The average visitor to a contemporary art gallery adopts a stony face, and does his/her best to show no response whatsoever to anything on display.
Matthew Barney is a 40-year-old native of San Francisco who is already considered part of the canon of American visual art. He started making video art in 1990, earned a reputation as an enfant terrible, moved on to film and performance, and to top it all off married Icelandic pop sensation Bjork. The Cremaster series is already being touted as his “masterpiece,” and was made between 1994-2002. On a more provincial note, I have never seen the Pod Baranami cinemas more clogged with fashionable young people desperate to get their hands on tickets. In our first film two blimps fly over a technicolor-blue (all colors here are highly-saturated) football field, upon which dance a team of women in odd harlequin costumes. The blimps are peopled by bored stewardesses, tables filled with grapes and with centerpieces of a statue that might be disfigured phalli or the legs of satyrs, and women in lingerie under the tables. The women under the tables eat grapes, the grapes come out of their high-heeled shoes, and then they rearrange these grapes into different patterns, which are then mimicked by the harlequin-women on the football field. This is repeated many times, for over half an hour. And that’s it.
Anyone putting forth an interpretation of this film, treating the content seriously, will indeed probably end up making a fool of himself. This is not because the film is non-narrative: Roy Andersen’s Songs from the Seventh Floor and Sokolov’s Russian Ark are only two examples of non-narrative films about which there is a great deal to say. The strange feeling of emptiness one gets in watching Cremaster 1 and 2 must come from somewhere else.
It partly comes, no doubt, from Barney’s palette. These films are hyper-stylized, a blend of video art, high-budget commercial, and music video aesthetics. Every hair-do, manicure, cosmetics job and piece of furniture is the subject of the most meticulous detail. As such, these films give the impression of being “designed” (some might prefer to say “sculpted”), and for the first five minutes there is a certain intoxicating effect that comes in watching them.
But ultimately a non-narrative film depends a great deal on the director’s intuition, and though any judgement of this must be enormously subjective, the Cremaster films do not impress here. Cremaster 2, which is more interesting than the first, depends on a series of cloaked or literal bee metaphors, many of which are only wrapped up together by a short speech by a man playing Houdini. Barney may succeed in playing some interesting tricks with his honeycomb symbols, but the overwhelming impression is that it adds up to nothing. And many of the individual scenes (a phallus ejaculating honey, a death-metal vocalist covered in swarming bees, etc.) reveal an artist with a fairly second-rate capacity for creating a metaphor.
Somewhere in Barney’s promotional materials, one no doubt finds a line like: “Barney takes all the refuse and detritus of modern civilization and spins it into gold.” America is currently filled to the brim with artists working on this project, of course, but Barney is rare in his sincerity. He really would like you to find mythology in a Goodyear advertisement, beauty in a gas-station uniform. Warhol would never have gone this far: Barney is painting Campbell’s Soup cans and wants you to find poetry, not irony.
There is, of course, the possibility that I am guilty of watching these films the wrong way, and that one need turn off the critical part of your brain while watching Barney’s films and simply delight in their candy-colored over-abundance. But if this is the case, things are very badly off for America’s contemporary art, indeed.