The Cabinet of Harry Houdini, 1999

The Cabinet of Harry Houdini emerges from CREMASTER 2 and references the world-famous escape-artist Harry Houdini – one of the characters of the film. Houdini’s magical transformations have long served as a source of inspiration for Barney, influencing his artistic language, which features physical change and energy transfer as central themes. Houdini, who has been referred to as Barney’s alter ego, appears as a symbol of transformation and metamorphosis in The CREMASTER Cycle. In CREMASTER 2 he plays a key role due to the myth that he was the grandfather of Gary Gilmore, the infamous American murderer who is a main character in the film. Houdini was the first person in the world to perform an act in which he exchanged places with his wife from within a locked chest although his hands and feet were bound. Houdini often ‘transformed’ himself into his wife in his astonishing performances, and the transformation from woman to man is also a key theme in CREMASTER 2

The film envisions the conflicted state of sexual division, illustrated metaphorically through the struggle between the queen bee and her drones. In the film, the men represent drones, male bees that cannot remain alive after they have reproduced themselves. As a drone, Gary Gilmore’s father Frank sacrifices his life when Gary is conceived, and his son is born with awareness of this fate. Houdini’s transformative abilities become decisive for Gary Gilmore; even after he is sentenced to death for murdering two men, he retains the belief that death does not signify the end, but on the contrary, represents a possible passage – a transformation.

The Cabinet of Harry Houdini connects several of these storylines from CREMASTER 2. The sculpture references the cabinet out of which the master escapologist Houdini magically broke in his famous stage illusion Metamorphosis. The cabinet is the same one inside which Houdini is seen locked in CREMASTER 2 at the moment of Gilmore’s death. The cabinet is cast in the form of a hexagon – a shape that appears frequently throughout the film. The hexagon is reminiscent of the structure within a beehive, and is an important Mormon symbol, featured in the state flag for Utah. Utah is the state where Gilmore was executed in 1977 and also the location of CREMASTER 2; thus the narrative of both Gilmore and the bees emerges from this specific location. The hexagonal shape is also reflected in the numerous dumbbells made of salt that emerge from the cabinet. This material reference is to the Bonneville Salt Flats, a vast expanse of salt-covered ground in Utah, where Gilmore’s execution is staged in CREMASTER 2. The salt dumbbells thus connect the story of the bees, the story of Gilmore and the landscape of the film. The dumbbells also function as a reminder of the conceptual point of departure for Barney’s artistic practice – how self-imposed resistance can generate creative growth.

Address: Strandpromenaden 2, 0252 Oslo

© Astrup Fearnley Museet