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Blarney at the Guggenheim: A Review
Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle is on view at the Guggenheim now through to June 11th 2003. The exhibition is a project of five films with some of the sets and props that have doubled as installations. A few of the more unique mediums he works with are tapioca and Vaseline. The theme of the entire project (1994-2002) is based on the cremaster, which is the involuntary muscle that creates the rising and falling of the scrotum.
A critic for the Village Voice raves that he as liked everything Barney has done since a 1990 group show: “Suddenly, this 22-year-old appeared naked, in a videotape, climbing ropes, then lowering himself over a wedge of Vaseline and applying dollops of it to his body.”
He continues: “Since then, Barney has been able to do no wrong by me, which is exactly the kind of unequivocal wet kiss from a critic I hate.”
Nancy Spector, the curator of the Guggenheim, wrote the synopses of the five films of the Cremaster Cycle, the content of which defies comprehension. Here is an excerpt:
Cremaster 2 embodies this regressive impulse through its looping narrative, moving from 1977, the year of Gary Gilmore’s execution, to 1893, when Harry Houdini, who may have been Gilmore’s grandfather, performed at the World’s Colombian Exposition. The film is structured around three interrelated themes—the landscape as witness, the story of Gilmore (played by Barney,) and the life of bees—that metaphorically describe the potential of moving backward in order to escape one’s destiny. Both Gilmore’s kinship to Houdini (played by Norman Mailer) and his correlation with the male bee are established in the séance/conception scene in the beginning of the film, during which Houdini’s spirit is summoned and Gilmore’s father expires after fertilizing his wife.
The curator does not comment on the exhibition’s meaning, or lack of it.
A scene from the Cremaster 3 film was set inside the Guggenheim. It is loaded with references to Las Vegas showgirls, game shows, mythology, blood, and ambition. Barney, dressed in Scottish garb, climbs artificial mountain panels on the outer ramp-walls of the Guggenheim rotunda, reminiscent of televised athletic contests. Symbolic of competing for and scaling the heights of the art world? Along the way he solves a spatial puzzle proving that he is adept at aesthetic technique. He overcomes a physical challenge by the half woman half tigress that bites him on the mouth drawing a substantial amount of blood. She might symbolize the predatory nature of dealers and agents. The wound to the mouth is suggestive that it is better to remain silent if you are to pursue your ambitions no matter how much of your life force it drains. The climax is when he reaches the upper most heights of the Guggenheim to find a zombie-like Richard Serra, monumental minimalist sculptor, decked out in industrial garb shoveling boiled Vaseline onto the top of a mini-ramp. Then there is a close-up shot of the oozing lubricant’s downward path. Either due to the spectacle of Serra at the top of the art world or to the absurdity of his shoveling slime on the inner ramp-walls of the Guggenheim rotunda, Barney falls over the ramp to splash into a bubble bath filled with the showgirls. Ah, success! The denouement is that he takes out revenge on the woman/tigress and kills her.
Barney is following in the wake of the anti-art aesthetic of the Dadaists but he is dangerously close to expressing himself as an artist. He is more like a student filmmaker but he disguises his leanings towards film by including the film’s sets in the exhibition, such as the scores of plastic 6-foot pillars, which only serve as “filler” for the Guggenheim’s space.
Also on exhibit are some of the quite brilliant still photographs taken from the films. A great deal of credit must go to the cameraman, Peter Strietmann. He has a great eye for composition and essential details.
As Barney slithers up and down the heights of the art world I think it is a good time for us to step back, way back, and question the viability of postmodern art. There is a shift of attitude by the contemporary postmodernists such as McCarthy, Huyghe, and Barney, a nuance of difference between them and the Dadaists. Duchamp had an overpowering sense of cynicism but he also had his wits about him, like his comment on the use of a Rembrandt canvas as a cover for an ironing board. He knew and played with the fact that he was an anti-artist. These modern postmodernists, don’t have this type of awareness, they sincerely express, as if it were a value, chaos, morbid states, unintelligibility, temporal mediums, and an overall negative view of humanity without any sense of irony; not that irony makes the absurd any less so.
David Rockefeller speaking of MoMA, though he could be speaking of museums in general, says: “As for the polemics over whether MoMA should choose a period and just not collect beyond it—maybe Abstract Expressionism; Modern but not post-Modern—I feel the museum has an obligation to continue to collect into the present, to identify the best, most creative artists of today.”
In times of war, when our values as humans are being sorely challenged; and in times of celebration when we long to share how wonderful it is to be alive, and to be human; it is an aesthetic crime that contemporary art museums cannot offer us anything more than the emptiness of postmodern art.
In a spirit of goodwill towards humanity it would be fantastic if curators and critics would reevaluate the meaning of postmodern aesthetics in light of human values; and, then, perhaps, we would see more than “blarney” at the Guggenheim.
Michael Newberry, Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Art. www.ArtAdvancement.org
Originally published at anartistsvoice.org
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