The Cremaster Cycle

the cremaster cycle

The first time I saw Matthew Barney (or rather one of the many grotesquely strange manifestations of the artist) he stared me down from the front cover of David Hopkins’ book, After Modern Art 1945-2000. Adorned in prosthetic make-up with orange kiss curls and a dandy-esque white suit I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of him or the stills I saw of his epic art/film/sculpture work, The Cremaster Cycle. Unlike the majority of the films I have written on for this series, Barney’s series is not merely cinema, but art. Accordingly, you cannot just nip down to your local video store and rent out a copy and instead have to wait for special screenings. A number of years after I first caught a glance of Barney I made the overly enthusiastic but ultimately foolish decision to attend a screening that showed all five films in the order that they were made.

The forms don’t really take on life for me until they’ve been ‘eaten’, passed through the narrative construction.
– Matthew Barney

Composed of five films (Cremaster 4 [1994], Cremaster 1 [1995], Cremaster 5 [1997], Cremaster 2 [1999] and Cremaster 3 [2002]), the title of Barney’s opus is taken “from the cremaster muscle in the male genitals from which the testicles are suspended, and which is retracted in a reflex movement produced by cold or fear inside the body.” Each film involves a loosely formed, and yet highly symbolic, narrative that is concerned with myth, masonic rituals, the boundaries of the body and gender identity, movement and physicality, violence and sexual reproduction. All of these motifs are shrouded in hypnotically and intense visual imagery that increases in complexity and skill with each film.

The reason why I referred to my choice to watch the entire cycle in the space of a day as “foolish” is because the combined running time of the five films falls just under 400 minutes. If Luis Buñuel believed that going to the cinema is sometimes like being raped, then The Cremaster Cycle is a bit like being kidnapped and whisked off to a bizarre and chaotic world inhabited by satyrs and quasi-human creatures who proceed to torture you. I felt mentally exhausted, physically weak, had a splitting headache and didn’t know where to begin deciphering the hours of imagery that had forcibly entered my head.

That isn’t to say that The Cremaster Cycle isn’t worth viewing: Barney has produced an intricately constructed parallel universe that is as visually stunning as it is mystifying. Cremaster 5, in particular, stands out for its melancholic opulence that manages to cut through the bizarre symbols and incidences. For me, this part of the cycle was so beautifully stylised that I was too entranced by what I was seeing to worry about working out the subtext of the metaphors within every frame. Although Barney capably utilises intertexuality to broaden the scope of each film, he ultimately creates a space that is uniquely his own. My one tip for people who are keen to immerse themselves in Barney’s world is to do it one film at a time. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

Learn more and find further information on screenings through the official The Cremaster Cycle site.

10 Comments The Cremaster Cycle

  1. sean patrick January 27, 2011 at 11:18 AM

    “I felt mentally exhausted, physically weak, had a splitting headache and didn’t know where to begin deciphering the hours of imagery that had forcibly entered my head. That isn’t to say that The Cremaster Cycle isn’t worth viewing..”
    i think this is the best write up i have read about them to date.

  2. Lauren Fundora January 27, 2011 at 1:39 PM

    I agree with Sean. Amazing write up Danica! I mean I remember my Art History teacher in college trying to sum him up and she kept getting choked up on her words. Barney has a way of doing that to you. I remember having nightmares after I watched his works, they weren’t bad though, they were nightmares that I welcomed, full of the rich imagery that his work planted in my brain. I am so glad you posted this Danica! Awesome! Awesome!

  3. Garrett Byrum January 27, 2011 at 1:47 PM

    alllll of the series in one sitting!!?!

    wow, i applaud you for you that. it was tough for me to sit down and watch one of them (cremaster 3 i believe).

  4. tyler January 27, 2011 at 4:14 PM

    I agree, fantastic write up. I watched 2 and 3 back-to-back and it was traumatic. Thanks for posting this, more people should take the Barney challenge!

  5. Scott January 27, 2011 at 4:49 PM

    I went to the screening at the old IMax in Northbridge a few years ago, was this the one you went to? I mainly went to see the Bjork movie, Drawing Restraint 9, which I soon discovered is actually not part of the Cremaster Cycle.
    You described my experience with it very accurately (not to mention the cinema was very hot and stuffy for the whole day!) Still, there are moments and visuals that still seem to randomly pop into my head now.
    Great stuff!

  6. Danica van de Velde January 27, 2011 at 8:41 PM

    @ sean patrick Thank you!

    @ Lauren Fundora I completely agree on the nightmarish quality of his work – it’s not exactly horror, but a disturbing ambiguity that his imagery conjures up.

    @ Garrett Byrum Yep, all five in one sitting. We did have toilet breaks, fortunately. I think Cremaster 3 is the hardest to watch because of the three hour running time. It was the last one that they screened and I was close to tearing out my eyeballs at that stage.

    @ tyler Traumatic is the perfect word to use! And yes, more people should take up the challenge!

    @ Scott Yes, that is the exact screening I attended! Small world, indeed. I haven’t seen Drawing Restraint – hopefully I’ll track it down one day.

  7. Doctor Jones January 28, 2011 at 7:51 AM

    agreed – this is a great write-up on a film I had forgotten about until Kanye’s “Runaway” video came out. everyone was going crazy about that and i was all “i feel like i’ve seen this somewhere before…”

    i honestly hate Cremaster Cycle. we watched parts of it in my Video Art class in college and it basically defined everything i loathe about pretentious, over-long, over-hyped, “high-concept” art. i typically have a disdain for any art that is intentionally designed to be inaccessible and “deep”. and i have a particular hatred of video art that relies on long, silent shots of nothingness (Sophia Coppola, i’m looking at you). in the wake of “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, Cremaster seems all the more ridiculous.


    i will say i’m thrilled that Cremaster exists. that’s the beauty of art, right? something for everyone. even pretentious douchebags (jokes :P).

  8. Kate January 28, 2011 at 7:56 AM

    I actually sat through them all in one sitting twice, once in 2003 and once in 2004. I was deep in college art major world and felt like it was what I was supposed to do, although once was required by my art history teacher. The thing is, 7 and 8 years later I still think about them quite often. They really do have a way of getting into your head. Honestly, I imagine I’d probably do it again if given the chance.

  9. Lukas January 29, 2011 at 11:23 AM

    Great review; your contributions to the site have become my favorites. You mention that the viewing you attended screened the films in the order of their creation; how do you think the experience would’ve changed had you watched them in order of the sequence suggested by their titles?

  10. Danica van de Velde January 31, 2011 at 12:59 AM

    @ Doctor Jones Ha! You have a point: art likes this doesn’t actually need to exist, but I am pleased that it does…even if only for pretentious douchebags :)

    @ Kate Woah! I am impressed that you sat through them twice and are willing to do it again. I’d probably be better prepared if I was going to sit through them all for a second time.

    @ Lukas Thanks for your kind words. To answer your question: I think it would be different in terms of analysing the technical finesse of each film, but I doubt it would change my reading of the cycle as a whole. The chronological links between each film would not have been apparent to a first-time viewer so my understanding would not have been any more nuanced.

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