Transexualis (decline) (1991) was part of Barney’s acclaimed debut gallery exhibitions comprising the Facility of INCLINE and Facility of DECLINE projects. The work consists of an industrial freezer into which a sculptural object cast in petroleum jelly has been placed. The freezer is flanked by a pair of screens showing the videos RADIAL DRILL and BLIND PERINEUM; two of the performances that Barney recorded in the exhibition space prior to the opening. Using his own body in strenuous athletic activities, he combined physical endurance with sexuality and creativity in enigmatic and ritualistic actions. The videos follow two figures struggling against each other. The protagonist, called the Character of Positive Restraint, is played by Barney himself and references escape artist Harry Houdini, who represents the possibility of physical transformation. The antagonist, Jim Otto, is inspired by the famous centre for the Oakland Raiders football team, who fought to overcome the physical limitations of his body.
In RADIAL DRILL we encounter the two characters, who interact with the sculptures surrounding them. At first, Barney is dressed in women’s underwear, and squats down while his bodily orifices are filled with tapioca pearls. Later he is wearing an elegant black dress as he pushes a white sculpture around in the room. Otto blocks the entrance to a large, skin-coloured floor sculpture while wearing his customary jersey number 00, which in Barney’s universe symbolises the two bodily orifices that take in and release energy. In BLIND PERINIUM we once again meet Barney as Houdini as he embarks on a climbing expedition across the ceiling of the gallery, wearing only a belt with mountaineering equipment. Otto follows him from the floor. The hunt ends in the room that houses Transexualis (decline). Because his exposed bodily orifices make him vulnerable to hypothermia, Otto is immobilised by the low temperature in the freezer. Barney lowers himself onto each of the 00 openings on Otto’s chest, before blocking his two orifices by placing ice plugs in his own mouth and rectum. He then threads a wire between the plugs in an effort to draw the orifices together. This is his attempt to prevent Otto from conducting athletic feats that will deplete his energy, and to achieve his own goal of closing the orifices, thus bringing the body into a hermetically sealed state.
Inside the freezer of Transexualis (decline) is a sculpture made of cast petroleum jelly in the shape of an incline bench. The icy temperature evokes a different kind of sensory state in the viewers, while at the same time the freezer is the object that makes the petroleum jelly sculpture possible, since the bench is clad in a material that resists shaping and would melt if removed from the freezer. The freezer also bears significance for the male body. The cold activates the CREMASTER muscle, an involuntary muscle that is responsible for raising and lowering the testicles. A container holding the hormone hCG is found in the seat of the decline bench. This hormone is produced in the placenta of pregnant women, but is also used by body-builders to increase the production of testosterone and promote muscle growth. It is hCG that stimulates the descent of the testicles in the scrotum – which provides the conceptual fulcrum of Barney’s later work The CREMASTER Cycle (1994–2002). On the floor, the outline of an ellipse shape bisected by a horizontal line can be seen. This recurring symbol in Barney’s artistic practice illustrates the bodily orifices in open and closed states, respectively. As a key work from Barney’s earliest production, Transexualis (decline) incorporates pivotal elements of Barney’s artistic practice, both conceptually and materially.