The A-Z of Matthew Barney

Ahead of Matthew Barney‘s new Serpentine shows, Time Out presents an A-Z of everything you wanted to know (and soon might wish you hadn‘t) about his strange, strange world

34 BARNEY 1.jpg
Hardcore faun: Matthew Barney gets in character for 'Cremaster 4' © Matthew Barney 1994 / Photo Michael James O'Brien. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York



(n. the United States of). Matthew Barney, 40, has often been described as the most important US artist of his generation. His sculptural, cinematic and performance works could be seen as portraying a civilisation in decline. For one of his most memorable scenes, Barney staged a demolition derby of cars in the iconic Chrysler building, imbuing these national symbols with false patriotism and violent potential. American football, Norman Mailer, Mormons and gangster flicks have all been given the Barney treatment.


jörk Gudmundsdottir

(born 1965, Iceland). Girlfriend, muse and collaborator to Barney, now taking the leading lady role in his surreal feature ‘Drawing Restraint 9’. In the film, she boards a whaling ship to be groomed, bathed and dressed like a geisha, before taking part in a Japanese-style marriage ceremony with a fur-clad Barney. Then they hack away at each other’s legs, eating strips of their flesh like sushi. She’s also lent her musical talents to the film’s haunting soundtrack.



(n. medical). The overarching title for Barney’s five-movie, 400-minute long psychosexual, Wagnerian magnum opus. To give you some idea of its oddness, the name is taken from the gonadal muscle that raises or lowers the testicles depending on outside temperature. To add to the confusion he began with ‘Cremaster 4’ in 1994.

34 BARNEY 3.jpg
'Drawing Restraint 2' © Matthew Barney 1988 / Photo Michael Rees. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York


rawing Restraint

(n. invented, abr. DR). Another of Barney’s multipartite works (this time running chronologically from 1-16 so far), being surveyed at the Serpentine this autumn. The series began in 1987 with short athletic performances involving ice skates, trampolines, dumb-bells and harnesses – anything that would restrain or hinder his attempts to scrawl on bits of paper, the walls or floor. ‘DR 9’ is to be screened at The Gate, Notting Hill.



(adj. grandiose, legendary). Barney’s seven-hour ‘Cremaster Cycle’ certainly took it out of the old gluteus maximus when all five parts were shown together at the Ritzy in 2002. The 145-minutes of ‘Drawing Restraint 9’ also seem to drip by languorously, while giving the sneaking suspicion that nothing much might happen at all (see also Plots).



(n. fantastical creature). Barney often dons horns, pointy ears and a bit of straggly hair to become this mythological half-man, half-goat creature. In ‘Cremaster 4’, fauns and fairies take part in a motorbike race on the Isle of Man.



(n. see also Faun). More dressing-up box fun was had in ‘Cremaster 3’ which features a pair of duelling giants in kilts chucking rocks at each other.


oudini, Harry

(1874-1926 Hungarian). The master escapologist is a big influence on Barney’s work with bondage and restraints, as well as on the opening sequence of ‘Cremaster 5', in which the artist dives off a bridge in Budapest. Norman Mailer also plays the mystical magician in ‘Cremaster 2’.



(adj. see also Vaseline).



(n. country). The new film, ‘DR9’, is set on two Japanese whaling boats and was filmed in Nagasaki Bay. Barney and Björk start to turn Japanese during an elaborate tea ceremony that involves kimonos, gift-wrapping and a bizarre Shinto wedding, not to mention the bloody hara-kiri-style conclusion.



(n. plural, see Giants).

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'Cremaster 5' © Matthew Barney 1997 / Photo Michael James O'Brien. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York



(n. see Symbolism). As any megalomaniacal artist will tell you, before you can conquer the art world you need a logo. Barney’s own symbol is a lozenge-shaped ‘field emblem’ that resembles an aerial view of an elliptical sports pitch with a horizontal band (a restraint) bisecting the centre, something like -0-. Barney was an athlete in his youth, so team sports and body enhancement explain the exhibitionistic preening and pageantry at the core of his work (see also Ritual).



(n. spiritual association). Barney’s work is almost as full of references to Freemasonry as Hogarth’s. ‘Cremaster 3’ is loaded with hushed initiations, and sees a tartan-clad Barney as The Apprentice, ascending through the Freemasonry Order to meet The Architect of the Temple of Solomon, Hiram Abiff, played by sculptor Richard Serra.



(adj. nude, stripped). Fans of Björk and Barney will be pleased to hear that they both get their kit off for ‘DR9’, although only the beefy filmmaker goes full-frontal. Barney’s art is an extension of his body and its myriad activities.



(n. plural, openings). No bodily function or aperture escapes Barney’s artistic inquiry. In an early work from 1989 called ‘Field Dressing’, Barney clambered around his studio as though it was a gym, inserting his favoured petroleum jelly into his ears, nose, mouth, anus and penis. He’s since been lumbered with the epithet ‘The Michelangelo of genital art’.



(n. plural, storylines). There are none; narrative strands aplenty, but no real plots.



(n. plural, regal figureheads) Among the cameos in the ‘Cremaster Cycle’ is that of an imperious Ursula Andress as The Queen of Chain, who emerges from the water, ‘Dr No’-style. Gay artists and audiences often joke that Barney is the best gay artist who isn’t actually gay.

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'Cremaster 2' © Matthew Barney 1999 / Photo Chris Winget. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York



(n. see Masonry) Apart from his fascination with religious or secular rites, Barney’s ‘Drawing Restraint’ project amounts to a ritualisation of the act of putting pencil to paper. The build-up is just as important as the final work.



(n.) Barney’s world is full of covert symbols. For example, the blue, red and pink colours in the tartan he uses represent veins, arteries and skin.



(n. see Epic).



(adj. submarine). The denouement of ‘DR9’ takes place partially under water, or actually under tea, as the room in which the couple began their nuptials starts to fill with brown liquid. Once the shades of ‘Titanic’ start to fade, along comes a scene straight out of ‘Jaws’, as blood clouds the submerged lovers.



(n. petroleum jelly). Barney’s signature material came back with him from the high-school locker room, where he would need lubrication to stop his footballer’s pads – among other things – from chafing. Tonnes of petroleum jelly have since been expended on his sculptures, one of which, the ‘Cremaster Field’ made for the Ritzy Cinema, collapsed so spectacularly that he has restaged the entropic demise of another Vaseline sculpture for ‘DR9’.



(v. hunting). On the kind of whaling boat normally pursued by a Greenpeace ship, Barney and Björk begin to grow strange blow-holes on the backs of their necks (see Orifices). They swim off into the Antarctic, happily ever after, as a pair of doting sperm whales.



(adj. see Björk, naked).



(n. see Vaseline).



(n. now-ish, happening). Barney emerged from the 1990s as the pioneer and saviour of video art as well as the most successful artist in the genres of body and performance art. Ten years on, since including Björk in ‘DR9’, there are worrying signs that his films might be taking on embarrassing tones of self-referentiality. However, there is still more unexpected material in a Matthew Barney minute than you would find in an average Hollywood hour.Matthew Barney’s first major London exhibition is at the Serpentine Gallery from Sept 20-Nov 11; The Gate cinema will be screening his films, including ‘Drawing Restraint 9’.

Author: Ossian Ward

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