Androgynous summer daymares at the Guggenheim: Matthew Barney’s “The Cremaster Cycle”

In the contemporary quest for the definition of “post-modernism,” Matthew Barney is the American pinnacle of shape-shifting, ambiguously ambiguous metaphors that reach into the abyss of sexuality and gender by referencing the cremaster – the muscle that regulates the ascension or descention of reproductive organs in humans. In a series of five videos and site-specific installations, he takes the audience through a cyclic journey of illusion, ambition and self-realization at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

Born in San Francisco in 1967, he later moved to Boise, ID, and spent his time playing football and doing model work for the fashion industry. He fathered a child with Bjork (Icelandic musician/artist) and has exhibited work in San Francisco, Paris and New York. From the beginning, his mythologies have referenced athletics, fetishism, transexuality and Harry Houdini – all the workings of macho fear and insecurity.

The so-called “post-sexuality” movement happening in Miami, New York and around the art world champions his Cremaster Cycle as a bible to relevant discourse on blurring the line between male and female. “Post-sexuality” itself is an oxymoron that would inevitably die off if it could ever happen because just as post-modern is a concept that can never define itself (what can be more modern than modern?), sexuality is defined by understanding difference, not all-encompassing generalizations that attempt to subjugate and label.

Do not be fooled by Barney’s metaphors of androgynous gonads as the author presents a highly genderized version of male sexuality. The Cremaster Cycle is not as layered or eloquent as Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, yet both work on monumental scale and address stereotypes and innate truths concerning the roles and preconditions of gender.

Barney uses the space and levels in the Guggenheim to create an interactive artwork in which the audience and the museum itself become characters within a grand narrative. As the viewer maneuvers through the sculptural obstacles up the rotunda, the five levels of The Cremaster Cycle unfold themselves with the accompanying video playing on central screens at the top of the building. Within the levels are offshoots with space to watch the entire looping narratives while surrounded by objects that reference the past action that took place either in the Cremaster videos or in the museum as Barney and crew acted out the sequences on site to set the stage.

—————– Cremaster Exhibit Summaries —————————–

Cremaster 1 (1995) is set at Bronco Stadium in Boise, ID, where the Astroturf is blue. This sometimes causes birds to dive kamikaze into the turf thinking that it is water. The film thematically represents the first six weeks of fetal development in which gender has not yet been specified. This is a time of pure potential. Goodyear blimps float through and are pulled into a shape that resembles an androgynous gonadal structure while women dance on the field in a chorus line.

Cremaster 2 (1999) is where the sexual division begins on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The looping narrative stars Barney as Gary Gilmore (who was executed in 1977) and Norman Mailer as Harry Houdini (who performed at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893). Gilmore claimed to be Houdini’s grandson and sacrificed himself to a firing range to keep with the Mormonic tradition of being forgiven for a sin by shedding blood. He probably wasn’t as concerned with Mormon dogma as much as he wanted to achieve freedom through death and self-transformation. This film also alludes to Johnny Cash (who apparently called Gilmore to fulfill a dying wish). Dave Lombardo, from Slayer, has a drum solo to the sound of bees as the protagonist realizes that he is doomed to be a drone bee.

Cremaster 3 (2002) is set in New York and chronicles the construction of the Chrysler building by the Architect, Hiram Abiff (played by Richard Serra), and the Entered Apprentice (played by Barney). Hiram Abiff was the supposed architect of Solomon’s temple, which emulates everything hierarchal about wisdom. Symbols and references to Masonic initiation rites pervade the film and sculpture as potatoes serve to set the foundations of the bar, piano and Chrysler building ajar and off balance. This may show how poor people screw up the foundations of the lives of the upper crust.

Cremaster 4 (1994) was the first video completed and is the biological model for the entire Cremaster enterprise. It is set on the Isle of Man and depicts two motorcycle sidecar teams racing in opposite directions of ascending and descending motions. The resistance to division slows the inevitable process toward descention.

Cremaster 5 (1997) is a tragic love story that sets the Queen of Chain (Ursula Andress) and her Diva, Magician, and Giant (all played by Barney) in an opera of complete descention set in the late 19th century Budapest, where Houdini was born in 1874.


The objects and images that scatter the Guggenheim are a testament to “post-modern” art, yet it plays out like an interesting conversation with a person who desperately seeks all of the attention. It is a struggle to read all of the layers and meanings that are formed into tapioca, petroleum jelly, wrestling mats, Astroturf, glass and photography, yet the game that Barney engages his audience into is simply part of the piece. The faces on the viewers perusing the museum are almost as entertaining as the work.

For now, America has found its multi-tasker in Matthew Barney. Like Houdini, he is an escape artist to interpretation and revels in distraction and dark magic. He may just change how America sees itself.
The Cremaster Cycle is on view Guggenheim Museum in New York City, 1071 5th Ave. (at 89th St.) through June 11. Visit for more info.

Alex Saleeby can be reached at