Matthew Barney is a spectacular charlatan. This is, of course, my personal opinion.
I don't deny that his fertile imagination is staggering; his exhibit is no doubt spectacular. But he knows no way of making anything out of his outpouring fancies and spews them out with abandon. I was going to call him Barnum without Bailey but that would be an insult to Barnum. Barney is puerile, a brat with millions to spend who knows how to spend but has no idea how to make the spending worthwhile.
I spent a recent Monday from 10:00 to 4:00 at Solomon's Spiral, known as Guggenheim Museum, and saw three of Barney's five Cremaster Series, I and II in the small screening room and V on a video monitor. The exhibit takes the entire space of the spiral; the objects on display are superbly crafted, slick and alluring, and continuously exuberant but, superabundant to excess, they quickly get overwhelmingly boring. The slick finish of his objects recall Jeff Koons' iconic stuff; but Barney overfeeds us and makes us nauseate -- ad nauseum.
One realizes only after seeing at least one of the films that the exhibited objects are mostly props for his films. So, the crux of Barney's work is the five feature-length films on video. The three films I saw demonstrate that Barney has never heard of film editing or, more likely, he does not believe in it. In Cremaster I, for example, we see three crosscut subjects -- a musical revue on a playing field, the stewardesses in the interior of two identical blimps, and the woman squeezed under the table. But there is no identifiable temporal structure in the crosscutting; the shots come and go over and over with no hint of where they are going. The images are pretty but shown interminably they get pretty boring. Barney's iconography, moreover, is grandiose -- grandiose and vapid. His creation myth concerning gender, machinery, and history is pretentious and remarkable mostly in the scale of his self-indulgence. Ultimately, the iconography, which has to be explained because it is not self-evident in the visual works, leaves us intellectually and emotionally vacuous. Barney mystifies us but there is mystery, not even magic.
I am not against superficialities; I like razzle dazzle. Jeff Koons charms us. Barney can't because he doesn't leave us alone. He assaults us relentlessly with his wild so-called creations and refuses to give us even a moment to pause and think. Perhaps this serves us right because, if I may hazard a guess, he produces as swiftly as his fancies take him without much reflection. Our experience of his works -- both his objects and his films -- is therefore ultimately suffocation; and we come out of the show exhausted and unsatiated.
A mind that can put all the resources, both material and human, is without question awesome. Barney's three-ring circus is no mean feat. The man is an entrepreneur of first order; and the exhibit is extravagance par excellence. The exhibit glitters; it smells of money; it screams money until we are sick of it.
I am going back to see the four-hour extravaganza of Cremaster III and, if I survive that, Cremaster IV, just to give the spectacular charlatan another chance.
T. Kaori Kitao 03/12/03
On 22 April I returned to the Guggenheim to view Matthew Barney's Cremaster III, chronologically the last in the series and also the longest and the most elaborate.
The theme of destruction, carried, so to speak, to the full height of the Chrysler Building, is set in motion by the demolition derby in the lobby of the building, and this is repeated ad nauseum through the film concurrently with the scenes of joyful wrecking of the elevator and the panelled interior of the Cloud Bar. The film extols vandalism into high art. It made me think of a hyperactive brat's uncontrollable delight in smashing things indiscrimately. Only, here, it is carried out on the scale of the adult world in three long hours.
But, then, this must be the meaning of the cremaster, which refers to the embryonic process of sexual differentiation. In that case, Barney is perhaps right on target. His cycle might as well be called Testosteron.
T. Kaori Kitao 05.01.03