Matthew barney: narcissus on the astroturf

The Cremaster cycle starts in Koln instead of New York

When you meet him, you could mistake him for a handyman or stagehand doing finishing touches. In reality, Matthew Barney, who lives in New York, is one of the gross narcissistic total artists: an egomaniacal machinist of illusions, heavy worker of lust, transformer of desire. Somewhere between the calculated plastic kitsch of a Koons and the earthiness of a Beuys, between the hallucinatory of a Dali, the megalomania of a Wagner and the classification mania of a Greenaway. He knows how to subjugate film, video, music, literature and sport in the service of the fine arts in a formal language. He uses names like Ursula Andress, Norman Mailer, Richard Serra for his goals and has the Paraolympics fighter Aimee Mullins parade on transparent polyethylene legs in the Guggenheim spiral as an undercooled predatory cat. The result, the Cremaster Cycle, a bewilderingly labyrinthine work, a mythical score in moving and still images, fetishes, and sculptures, is on view from June 6 to June 1. June to 1. September 2002 at the Museum Ludwig in Koln.

At the opening ceremony, Warlock Barney walks, quite exhausted and almost silently, on his territory specially laid out with Astroturf, the surface of American stadiums. The exhibition rooms of the Museum Ludwig have been transformed into a shrill and garish stage production in which every object and every visitor is given its allegorical place: at the skyscraper bar made of cowed Vaseline, under the flags, in front of the designs, the stately portraits, and the trophies and broken pieces stored in showcases and cabinets, all of which seem to be made of a synthetic plastic casting and yet seem like a fake ancestral gallery.

Matthew barney: narcissist on the astroturf

The occasion for the exhibition launched in Koln is the completion of the five-part Cremaster cycle begun in 1994, a work between video and silent film, visual art and staged photography. As the last part, Barney has now completed the middle piece, the mammoth three-hour film Cremaster 3 (2002), which had its European premiere in the Philharmonie in Koln and was met with considerable astonishment and impatience by some in the local cultural scene. Art had not been imagined to be so strenuous for a long time. Kaspar Konig of the Museum Ludwig Koln took over the exhibition at short notice from the Guggenheim Foundation in New York, so that it will now make its way back to New York from Koln via Paris, accompanied by a biblically thick complete catalog (published by Nancy Spector at Hatje Cantz). High attendance and sponsorships there still not forthcoming as a result of terrorist attacks. The prestigious event in Koln, costing millions, is hoped to end 0:0.

Intra-uterine fornication

Matthew barney: narcissist on the astroturf

In Barney’s paintings, signs and emblems, magical forms and figures mate in crazy metamorphoses to form fragile hermaphrodites, glamouros-entertaining but also obsessively shocking pop proto-ornaments that fornicate with each other in the intra-uterine space of creative amniotic fluid. Stewardesses in dancing zeppelins (Part 1); a condemned felon on a glittering honeycomb saddle in a cattle rodeo (Part 2); a tap-dancing dandy faun on the underhopped Isle of Man (Part 4); and a tragic hero between the Budapest Opera and the Gellert Baths (Part 5). Hermaphrodites, bastards, fairies, dualistic mythical creatures, androgynous bodies, costuming travesties are the props of a recycled and slowed-down slapstick theater, whose scenarios keep distilling new visual trumps of a mythological retrofuturism with kitsch-revue garlands.

A clash between capitalist glamour and Mormon primordialism

In Cremaster 3, the new centerpiece of the cycle, Matthew Barney, as the apprentice of architect Hiram Abiff (portrayed by Richard Serra), causes Babylonian confusion in the construction of the Chrysler Building in the 1930s. Perhaps Barney has created here the most violent schizophrenic tension between modernity and postmodernity, between the glamorous world of his images and the underlying sadomasochistic bodywork.

What happens in the ground-level lobby, the middle Bauhaus floors and in the still uncrowned Art Deco spire is Freudian primordialism, pre-asthetic murder and manslaughter between father and son, and last but not least archaic work on the civilizing material, Mormon fundamentalism as the backside of capitalist accumulation. An undead bony corpse is bedded down in a sleek luxury car, the Chrysler Imperial New Yorker. Masonic candidate and apprentice Barney shows up, tough, mafioso, Irish and Celtic, wearing a suit, hat and crystal wedge-studded work frock and devilish steel caps over his shoes. As a matter of course, with the silver cult trowel, he covers the gas caps of the flashing Chrysler Crown Imperials of the 60s with cement, as if it were cake.

The American dream of mobility freezes. The vehicles immediately become pilotlessly vicious, lurking like in a Carpenter-Cronenberg film, just waiting to attack the old Imperial New Yorker and its occupant. J.G. Ballard and Crash let dig. The pleasurable confusion of standstill and movement, destruction and transformation, the erotic interpenetration of organic and inorganic takes its course and winds its way upward, floor by floor. The compressed car scrap is at the same time an urn and the late mouth prosthesis for the naughty apprentice, whom some lodge gangsters smash in the dentures because he does not adhere to the rules of initiation and mixes the art of noble chopping with cementing. At the top sits Richard Serra and plays bravouros an architect of classical modernism and himself. He does not leave it at the purely mental planning of a monolithic skyscraper and towers up two columns (in the spirit of Solomon) from his based, normally minimalist steel plates, which act like huge gears on the threshold of further sky-rising hubris.

An intensity of Gestalt perception and reflection is demanded of the viewer that is rarely known in today’s consumer cinema. The exhibition becomes a prosthesis of intensive film viewing, which is possible simultaneously on the monitors. Loud, sweaty objects draw attention to themselves without revealing everything. The slowed down, captivated and enchanted vision (à la Houdini) is to co-create things again, even where they are only cinematic or digital illusion. For this reason alone the visit is worthwhile.

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