Do you have to have a master's degree in pretense to watch this @#!&," a friend of mine asked when I showed him a short segment of Cremaster Cycle, artist Matthew Barney's five-part film series that will be screened at the Starz Filmcenter in Denver during the first two weeks in August.
As it were, the cremaster is a little muscle that raises and lowers the scrotum. And why is Barney so interested in this muscle that he decided to make a five-part art film about it? Good question. Here's what Nancy Spector of the Guggenheim Museum has to say:
"Matthew Barney's epic Cremaster Cycle (19942002) is a self-enclosed aesthetic system consisting of five feature-length films that explore processes of creation ... It's conceptual departure point is the male cremaster muscle ... 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."
Is it a documentary? No! Sound pretentious already? Well, let's just say Cremaster isn't exactly the next installment of Gonads Gone Wild! And despite its many pretensions, few recent works of art (the bed in which it rather self-consciously lies, more or less) have made such tidal waves in the international art pond without the shock value of either poop or pornography.
To give you an example of how Barney "explores the process of creation," let's start with Cremaster 1 (the sexually undifferentiated embryo). For Barney, this stage of sexual development is portrayed as a line of chorus girls in deco hoop dresses dancing on a blue football field in Idaho while a Goodyear blimp hovers above. Inside the blimp, the dance is being orchestrated by "Goodyear," a glamorous blonde crouched beneath a table of grapes on which an ovary/testicle-like sculpture covered in Vaseline sits as the centerpiece. Goodyear then plucks the grapes from the crawlspace beneath the table and organizes them into shapes that the dancers then form on the field below, which is, ultimately, the shape of an undifferentiated embryo. All the while, four hot-looking airhostesses gaze on to the scene with a practiced nonchalance. So you've got your heavy dose of surrealism a la Luis Buuel all packaged up with lots of gender stuff, an MTV patina (minus the quick cut editing) and it's all bafflingly absurd with lots of unhinged intimations at narrative; and it's all devastatingly pretty.
The genius of the cycle is that its visual accessibility, if not seduction, holds your attention even where the unfolding of the metaphorical/symbolic trajectory does not. It plays as a kind of moving canvas that truly gives you the sense you're watching (as Stephin Merritt of the band The Magnetic Fields put it) "outrageously beautiful Busby Berkeley dreams."
Here's a little tease of the subsequent stages of differentiation and some of the unfathomably strange elements you'll find therein.
Cremaster 2 (the resistance to differentiation): Gary Gilmore's symbolic execution in a choreographed rodeo inside a stadium built out of salt on the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, the drummer from Slayer, bees, and Harry Houdini.
Cremaster 3 (incomplete differentiation): Celtic giants and the myth of the formation of the Isle of Mann, Gary Gilmore as resurrected woman, the Chrysler building as a maypole, lots of Masonic ritual, smash-up derby, the interior of the Guggenheim museum and its five floors as symbolic levels of spiritual ascendance, the punk bands Agnostic Front and Murphy's Law and more.
Cremaster 4 (differentiation/descent) takes us to the Isle of Mann for a lovely motorcycle race around the island and Matthew Barney as a dapper mythical ram who tap-dances his way through the floor of a pier and then crawls through a Vaseline tube beneath the ocean floor.
Cremaster 5 (total descent and fall into tragic love): a tragic opera and an exquisite finale involving birds, the maypole ribbons and the, finally, differentiated genitals.
If your interest isn't even a wee bit piqued, and the thought of watching genital metaphors unfold for the better part of a day sounds about as entertaining as a Fox News Network takeover of the Discovery Channel, few could blame you. But if, on the other hand, Spy Kids 3-D just wasn't "heady" enough for you, and your sense of mental adventure can override your yawn-and-nod reflex during some of the duller indulgences, Cremaster Cycle definitely has some stunning visual and conceptual payoffs, even for the least pretentious people in the world.