like the transvestite majorette in Cremaster 1, the Loughton Candidate and Harry Houdini, Barney mixes fantastic, mutant characters from his overwrought imagination with historical people again interacting within a fantasy space that only partially exists in the world that we know. Of these characters, two are of extreme importance, as they are nearly polar opposites, though upon closer inspection they are actually hybrid characters that call into play Barney’s belief that masculinity is not a simple venture, but a complex continuum and while one masculine trait may, on the surface, appear to be paramount any over-simplification would be in error.
The first of these characters—the Loughton Candidate–is one of Barney’s, carnivalesque mutations. A mix of human and Loughton ram, this is Barney himself dressed in a white suit and bright red fur. “The human half of the Loughton Candidate seems to be a dandy or aesthete, with lounge suit, leather brogues and Manx heather on his lapel.” The character spends his time surrounded by three naked, genderless creatures of the same breed. They are intent on weighing him down with heavy pearls as he tap-dances, creating an ever-widening hole in the floor beneath him. The Loughton candidate is unaware that he will soon fall into the ocean finding himself both below land and within the body, traveling through the Cremaster into the male reproductive system and freedom.
The second character is introduced in Cremaster 2, a film that has been described as a “violent, heavy-metal murderous thing.” The second film is based loosely on the story of Gary Gilmore, the first person executed after the re-institution of the death penalty. While the Loughton candidate appears as a mostly passive, gentle aesthete, Gilmore is a violent obsessive, exhibiting many of the most tragic masculine traits—he is seemingly right out a country-and-western song, cigarette smoking, gun-toting, given to hard luck, broken-hearted and ultimately, seemingly macho. A fact that is not lost on Barney, who has one of his characters sing Johnny Cash lyrics about loss and tragedy, while a cowboy couple line-dances in the background.
While Gary Gilmore is known as a serial killer, this is in fact a misnomer, as Gilmore did not kill more than two people over the course of his release—three being the cut-off between serial killer and merely murderer. Instead Gilmore killed a gas-station attendant and a hotel desk clerk, all of this in an effort to get the attention of his estranged girlfriend. He was executed by a five-man firing squad; one man carrying blanks so that no one would know which bullet had killed him.
The Gilmore tragedy stands in contrast to the onanistic Loughton Candidate’s drama, which is almost laughable in its oddness. Gilmore’s story is loud and violent, while the other is abstracted and methodical. In one Barney dons the robes of a regular, down-and-out American male, in the other he is a bizarre blend of monster and man. Each however, exists in a dreamlike mix of the real and the bizarre. When we first meet him, Gary Gilmore is trapped in the womb of a white Ford Mustang, listening to a mix of hard rock guitars and the loud buzzing of bees. While he moves within the cabin of the classic car, a gasoline attendant washes and rewashes the car’s windows, filling the tank with gas in preparation for the evening’s events. The Loughton Candidate, named after the colorfully horned, Irish, Loughton rams, falls through the floor into the ocean surrounding the Isle of Man and enters into a bizarre, white, tapioca tunnel that according to Norman Bryson is a representation of the male reproductive system. Bryson describes the Loughton Candidate’s travel through the wet, white flesh-like tunnel as a “gonadotrophic journey” and both men ultimately come in contact with their reproductive selves. 
While both of these men appear to represent masculine types– the Dandy and the macho man—Barney does several things to shake them loose from any clear type. While dressed as a Dandy, in white lounge suit and taps, the Loughton Candidate is a hybrid of man and an extremely masculine coded animal. The ram is known for its violent rites of passage in which males ram into each other sometimes causing extreme damage and even death. While the Candidate appears unable, or unwilling to stop himself from being weighted down and crashing through the floor—once he finds himself within the Cremaster, however, his passivity must give way as he attempts to crawl through the bodily tunnel in search of an opening.
Gilmore’s story is perhaps more complex, just as it is more visually appealing and filled with lush examples of Barney’s complicated iconography. While Gilmore is presented as being a wildly angry masculine male, his narrative acts against this. Barney presents us with a story that serves to make it clear that Gilmore, the illegitimate grandson of Harry Houdini and a sorceress, is trapped in a story of heredity and events that are seemingly beyond his control. We are meant to see him as a man, who is, in essence, caught in a loop that will repeat endlessly, always with the same tragic ending. Gary Gilmore is presented as a passive zombie as he moves through the proscribed events as if in a daze, robotically killing the gas attendant, robotically riding a large American Buffalo as the effects of a lethal injection take hold of him and the massive beast. Gilmore is consistently taken out of the role of actor and made to be passive under the control of fate, heredity, history, an almost biblical sense of atonement and killer bees.
The Un-measur(ing) of a man.
Through each man’s voyage of genital discovery, Matthew Barney takes us to the heart of the matter—the body, the internal machine and the location, if there is to be any, of difference between the male and the female. While at Harvard, Barney studied medicine and his knowledge of the inner workings of the body invests his work throughout the Cremaster series. The Cremaster itself is the set of muscles that control the rise and fall of the testes, as well as being directly involved with the production of sperm. The Cremaster responds to temperature and fear, and Barney redoubles the image of the Cremaster–an almost ovary-like site– with the actual testes. In many scenes the testes are placed as icons and their location in or on the body is used to locate the narrative flow. In Cremaster 4, the bike racers on the Isle of Man are seen to have externalized testicular objects, which climb up or down their jumpsuits as they follow the track. When these testes are in the upper position, climbing up the men’s chests, the narrative flows happily along, but when these testicle-objects drop, bikes crash, suffer flat tires and riders are severely hurt.
This strange movement is important because the testes, rather than being safely and easily located within the body are now seen to be literally all over the place, even at one point crawling along a beach. They are simply put, no longer where they are supposed to be, but instead can be anywhere, used in any way that Barney wishes to use them. They are no longer limited to the site of the body, nor when they are located on the body are they where one would expect them.
Narrativity of the Cremaster
For Barney, the Cremaster governs the narrative form within his films and the narrative of the Cremaster is based on the stories that nearly take place within the body –the kind of action films that go on inside the body. In doing this Barney has stated that he hopes to break narrative free from the traditional patterns that it has taken. He wishes to abstract the narrative, just as he has abstracted the icons and types of masculinity–he attempts to make films that achieve a non-hierarchical relationship between narrative, character, image and landscape.
In doing so, by invoking the body—like a post-modern Jack the Ripper, or Caligula—he opens it up to close scrutiny, but what he actually finds is surprising. In one particularly graphic scene in Cremaster 2, a doctor uses a scalpel to cut into a male abdomen, what he finds inside, instead of the bloody, flesh and gore of the body is a space of transformation—the organs within have mutated into a fantastic, white, creamy, tapioca pulp. From this space two pearl-like objects are removed, taken out of the body for further inspection and use. While they may no longer function as testes, they are seen to reappear in several places, most notably on the jumpsuits of the bikers and the pearls that are used to weigh down the Loughton Candidate bringing him into contact with the Cremaster. They become visual, aesthetic objects. The testes are transformed into solid, pearls that he uses as part of his artistic symbolism. They are no longer seen to be functioning in the ways that we would expect, nor are they located where we would expect to find them.
Barney takes the internal space of the body, which he rewrites as a fantasy site and externalizes it. But in this process a kind of dematerialization and uncertainty creeps in. When Barney unearths the internal, it is changed, replaced by near approximations, tapioca –a jewel-like pudding takes place of the jouissance within the body, pearls take the place of the testes. The actual internal space of the body becomes uncertain, unreal, symbolically abstracted into signs that are further abstracted and made to act as tools that Barney once again uses to his own ends. Any actual location of the contents within the body becomes impossible, the internal organs are instead replaced and a location that should make biological sense becomes one whose sense is now under the complete control of the artist. This is a location that is no longer represented by the actual but instead becomes available to us only through signs and signifiers.
Penis, penis—who’s got (or doesn’t have) the penis.
Historically, theoretically, legally etc. the ultimate site of masculinity has always been considered to be the penis. In fact, we have even created a system to explain the primacy of masculinity creating the all-powerful, god-like ideal of the phallus—whose marker is the erect penis. The phallus, known alternately as the father, the law, history and the super-ego is not free from Matthew Barney’s deconstructive gaze. We are nearly always presented with a theoretical ideal of the phallus as being solid, erect and non-changing. But Barney questions this notion as well, showing us both a narrative that is always at the point of collapse and the penis as a marker that is continually in a state of change.
Like the testes before them, Barney shows the penis, the supposed, final, physical location of masculinity, to be just as uncertain. In Cremaster 2 Gilmore’s penis is often seen on the outside of his overalls, or visibly affecting the shape of his pants. When we first see Gilmore’s penis, shortly after he has killed the gas station attendant, we are shocked, by its unprecedented presence as well as its horrific nature. As he moves past the dead body, Gilmore’s penis is peeking out of his outfit, but rather than the erect phallus of metonymic masculinity, in this first shot the organ appears to be the size of a child or baby’s undeveloped/underdeveloped penis. When we next see any sign of his penis, it has grown laughably huge, crawling down his leg, testicles seemingly bloated and pushing against his pant-seam. In another scene we can see clearly that Gilmore no longer has a penis—his pants pushing inward into camel-toes, creating a vagina-like image that is in fact the last view that we are given of Gilmore’s polymorphous penis. In perhaps the most important moment in all contemporary art, when presenting the macho Gilmore in this fashion, Barney deconstructs the ideal of the penis, showing clearly its shifting nature. Here, it grows, shrinks and even disappears completely. This is not the image that we expect of the penis. As the signifier of masculinity, the penis is always presented in a complete, non-altering, unchanging/unchangeable state. Historically, narratively, poetically, artistically, legally, etc. men have been presented as either well-endowed or not—there is no room for mixed messages, there is no accounting for the shift in size when the penis is non-erect, there is no accounting for the shifting in size from childhood to adulthood and old age. But like his testicles, Barney’s penis is constantly shifting, changing, altering in every way. For Barney, shape, hardness and girth are always in motion and always uncertain. The penis becomes like Schrodinger’s cat—so uncertain, that we cannot even be sure of its existence. If the penis is no longer describable, shifting and changing, even disappearing completely—what does this say about masculinity (and moving forward, this appears to be the most important point of this essay–linguistically, theoretically, philosophically and historically–the phallus/penis duality has always been presented as unchanging, unmutable, and as a solid erection–but as we all know this is far from the truth–the linguistic signifier of law, masculinity, history etc–is endlessly changeable, at times flaccid, small or hard–and therefore its linguistic doppleganger must be equally changeable. I will get back to this in later papers, because this is the crux of the argument and the most damning to the hegemony of masculinity.)
The Phallus, which has always been a linguistic and philosophical abstraction, then, is joined by its signifier, the penis, into this abstraction, this destabilization. The penis, which before has always been seen as erect, solid and locatable, joins the other markers that we use to identify and locate masculinity in uncertainty. Masculinity, itself, becomes invisible and unlocateable—like a position on a map that you are certain is there, but for which there are no longer any identifying points—we become lost in our search for directions.
No wonder men never want to stop and ask for directions. Finally, however, it is important to remember that in the case of the Cremaster, it is not masculinity which has changed, masculinity may, indeed, have always been an uncertain abstraction—it is the markers through which we have sought to identify and locate masculinity which have changed, they have become abstracted, destabilized and have opened themselves to new associations, taking on new functions, leaving us, if only for a moment with a masculinity that has become destabilized and invisible.
This action, rather than allowing masculinity to take on the markers of any and all genders (in an obviously hysterical attempt at self-protection and in the process to claim supremacy over other gendered positions,) appears to be part of the larger pan-historical, pan-generational masculinist program, instead, calls the very markers and any possibility of the location of masculinity itself into question.
Invisibility, abstraction and non-existence is intrinsically different, than the positioning of masculinity so that it can take on and subjugate the signifiers of other genders. If the markers that we have always associated with masculinity have no real meaning, then what meaning can masculinity, ultimately, really have? Is this, in fact, something that all men inherently understand from birth on, have always understood and which creates an inherently masculine form of hysteria?
DRAWING RESTRAINT (1987–present)
The ongoing DRAWING RESTRAINT series began in 1987 as a series of studio experiments, drawing upon an athletic model of development in which growth occurs only through restraint: the muscle encounters resistance, becomes engorged and is broken down, and in healing becomes stronger. In literally restraining the body while attempting to make a drawing, DRAWING RESTRAINT 1–6 (1987–89) were documentations made using video and photography. DRAWING RESTRAINT 7 marks the influx of narrative and characterization, resulting in a three channel video and a series of drawings and photographs, for which Barney was awarded the Aperto Prize in the 1993 Venice Biennale.
A series of ten vitrines containing drawings, DRAWING RESTRAINT 8 was included in the 2003 Venice Biennale and prefigured the narrative development for DRAWING RESTRAINT 9 (2005). A major project consisting of a feature-length film and soundtrack composed by Björk, large-scale sculptures, photographs and drawings, DRAWING RESTRAINT 9 was built upon themes such as the Shinto religion, the tea ceremony, the history of whaling, and the supplantation of blubber with refined petroleum for oil. A full-scale survey of Barney’s work through DRAWING RESTRAINT 9 was held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2006 and included over 150 objects of varying media. DRAWING RESTRAINT 10 – 16 (2005–07) are site-specific performances that recall the earlier Yale pieces.
DRAWING RESTRAINT 17 and 18 were performed at the Schaulager, Basel in 2010 in conjunction with the exhibition “Prayer Sheet with the Wound and the Nail,” a survey of the DRAWING RESTRAINT series through DRAWING RESTRAINT 18.
DRAWING RESTRAINT 19, Barney’s most recent installation in the series, employs a skateboard as a drawing tool. A block of graphite is mounted beneath the skateboard deck on the front end of the board. A skater performs a nose manual (a wheelie on the nose of the board, leaning in the direction of movement) across a smooth surface, tipping the nose of the board forward and leaving behind a drawn graphite line. The piece was part of a benefit art show and auction titled Good Wood Exhibit, raising awareness and funds for a Do-It-Yourself skate park project in Detroit, Michigan. The board was purchased by People Skate and Snowboard and it is displayed at their only location in Keego Harbor, Michigan.
The CREMASTER Cycle (1994–2002)
For more details on this topic, see The Cremaster Cycle.
Barney’s epic CREMASTER cycle (1994–2002) is a project consisting of five feature-length films that explore processes of creation. His concentration in sculpture is accentuated by his use of video. Barney uses video to perfect his sculpture by evaluating positioning, lighting, size and shape, using video as a means to his end product of sculpture. Barney’s long-time collaborator Jonathan Bepler composed and arranged the films’ soundtracks. The cycle unfolds not just cinematically, but also through the photographs, drawings, sculptures, and installations the artist produces in conjunction with each episode. Its conceptual departure point is the male cremaster muscle, which controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli.
The project is rife with anatomical allusions to the position of the reproductive organs during the embryonic process of sexual differentiation: CREMASTER 1 represents the most “ascended” or undifferentiated state, CREMASTER 5 the most “descended” or differentiated. The cycle repeatedly returns to those moments during early sexual development in which the outcome of the process is still unknown. In Barney’s metaphoric universe, these moments represent a condition of pure potentiality. As the cycle evolved over eight years, Barney looked beyond biology as a way to explore the creation of form, employing narrative models from other realms, such as biography, mythology, and geology. The photographs, drawings, and sculptures radiate outward from the narrative core of each film installment. Barney’s photographs—framed in plastic and often arranged in diptychs and triptychs that distill moments from the plot—often emulate classical portraiture. His graphite and petroleum jelly drawings represent key aspects of the project’s conceptual framework.
The Walker Art Center is the only American institution to own the entire Cremaster Cycle.
Barney has explored live performance before an audience. The pieces Ren and Guardian of the Veil revisit the language of the CREMASTER Cycle, via a ritualistic exploration of Egyptian symbolism inspired by Norman Mailer‘s novel Ancient Evenings. Guardian of the Veil took place on July 12, 2007 at the Manchester Festival in England. REN took place on May 18, 2008 in Los Angeles. His most recent performance, KHU, the second part in his seven-part performance series in collaboration with Bepler inspired by Ancient Evenings took place on October 2, 2010 in Detroit.
In June 2009, a collaboration between Barney and Elizabeth Peyton, entitled Blood of Two, was performed for the opening of the Deste Foundation‘s exhibition space, the Slaughterhouse, located on the Greek island Hydra. The two-hour performance involved divers retrieving from a nearby cove a vitrine containing drawings which had been submerged for months. A funeral-like procession of fishermen carried the case up a winding set of stairs. At one point, a dead shark was laid on the case, and the fishermen proceeded to the gallery space, carrying the case and shark, accompanied by the onlookers and a herd of goats. At the Slaughterhouse, the case was opened, water poured out, and the drawings revealed. The shark was eventually cooked and fed to the guests.
Matthew Barney was born in 1967 in San Francisco. In 1989 he graduated from Yale University, New Haven. Since then, he has created work that fuses sculptural installations with Performance art and video. His singular vision foregrounds the physical rigors of sport and its erotic undercurrents to explore the limits of the body and sexuality. In this way, the artist’s work reflects his own past as an athlete, while also being attuned to a new politics of the body evident in the work of many contemporary artists. Barney’s ritualistic actions unfold in hybridized spaces that at once evokes a training camp and medical-research laboratory, equipped as they are with wrestling mats and blocking sleds, sternal retractors and speculums, and a range of props often cast in, or coated with, viscous substances such as wax, tapioca, and petroleum jelly. Indeed, his earliest works, created at Yale, were staged at the university’s athletic complex. Within this alternative universe, Barney’s protagonists—including an actor dressed as Oakland Raider Jim Otto, and the artist himself naked or cross-dressed—engage in a metaphoric dance of sexual differentiation.
Barney’s exploration of the body draws upon an athletic model of development, in which growth occurs only through restraint: the muscle encounters resistance, becomes engorged and is broken down, and in healing becomes stronger. This triangulated relationship between desire, discipline, and productivity provides the basis for Barney’s meditation on sexual difference. These athletic and sexual references converge in Otto’s jersey number “00,” which becomes a leitmotif for the artist’s ongoing exploration of a polymorphous sexuality. Woven cipherlike throughout Barney’s work, this motif intermittently appears as if marking elapsed time in his videos, and in altered form as a single oblong shape, resembling a football field. Barney notes, however, the oblong represents “the orifice and its closure—or the body and its self-imposed restraint.” Homonymic with the word “auto” Otto also suggests autoeroticism, or a closed, self-sufficient system.
Barney began work on the CREMASTER cycle in 1994. Eschewing chronological order, he first produced CREMASTER 4 (1994), followed by CREMASTER 1 (1995), CREMASTER 5 (1997), CREMASTER 2 (1999), and CREMASTER 3 (2002). Along with each feature-length CREMASTER film, which Barney wrote and directed, and in which he often played one or more roles, the artist created related sculptures, drawings, and photographs. This epic cycle has as its conceptual departure point the male cremaster muscle, which controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli. The project is rife with anatomical allusions to the position of the reproductive organs during the embryonic process of sexual differentiation: CREMASTER 1 represents the most “ascended” (or undifferentiated) state, CREMASTER 5 the most “descended” (or differentiated). The cycle repeatedly returns to those moments during sexual development in which the outcome of the process is still unknown—in Barney’s metaphoric universe, these moments represent a condition of pure potentiality. As the cycle evolved over eight years, Barney looked beyond biology as a way to explore the creation of form, employing narrative models from other realms, such as biography, mythology, and geology.
In recent work Barney continues to expand upon the materials and motifs explored in the CREMASTER series. His sculptural work, like Chrysler Imperial (2002) and The Deportment of the Host (2006), utilize same self-lubricating plastic Barney employs to frame his drawings and which consistently appeared in the CREMASTER films. His ongoing Drawing Restraint series, begun while Barney was still a student in 1987, took as its point of departure the biochemical principle of hypertrophy, or how muscles develop in response to increasing resistance. For Drawing Restraint 9: Shiomenawa (2005) Barney contemplated his strained role as “Occidental Guest” when invited to create an exhibition at the Twenty-First Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan. For Drawing Restraint 11 (2005), also conceived for Kanazawa, Barney returned to the root of the conceived project and climbed the gallery wall, thus fighting increasing resistance, to create a series of escalating drawings.
In 1991, at the age of twenty-four, Barney was honored with a solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Museum Boymans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, organized a solo exhibition of his work that toured Europe throughout 1995 and 1996. Barney has been included in many international exhibitions, such as Documenta 9 in Kassel (1992); the 1993 and 1995 Biennial exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and Aperto ’93 at the 48th Venice Biennale, for which he was awarded the Europa 2000 Prize. Barney has been awarded numerous other prestigious awards, including the Guggenheim Museum’s Hugo Boss Prize (1996); the Skowhegan Medal for Combined Media (1999); the James D. Phelan Art Award in Video by the Bay Area Video Coalition (2000); and the Irish Museum of Modern Art Glen Dimplex Artists Award (2001).
Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle, an exhibition of artwork from the entire cycle organized by the Guggenheim Museum, premiered at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, in June 2002 and subsequently traveled to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Barney has since had major solo exhibitions organized by Astrup Fearnley Museet for Moderne Kunst in Oslo (2003), Living Art Museum in Reykjavik (2003), 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa (2005), Sammlung-Goetz in Munich (2007), and Fondazione Merz in Turin (2008). His work has also been included in major group exhibitions including Moving Pictures at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and Guggenheim Bilbao (2002), Venice Biennale (2003), Quartet: Barney, Gober, Levine, Walker at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (2005), Biennial of Moving Images at Centre pour l’Image Contemporaine in Paris (2005), and All in the Present Must Be Transformed: Matthew Barney and Joseph Beuys at Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin (2006). Barney lives and works in New York.
Cremaster 5 – 1997
Sculptures, flowers, people, make-up, birds
Cremaster 2 – 1999
Person, make-up table, tail
Cremaster 3 – 2002
Person, head gear. cloth, paint
Cremaster 4 – 1994
Person, comb, make-up, suit