b. 1967, San Francisco, USA
Matthew Barney is arguably the artist of the 1990s who most profoundly changed the language of sculpture. He achieved this through the introduction of new materials, from petroleum jelly to gym equipment, the conflation of media and narrative structures, and his enigmatic biological fictions that are at once hilarious and monstrous. For Barney, sculpture is an emanation of places, performances, films, photos, drawings, and ephemera, in which he is typically the story’s protagonist.
TRANSEXUALIS (decline) ---HYPERTROPHY (pectoralis majora) H.C.G. ---JIM BLIND (m.) ---hypothermal penetrator OTTO: Body Temp. 66 degrees (1991), was one of his first major works, introducing many of the conceptual and structural elements that would be brought together in his later Cremaster Cycle (1994–2002). The point of departure was a series of performances that were based on themes of resistance as a catalyst for creativity. The spectator enters a refrigerated room containing materials of symbolic value in Barney’s fictive netherworld, such as carabiners suspended from the ceiling and a Vaseline weight-lifting bench. Through these devices, Barney forges a sensorial and existential experience (conditioned by the nature of the materials and the temperature of the room), which takes the spectator beyond the visible.
The Cremaster Cycle (1994–2002) is an open visual process, with no beginning or end, consisting of many individual works, anecdotes and experiences that come to no clear-cut conclusion. This constellation of films, sculptures, drawings, and photos together form highly complex narratives. The stories and themes explored in the films often have parallels in the two- and three-dimensional works that continue the process. The sculptures, onto which Barney transfers the action, introduce materials that can be reshaped and changed, like Vaseline and wax. These are not limited to a particular function as props, but are independent works that may sometimes have been featured in a film, or were inspired by its situations, landscape, and architecture, but which retain an independent and meaningful role as original art objects.
The films tell open and symbolically charged stories, without a linear plot, that force viewers actively to make their own reading and interpretation. The all-encompassing title Cremaster is the anatomical word for the muscle that controls the elevation and descent of the testicles. In each film, we find several stories roughly relating to this title, which present important human themes such as sexuality, gender, destiny, ambition, conflict, resolve, energy, fantasy, time, and death. The starting point for the films was certain landscapes or architectures that inspired specific themes and formal solutions. To enrich his innovative formal language, narrative structure and aesthetic, Barney also draws on those artistic references that lend themselves to the situation in question, such as Land art, Conceptual art, Process art and, not least, Body art.
In the Cremaster series, the body is central, both physically and mentally. Often it is the artist’s own body that is the centre focus of the action, transformed into a biologically challenged body whose acts produce temporary and ephemeral energy. Strong references are made to athletic feats that require effort to overcome physical limits, to produce power, to create a process. Such references are linked to Barney’s own history (such as his time spent as a footballer at college), while building on the performance art that marked the beginning of his career. The Drawing Restraint series (begun 1987), for example, where he applied restraints to his body while drawing, was a precursor of Cremaster.
With the Cremaster series, a rare, ambitious and accomplished monument within contemporary art, Barney fundamentally renewed the notion of sculpture. And even though the fragmented and multi-semantic story is complex, his art is appealing and accessible.
(Photo: Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels)