Saturday, July 29, 2006

Cremastered potatoes

The cremaster muscle appears only in men. Its function is to raise and lower the testicles in response to heat, cold, and assorted emotional states. When highly stimulated, the cremaster can actually yank the testes entirely inside the body (ouchie).

Matthew Barney is an artist who has made a three hour movie called The Cremaster Cycle. (He is also Bjork's boyfriend.)

Friends, I'm here to tell you, I just don't get it. I finally watched part 3, which is a 30 minute excerpt from the larger, 3-hour piece. Part 3 is an intriguing series of images consisting of various interactions between these components:
  1. Four, perfectly lovely, half-nude ladies, who appear here and there throughout the piece, either walking around or in a large bubble bath.
  2. Two different speed metal/punk bands, and perhaps a hundred followers who form a mosh pit. I don't remember their names, but trust me: it doesn't matter.
  3. Terrible music. The punk bands were just ok, but the rest of the film is filled with tinkly crap that raised my blood pressure.
  4. The Entered Apprentice (Matthew Barney himself), who is dyed pink, wearing a large pink drum major's hat, with a large, pink, rubber mat grotesquely stuffed into his mouth. As one closeup makes clear, the stuffing has injured his mouth. It's also clear that it's make up -- was this amateurish, or did he want the viewers to know that he wasn't actually injured? I cannot say. His costume also half-reveals his body, which is athletic and strong.
  5. Aimee Mullins, a lovely actress who has twin, below-the-knee amputations highlighted by clear lucite boots. The clear boots make it clear how damaged her legs are, and they are no substitute for her normal prostheses: she walks awkwardly about. At one point, she makes out with the Entered Apprentice. At the end of the movie, she is badly injured, although no assault was shown. Her lucite boots are shredded into useless curlicues of plastic, and she sits glumly, waiting for something.
  6. A half-woman, half-cat creature who mewls and looks about nervously. Unlike the Rockettes below, she is more fully depicted as a cat, with body makeup that is the color of fur. However, she also is naked from the waist up. She is later bludgeoned to death by the Entered Apprentice for no apparent reason.
  7. Richard Serra, the well-known sculptor. He first sets up a miniature sculpture not terribly different from other pieces of his, like his much-loathed Tilted Arc installation. Once set up, he uses industrial equipment to heat a large kettle of petroleum jelly. Then he spatters the sculpture with large ladles of the molten jelly. Over time, in many separate steps, the jelly recongeals into a gelatinous snow drift. It is neither attractive nor ugly, just unusual.
  8. About twenty to thirty young women dressed in revealing, half-Rockettes, half-"hello kitty" outfits. That is, they have little floppy kitty ears on, with cat makeup, but they also wear short-shorts, stockings, and high heels. They do Rockette-like routines through the piece, including several fun bits where they kick the museum wall in near simultaneity. They smile continuously, some apparently in near hilarity at what they are doing. They all have fantastic legs, and may, in fact, be Rockettes. The Entered Apprentice considers them repeatedly, from different angles.
  9. The Guggenheim museum in New York. The museum is a character in this piece, where it serves as stage, gym, and prop. The Entered Apprentice rock climbs from the floor to the top of the museum, using pre-built holds that are temporarily fastened to the inner walls. As a former rock climber, I can assure you that he did some righteous climbing. For at least two sections, a mistake could have injured or killed him. By the end, the walls have been climbed, used as a drum, walked on, leaned against.
The images shown throughout these piece are striking and memorable. Even though I mostly hated this film, they still have a power over me two days later. However, it's frustrating that there was no easily accessible theme to this art. Clearly, he's endlessly concerned with women. But is that it? Is that the cremaster connection? With the relentless cat imagery, was he saying something deep? Or was he just making a visual pun about pussies? (including his own pink costume?) Why was his mouth injured? Why he did severely injure the cat/woman? Was Aimee Mullins the cat/woman? Why have a goddamn bubble bath on the floor of the Guggenheim?

I do not think that the piece was meaningless, but I do think that it was pointless, because there is no real entry point to let anyone start to consider whatever meaning it might have. It's almost as if Barney had made a movie for his close friends.

My meaning may not be clear; let me find a better example. Velazquez's Las Meninas is one of the most sublime pieces of art ever made. When you look at it, you first see a pretty girl, surrounded by attendants. Then you might notice that some of the attendants are dwarfs, or perhaps you see that they are following a story of their own, ignoring all the other action while they choose to bother the put-upon dog. Or you might notice the artist himself, Velazquez, who is painting the "other" picture, or perhaps the King and Queen, who are the ones "really" having their portrait made in the other picture. Perhaps the indulgent gaze of an attendant who leaves the room, filling it with light, will catch your eye. What, exactly, does the expression on his face mean? Perhaps none of this will draw your eye, but your head will instead spin as you consider the different angles that Velazquez is depicting perfectly, all at once. What were the political chances he took by creating such a unique, slightly disrespectful portrait? Could he he have been banned or even killed after its creation?

It is as complete a capturing of a single, rich instant in a royal family's life that I can imagine, and it includes the artist itself in a fun, heisenbergian way. I could look at it for hours. Yet it is still a painting with a pretty girl in the center. That is the beginning. This painting will always lure the admiring gaze so that it can later intrigue the admiring mind. It is one of the greatest works of art ever made.

The Cremaster Cycle, eh, not so much. On his own, Matthew Barney entirely re-makes Tom Wolfe's point about modern art being weaker, because it frequently has to be accompanied by explanatory texts.


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