Cremaster Fanatic

Flickering in the Pink Night of Youthful Graces: An (Imaginary) Conversation with Matthew Barney

Flickering in the Pink Night of Youthful Graces: An (Imaginary) Conversation with Matthew Barney - originally published by The Slow Learner
By John Barner

What follows is, as the half-parenthetical qualifier after the title suggests, a made-up conversation. . . . Delving further into Barney’s work, I found that I had several questions and no real way to get answers. Since many of the articles regarding Barney lack the monumental scale and scope to tackle the onslaught of images conjured by Barney’s work, and given that Barney’s celebrity affords him a degree of impenetrable mystique, and that my proportional lack of celebrity means I’d never get to actually interview someone of Barney’s status—well, my only option, if I indeed desired answers, was to make them up as I went along. Not wishing to completely delude myself, I have stuck as close to the facts as I can in my characterization of Barney and his work . . . The title of this post comes from Rick Moody’s “Ineluctable Modality of the Vaginal”, which appeared in his story collection Demonology (Little, Brown, 2000, p. 259).

I meet Barney in the lobby of the famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue in New York City, but he appears as uncomfortable as I am, so we take a quick cab ride to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop on Grand Street and sit at a back table.

JB: Hi, Matthew, thanks so much for agreeing to meet with me and discuss your artwork, I really appreciate it.

MB: (eating chocolate ice cream) No problem.

JB: One of the first and most obvious comments one can make about The Cremaster Cycle is the dream-like quality of the images which constitute some of the most beautiful, honest—and most perplexing aspects of the films and their attendant artworks.

MB: (silence, still eating ice cream)

JB: What do you think of that? Is it dream? Is it allegory?

MB: I think I’ve said before that what I’m interested in showing people is the structure involved. There are no easily discernable meanings—no summations or endings which one can file away. To do so would end the experience of viewing the sculpture—its meaning would be firmly established already, so why look at it again, why move in for a closer look? (long pause) The cycle, for me, is about ending close to where you began, but informed by the images and the act of looking—or looking away.

JB: I sense that. Yes, I sense that in your camera work, the slow pans, the shots that obscure a crucial part at first, but then focus in on the detail that had previously eluded detection. Do you intend…

MB: (interrupts) Hang on a second...I need...

(Leaves, returns with another cup of, I think, pistachio ice cream)

MB: You were saying?

JB: I was going to ask, when these details are suddenly revealed to a viewing audience, when the picture is made, more or less, complete. Did you intend all along for those details to come into view?

MB: I think in the sculptures, in The Cremaster Cycle, what is there is always there, but that it is in flux, it moves, and it allows the viewer to move along with it, in the great circularity. (long pause) In that way, yeah, maybe it has an unconscious—or symbolic—element, but it also contains a narrative element, and a biological element, within the art itself. I’m not just simply recording my dreams—it’s physical and it says something—it goes somewhere specific.

JB: But there is something dream-like about it?

MB: Sure.

JB: There is an almost methodical precision to the films, in how the images unfold at a slow, deliberate pace. Everything, and I’m being very literal here, everything has almost a numerical kind of sense to it. Five films, five dancing girls, the pentagrammatic nature of the Chrysler shield—it’s symbolically potent. It sticks with you.

MB: Well, I think that goes along with that element of the creative process that the sculptures deal with, it’s mathematical, it encompasses space, time, certain mechanical processes—the body as a natural machine—as a structure, a building in itself.

JB: Let’s talk about that. You play with ideas of temporality and spatiality, with directions—like up and down—ground and air, if you will. However, it’s not just binary to you; it exists beyond the kind of gendered plus/minus—beyond even the corporeal dimension. You move in a very similar vein to (William S.) Burroughs or (Jorge Luis) Borges in that the dead—like Houdini or (Gary) Gilmore live again—or live, in a sense, beyond this world and, yet very much in it. Where the fictional and real seem, not only to blend, but also to do so in such a way that one becomes dependant upon the other, and vice-versa.

MB: It’s a building-up and a breaking-down.

JB: Yes.

MB: Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? (laughs) It’s great to see the films and try to parse a story, but what makes the most of a viewing is to actually approach the sculptures on the level of its own structure—a molecular level—with the smallest building blocks put in place and then up from there. We build and create sculpture from the raw materials and narratives are no different, just the carving of metaphors—the transmutation of a raw descriptive material.

JB: That reminds me of something (Paul) de Man once wrote, in “Hypogram and Inscription” (in Diacritics, 11, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), he was speaking about substitutions—metaphors. He said something like “(O)nce the phenomenal intuition has been put in motion, all other substitutions follow as in a chain.”

MB: But that’s a circular event, too. Not simply in the narrative but in the sense of place—I’m not interested in telling someone what the sculpture is or isn’t, but to put them in a place in which these things happen—these sequences occur.

JB: And that’s at the molecular level? I mean beyond the simple relation of topos and proximity—we’re there, but where’s there?

MB: (eating ice cream) Hmm?

JB: Pardon?

MB: I think the metaphor or narrative should and does certainly contribute—but there’s more to it than that. It’s about the objects that surround the idea, that orbit around it. In The Cremaster Cycle, there’s the urgency of the image, the performance, and the place—the location as visual object. These things should all be equally present to the viewer. In those sculptures—in that cycle, I think I conveyed what I wanted to convey.

JB: You completed the circle?

MB: Yeah (pauses) I think so.

JB: And yet, people still come away from the experience (of viewing The Cremaster Cycle) with this sense of what you’re “saying” that’s rather given a privileged place above an aesthetic appreciation of the images themselves. Does that bother you?

MB: It’s kind of a strict critical interpretation.

JB: That your work seems to be trying to avoid.

MB: Well, I mean…how can you interpret with words something that originates as nearly wordless?

JB: So, to be stridently interpretive is, essentially, to usurp the power of the wordless image.

MB: How one chooses to confront a sculpture—is on the level of the ocular.

JB: (fumbling through my papers) That’s very close to what Norman Mailer said to Calvin Tomkins (in the aforementioned New Yorker profile)—let’s see, yes, here it is: “For people who want to follow the story, it’s hopeless, they’ll hate the work. But there’s an intensity of perception, and a visceral experience you have when you watch this stuff which is extraordinary.”

MB: Excuse me a moment.

(Leaves. Returns with another paper cup filled with ice cream. This time, it appears to be rum raisin, or maybe some variation on chocolate chip.)

JB: I guess a lot of the criticism concerning your dealing with, or use of, gender can be placed with that category—people are so used to art making some kind of “statement” that emerges from the image itself that when it’s not there—

MB: (interrupting)—they make one up?

JB: (laughing) Exactly.

MB: (laughs)

JB: It seems like those kinds of obstructions—those obstacles and resistances have been an ever-present aspect of your work. You’ve explored that throughout your Drawing Restraint pieces, of which there are…I think there are nine of them now?

MB: Nine.

JB: Yes, nine. Here you take the theoretical to the level of the physical: these are the restraints artists put upon themselves—their bodies. Physical obstacles standing in place of the invisible obstacles—the critical objects?

MB: Really, any restraint is a physical restraint.

JB: But you overcome the restraints?

MB: You create in spite of them. Resistance lends a kind of power to the act of forming.

JB: What can you tell me about your recent work, De Lama Lamina? I was captivated by the billboard you produced for the Walker Art Museum here in Minneapolis, which utilized imagery from this particular work, did it not?

MB: Yes. (eating ice cream)

JB: I know it involves much of what we’ve been discussing—that is to say, it involves a physical resistance and also a metaphoric one, part of the creative process that shapes so much of your work. Here you return to using the idea of mythology and religion, specifically that of Brazilian Candomble, but there is, within this conflict, an element of sexual progression that likens this work to The Cremaster Cycle. There is interplay between these anthropomorphic god-images.

MB: (still eating ice cream with a pink, plastic spoon he holds in his mouth) Mmm hmm.

JB: What is it about the gendered interplay—with this interplay of the creative act with the act of destroying, and that in-built resistance, that you keep returning to in your work?

MB: I think it’s a duality that each character explores, that we all explore, really.

JB: (looking at my watch) We’ve run out of time. Look, I really want to thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions. I really appreciate it.

MB: No problem. Want a hug?

JB: Sorry?

MB: (with arms outstretched): Have a hug.

JB: Uh, I’m not really a hugger.

MB: C’mon!

JB: (awkwardly embracing Barney) Wow. Uh, thanks again for everything.

MB: (licking the final bit of ice cream from his pink, plastic spoon and throwing it in the trashcan) You’re very welcome. Be seeing you.

(Barney leaves. I look around and realize I’m really craving ice cream)