Written by Catherine Taft
While my body was developing, I was a competitive synchronized swimmer. From the ages of eight through sixteen, I was dedicated to this strange aquatic sport, practicing four nights a week and eventually competing at the Junior Olympic level. Our team was a legion of pubescent and adolescent females, a troupe of amphibious creatures, masquerading as women while forming notions about the limits of our tiny bodies. The sport was a physical and aesthetic indoctrination into the female sex. We were jocks and sprites.
Synchronized swimming required a pageantry that was part drag, part underwater mermaid fantasy. Swim meets involved layers of waterproof mascara and rouge, brightly-colored Speedos speckled with sequins, and impenetrable glazes of Knox gelatin to hold the hair in place. As such, we were judged on “artistic impression.” We decorated our under-cooked physiques with a show-biz zeal prescribed by our coaches and mothers. With noses pinched by flesh-colored silicone clips, we bared our teeth, smiling painfully throughout our choreographed routines. We jerked our legs in succession, making splashy peel-offs like chorus line girls; we floated in-time to the music, forming kaleidoscopic florets. We competed to be watched, to entertain, and delight. And yet, the acute athletic ability demanded of the sport belied its Busby Berkeley veneer.
One of two female-only Olympic sports, synchronized swimming demonstrates the female body’s command over flexibility, strength, coordination, stamina, and lung capacity. I was the smallest girl in my age group and an asthmatic, and yet I could hold my breath for 90 seconds; tread water at hip height for six minutes; and hold the splits upside-down with muscles flexed as tight as the water’s surface tension. My sport was a survivalist ballet. Its maneuvers left me panting for oxygen and shaking with fatigue. I became a teenager and my shoulders were molded into wide, broad hinges that flanked my small breasts. My period came: a new physical challenge. My thighs became muscular and the splits became my wheelhouse; when I practiced the splits, I stacked three kick boards under each foot so my hyperextended crotch hovered just above the pool deck. My team ranked first in the Rocky Mountain Division six years in a row. We took third at Nationals twice.
“It is clear that the world is purely parodic,” wrote George Bataille in his 1927 essay The Solar Anus. “In other words,” he continued, “each thing that is seen is the parody of another or is the same thing in a deceptive form.” In “The Order”—Matthew Barney’s filmic movement that inhabits the host body of CREMASTER 3 —athlete and model Aimee Mullins appears as the Entered Novitiate, a parody of Barney’s character, the Entered Apprentice (or is the Apprentice the deceptive form of the Novitiate?) At the third level of the Guggenheim’s spiraled interior, the Entered Apprentice and Mullins approach each other as if to face off. Mullins is fashioned in a white gown (ass exposed), gloves, a veil-like headdress, and crystal clear, high-heeled prosthetic legs. The outline of her amputated limbs is visible through the transparent false legs that she glides upon. With such sculptural emphasis placed on her lower half, she recalls the composite body of the Queen’s Giant in CREMASTER 5 and of the wooly-legged satyrs of Drawing Restraint 7. As Barney explains:
At the time I created CREMASTER 3, I was reading a lot of Masonic material; the third degree of the Masonic Order made reference to the notion of the elimination of the lower self. According to the text, to eliminate one’s lower self is to improve one’s character and effectively eliminate the flaws. And this is one way that Freemasonry uses certain archetypes as a way of proposing to its initiates that they have to better their character in order to become Freemasons. At this same time, Aimee walked into my life and a lot of the things I had been reading in the Masonic text suddenly became possible with her as a pantomime; we could reenact certain notions within the Masonic texts and try to literalize them in some way.
Aimee and I had similar backgrounds in terms of our athletic experiences and our experiences as models, and we took something meaningful from that common ground; we had explored something that was profoundly interesting to us both as an exercise, which is to step outside of ourselves and allow ourselves to be a model for something else.
“The Order” continues. The Entered Apprentice is now wearing the very dress that Mullins wears—part nurse, part bride, big toes squeezed into glassy high heels; the twins embrace in a steady posture, their athletic bodies flexed, rigid, and close. It is the sacred embrace of the Masonic Five Points of Fellowship—a ritual (once used by early Mormons) in which the two Freemasons touch their feet, knees, breasts, backs, and cheeks. In this posture, the figures are mirror images of one another, extensions of one other, a union. Their genders blur; they seem feminine, but are they even female? Is this human? The ceremonial embrace allows Mullins to whisper the mystic words “Maha byn,” upon which she is transfigured into a hybrid cheetah-woman.
In the mid-1990s, Mullins popularized para-athletic carbon-fiber running blades—also called “cheetah legs”—after her victories using the devices as an elite amputee sprinter. This autobiographical fact is made literal through the cheetah costume. It is as if Mullins has become an anthropomorphic embodiment of her athletic gear.
More than the equipment of game play (balls, sticks, paddles), the protective gear of sport is a precious extension of an athlete’s body. The football player’s shoulder pads, the wrestler’s headgear, the hockey player’s mouthguard, the jock strap: each of these apparatuses mimic the contours and ergonomics of the body. Even a rodeo cowboy’s saddle improves upon an animal’s body while forming to the negative space between a human’s legs. Designed for defense, high performance, and stability, athletic gear bonds to the body it touches; it gets broken in, sweated on, and toted around in gym bags; it becomes an exoskeleton and develops a smell. When used therapeutically, it immobilizes; sometimes it enters the body completely.
Athletic braces, guards, and pads are mass produced from high density polyethylene, a copolymer often used in the fabrication of artificial limbs and joints. Rigid and machinable, this low-cost material is also self-lubricating, that is, its inherent chemical make-up is capable of creating a surface-to-surface emollient that will reduce friction during movement. As a material, it contains enormous kinetic potential. As if to suggest a familiar and non-threatening organic surface, high density polyethylene gets cast in a translucent Band-Aid pink reminiscent of Caucasian skin tone. It is a material with a quasi-human personality (a race?). The beauty of self-lubricating high density polyethylene is its ability to be utilized safely both inside and outside the human body. It is a parasitic plastic, a parody of organic structures, a bionic aid.
Athletic gear is prosthetic. Prosthetics are sculptural protractions. They eliminate difference to the degree that an athlete can overcome limitation and potential injury. And yet, the athlete is entropic; his or her body is in a perpetual state of decline accelerated by the physical demands of sport. Game play is risk. NFL Hall of Famer Jim Otto, for example, underwent over seventy surgeries for injuries sustained during his fifteen years of playing professional football. This includes eight knee replacements and the eventual amputation of his right leg due to life-threatening infections that resulted from those surgeries. The use of protective athletic gear could not prevent Jim Otto’s eventual degeneration nor his constant reliance on prostheses. His body was caught in the cycle of a punishing material drama.
A high heel is a surface marking of femininity. Prosthetic-like, it adapts the gender neutral architecture of the human foot, altering its performance and ability. The high heel is allegory, elevating the debase human out of the earthly shit and closer to the heavens. It’s aspirational. As a formal structure, as sculpture, it relies on three-dimensional space and scale shift. The high heel is sculpture: certainly, contrapposto in classical sculpture describes a figurative pose represented by a slightly torqued body with weight shifted onto one foot so that the opposite heel is elevated. The body is poised, with raised foot, on the brink of potential movement. A high heel maintains contrapposto’s prolonged state of potential.
In the video Radial Drill, we see Matthew Barney playing the character of Houdini in hiding from the pursuit of Jim Otto. Houdini is in drag—evening gown, high heels, and gloves; he performs squats with a pair of wedges shimmed under his heels. In a related video, Delay of Game, Barney again appears in drag as a Lana Turner-inspired, 1950s, pool-side siren—white bathing suit, white robe, white turban, white gloves, and white wedged high heels. These characters—bodies in drag—are tipped, destabilized, shifted and propelled. Their wedges facilitate potential movement, sustain the space of delayed energy, hold it at the brink. The wedge is the starting block. It’s the twist of the heel that the quarterback makes to drop back or spring forward. The wedge is described through physics, athletics, sculpture, and yet the vaulted heel is always a marker of a gendered lexicon: Goodyear’s grape-funneling heels in CREMASTER 1 and the strappy high-heeled sandal atop the work’s sculptural laserdisc case; Aimee Mullins’ potato-slicing stilettos and vaulted glass legs in CREMASTER 3; the Queen’s lily-toed heels, and the hubris-pill shaped heels of her ushers in CREMASTER 5. The list goes on: the feminine as extreme appendage.
It is these very trappings—the physical and social markers of gender differentiation—that make Barney’s images and objects so hazily liberating. Masculinity becomes protocol and constraint. In The CREMASTER Cycle, it is sketched out through baroque ablutions; the shifting male anatomy is both consecrated and flawed container. In River of Fundament, the masculine is forged in an alchemical pressure cooker; the patriarchy is a combustion engine, and the performing body its oxidizer. The masculine is a pronounced vehicle for the feminine and, when encountering the feminine, rubs all around it. But the feminine is less easily located; it lurks inside the trans and as a reflection of the masc. It contracts. It runs under the skin. The feminine is the irritant in this system.
The Queen’s Menagerie
Sex develops in a soupy bath. Underneath some watery hermetic surface it is cultivated and articulated; bodies are structured and functions get assigned to those structures. The sprites of the Queen’s bath are decidedly female. Their nubile, semi-human bodies are the texture and hue of chewed bubblegum; they are sleek but curvaceous, cat-like, and self-satisfied. The Queen’s sprites are cooperative in nature, united in an appointed task. Their delicate touching is attentive and diligent, for it facilitates the remodeling of corporeal structures.
The Queen’s bath holds an underwater architecture that seems somehow prophylactic. Under a layer of floating pearls is a sterile and utilitarian pool, a medicinal thermal chamber for the treatment of congenital conditions, a corrective space. And yet the tiled grotto that houses the bath is indulgently opulent, baroque, a gallery in which to luxuriate. Into this cavern the Queen gazes. The autocrat’s pleasure is scopophilic. The crystal butt plug she wears creates a roving anal eye, and the fleshy throne she sits upon is an orifice peep-hole into the baths below. The Queen’s libidinal thrust is to look and witness the transmutation of her subject: the development of her Giant’s body, a pleasure and a trauma.
The Queen’s Giant appears with the seven exotic pigeons that will ultimately execute his testicular descent. The spherical pearls on his terrific head mimic those of the Queen’s headdress, those that float on the surface of the bath, and those that will be released from his body. He is a Poseidon and a monstrosity, classically chiseled from the thighs up and imprecisely mutated below. Against the alabaster surface of his skin are two ripples of blood-flushed organs that seem to serve as legs. They might unfurl and reveal a hidden clitoris, but these petals remain closed, ending in two bulbous cloven feet. This body looks truncated, cropped at an undefined mound between the legs. He is an amputee fitted with some auxiliary tissue. Teetering as he walks, the Giant cautiously approaches the bath. Once inside the tub, the sprites begin the work of lacing his groin with the ends of ribbons tied to each pigeon. The Giant is passive but observant. With a throw of his arms, the birds take flight, pulling at the ribbons and, in turn, his scrotum; his cremaster muscle releases and his testes slowly dip down into the water. Reverse castration. His testicles, still decorated with ribbons, perform an elaborate escape.