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Cremaster Cycle

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Cremaster 1 & 2. Not that the concept of "order" has any meaning here, but Matthew Barney, the Yale-educated sculptor, filmmaker and father of Björk's recent progeny, created the five films in his Cremaster cycle (not series: cycle) out of sequence, beginning with Cremaster 4 in 1994, followed by 1, 5, 2 and 3.

Actually, his work is very orderly, so much so that you'll require a library and an art degree (master's preferred) to unpack its cultural criticism, visual tropes and (would it be art otherwise?) copious idiosyncrasies. It's just all so fanciful and bizarre that it doesn't feel like it makes any sense.

Cremaster 1 (1995), which is 40 minutes long, takes place aboard two Goodyear blimps hovering over a football field. It opens in closeup on Technicolor orange- and pink-clad dancing girls, then proceeds to round up the usual symbols: symmetry, technology, phalluses, camp, uteri, grapes and music ranging from Busby Berkeley to New Age ultra-minimalism.

C-2 (1999) is both more abstract visually (distorted landscapes, ice sculptures) and also more concrete, occasionally taking place in "homes" among "families" who "speak," albeit in whispers and riddles. There are bees and fornication, drums and gas stations, more wombs, an a cappella solo, country music of a sort, the Cavalry on synchronized horses, a bleeding head wound, American flags and bison. It features Norman Mailer as Houdini and Barney himself as Gary Gilmore, the subject of Mailer's novel The Executioner's Song.

This is performance cinema, the sort of thing that often plays in a continuous loop in little video rooms at art galleries. In anatomy, the "cremaster" is the muscle of the Poupart's ligament -- which is to say, the testicles. But in entomology it refers to a portion of the cocoon in a butterfly's metamorphosis. And while Barney keeps both definitions at play, the second one suggests myriad malleable metaphors for specialized art like this, which reflects on living, dying, transcendence and sexuality in the most exclusive way possible. (Harry Kloman)



Cremaster 4 & 5. When I saw Matthew Barney's Cremaster 2 at the Carnegie International a few years back, I was both perplexed and annoyed by its grandly inscrutable pretensions. Now, viewing his earlier Cremaster 4 and Cremaster 5 for the first time, I'm more amused, but still feeling not too well clued-in.

In the 42-minute Cremaster 4 (1994), the first-released of the cycle, a white-skinned goblin-man (Barney himself), dapper in a white linen suit, combs his bright orange hair daintily over the stumps of his horns, tap-dances a hole in the floor of a stark white room, falls through to the sea floor, then wriggles through a sort of man-sized birth-canal. The scenario is intercut with a race between two two-man motorcycle teams, who speed in opposite directions on the winding roads of the Isle of Man; the vibrations of the race make each driver's gonads exit gooily through two little pockets in his leathers.

In the 53-minute Cremaster 5 (1997), a queenly figure (played by Ursula Andress) sings a sad aria from the balcony of a grand music hall; she is mourning a lost love -- the dark, chained man (Barney) we see leap to his death from a bridge. Interpolated is a vignette about a sea-god figure (Barney again) whose crotch is beribboned by some sea nymphs and celebrated by half-a-dozen white pigeons.

A puckish and technically sleek blend of performance art and surrealist film, Barney's wordless demi-narratives are jeweled with sensual pleasures, from the often startling imagery to Jonathan Bepler's beautiful music in 4. Still, without an annotated program I've got little idea what to make of these films, which Barney says constitute (to simplify greatly) a serialized, mythologically infused metaphor about the biological differentiation of the genders. So if it's fair to say there's nothing else quite like the Cremaster films, it's also fair to say that you can see why. (Bill O'Driscoll)

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