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Master of Puppets

Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle blends the absurd with the sublime (and is nothing short of astonishing)


There is no bigger name in the 21st-century art world than one Matthew Barney, he of The Cremaster Cycle, a five-film series set in a mythical parallel universe filled with red-headed, asexual she-gnomes; larvae; the ghost of Gary Gilmore; the Chrysler Building; Richard Serra; hundreds of peeled potatoes; Agnostic Front; Norman Mailer; and more goo, tapioca, beeswax and bodily fluids than has ever been presented on the big screen. The entire cycle will screen at the Tivoli Theatre beginning this Friday, August 1, and anyone interested in being subsumed within an amazing, baffling artistic vision is advised to set aside a large chunk of time to experience the full effect of Matthew Barney's world.

"Is it art, or just pretentiously gorgeous nonsense?" asked the New Yorker's Calvin Tompkins during a profile on Barney written in anticipation of the Guggenheim Museum's exhibition that opened earlier this year. It's a valid question. After all, anyone looking for an action-packed Hollywood narrative -- or a brooding indie one, for that matter -- within these five films will likely be disappointed. These are dreams, they're visions and, as Barney himself has indicated, the films aren't films as much as they're sculptures; he creates the props, alters the settings, constructs the landscapes and directs the action, which is filled with ridiculous non-sequiturs, sublime and vivid images and, yes, a lot of disturbed visions (the "cremaster" is the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles). What the viewer receives (at least based on the two films we've seen, Cremaster 4 and Cremaster 5) are tight little surrealistic galaxies, each part of an overarching nether-universe.

It's a freakishly complex and fascinating world that Barney's created over the past decade of Cremaster films, which he debuted in 1994 with Cremaster4 (they were filmed non-chronologically) and has, in the intervening years, continued to awe and inspire both art and film critics. Michael Kimmelman, writing in the New York Times Magazine, pronounced Barney to be the most important American artist of his generation, "because his imagination is so big. Art is supposed to stick in your mind, and sometimes your craw. Barney's films do both." They do both because they're so open-ended, so alive with interpretative potential. (In the Cremaster Cycle book, published in conjunction with the Guggenheim show, a glossary of terms contains, among others, entries for ectoplasm, glaciation, Houdini, larval memory, Slayer, the Rockettes and blood atonement.)

In all, the cycle runs a little under seven hours. Barney himself is featured prominently in four of the five films: in 4 as a tap-dancing humanoid goat; in 2 as convicted murderer Gary Gilmore; in 5 as a magician; and in 3 as the "Entered Apprentice." (In real life, Barney is the partner of pop chanteuse Björk, with whom he has a child.) Expect to be confused by the films; expect to be startled and disgusted and inspired. Above all, though, expect to exit the Tivoli with a brain overflowing with images you'd never previously imagined which are now firmly lodged in your memory. It's definitely worth the ride.

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