Matthew Barney's flying circus

He's been hailed as 'the most important artist of his generation' and his 'Cremaster Cycle' has been an Edinburgh hit, but who is Matthew Barney?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's a faintly ludicrous image: the man on the trampoline trying to draw on the ceiling. With each fresh bounce, he reaches up and scratches another indistinct line, but gravity keeps undermining his work.

This performance piece is part of a series called Drawing Restraint begun by Matthew Barney in the late 1980s. It was, he acknowledges with just the flicker of a smile, "quite crude". None the less, to anyone interested in how the 36-year-old Midwesterner became "the most important artist of his generation" (as Barney has recently been styled by The New York Times), the Zebedee-with-a-paintbrush routine is revealing. It combines absurdity, narcissism, athleticism and endurance. It is comic and ritualistic - and the artist is the object of the gaze. In short, it shares many of the hallmarks of The Cremaster Cycle, the series of five films made between 1994 and 2002 that have made Barney an international celebrity.

"There were other pieces in the Drawing Restraint series that were more about loading the body down with weight," Barney explains, cheerfully going on to list the masochistic feats he performed in the name of art; for instance, climbing up walls or wrapping himself in surgical latex hosing. "Some had to do with manipulating the drawing tool so that you couldn't really control it. All the pieces assumed that the drawing would be made regardless of the restraint that was put on the act. They were all to do with the will as much as they were to do with trying to manipulate one's facility to draw."

Barney is a disconcerting interviewee. I meet him on a sweltering day at the recent Locarno Film Festival, where he has come to introduce the screening of Cremaster 3. A lean man with a thin beard, he is polite, quietly spoken and very earnest. Don't expect flippancy or anecdotes about his domestic life (his partner is the Icelandic pop star Björk), or the pressures of parenthood (he and Björk have a baby girl, Isadora). His answers are thoughtful and measured, and, just occasionally, between the pauses, there's a leavening flicker of humour.

"Cremaster" may sound like a low-budget horror franchise, but the name comes from a scientific term referring to the muscle in the male genitals from which the testicles are suspended (and which retracts them in cold or fear). The Cremaster Cycle was begun in 1994. This is a multimedia project, comprising sculptures, photographs and drawings as well as films. Saturated with pop, mythical, architectural, classical, movie, biological, computer-game and even masonic references, it defies easy classification. Barney started out of sequence, with Cremaster 4. He set it on the Isle of Man, and played a character called the Loughton Candidate, "a satyr with two sets of impacted sockets in his head that will eventually grow into the horns of the mature Loughton ram". (And, no, despite his vast knowledge of Manx culture and history, he hasn't seen George Formby's 1935 comedy, No Limit, set against the backdrop of the TT races.)

Cremaster 1 followed in 1995. This was a Busby Berkeley-style musical review staged in the sports stadium in Barney's home town of Boise, in Idaho, with local girls playing the high-kicking chorus dames, wearing huge orange skirts. Next was Cremaster 5, notable for the casting of ex-Bond girl Ursula Andress. Dressed in a black veil and ruffles, and looking as haughty as Catherine the Great, she plays the "Queen of Chain", the sole spectator at a lavish opera performed at the Hungarian State Opera House. While Barney, in various guises, clambers, Spider-man-like, across the opera house ceiling, or jumps off bridges, she sings (dubbed) arias, swoons and eventually faints. (The spectacularly long dribble of saliva that runs down the corner of her mouth was not - Barney reassures me - Andress's own.)

There are several references to the Hungarian-born Harry Houdini, who also features in Cremaster 2 (1999), played by Norman Mailer. Billed as a "Gothic Western", this film flits from 1977, the year Gary Gilmore was executed, back to 1893 when Houdini (reputedly Gilmore's grandfather) performed at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Gilmore re-emerges as a female corpse digging herself out of her grave in the 182-minute Cremaster 3, which is set in New York and tells the story of the construction of the Chrysler Building.

"I was having a conversation with a doctor, a friend I grew up with, and I was telling him about this project I was starting, and how I was thinking about that period in foetal development before the reproductive system differentiates between male and female," says Barney, explaining the origins of the Cremaster Cycle, and sounding like the doctor he almost became. (At Yale, he did medicine before switching to art.) "My friend suggested that I look at the cremaster muscle because such a story would need conflict, and given that the internal reproductive organs in that foetus are in a position that is higher than the ovaries and much higher than the testes, something needs to govern those internal organs into their final position, and that cremaster muscle could be the character of conflict in the story."

Discovering the cremaster was the making of Barney. Extraordinarily lofty claims have been made on his behalf since his testicular epic was begun in 1994. Following his hugely successful recent show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, he is being built up as the latest lion of the American art world, but his persona is very different to that of such self-consciously macho predecessors as Julian Schnabel or Jackson Pollock. So, how did a sweet, ex-high-school football hero from Boise transform himself into the cynosure of the New York art world, reinventing himself as a director in the process?

Barney was born in San Francisco in 1967. His family moved to Idaho when he was six. He excelled at sport at Capital, the local high school, where he soon became a star quarterback. He was not, he says, the type who rushed at the opponents' defence, but a craftsman who dropped back into the pocket and threw long, spiralling passes downfield for his receivers to catch. He took his sport as seriously as he does his art, leading the school team to a state championship in 1983.

In a sense, Barney is still playing the quarterback role in the Cremaster movies. He remains the golden boy at the centre of the huddle, calling ever more elaborate plays. Buried in the Cremaster Cycle, you can find some oblique references to his days as an athlete. The lengthy quote about character, temperament and commitment that flashes on the screen in Cremaster 3 isn't taken - as the Locarno audiences believed - from some Machiavelli-like Italian philosopher. The words came from Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers.

At college, Barney helped to pay his tuition fees by modelling for, among others, Ralph Lauren and J Crew. The strict laws about amateurism at Yale meant that he had to give up football - by then, though, he had discovered a new enthusiasm. Right from the outset, he approached art with the same rigour as he had sport. Unlike most kids growing up in southern Idaho ("basically an extension of the Mormon basin in Utah"), he felt no embarrassment about experimental art or the idea of non-verbal communication. His mother, Marsha Gibney, was a painter. "Probably the greatest influence was watching my mother paint, growing up around abstract painting and seeing how it can operate as a mode of expression or as a language as well as any other mode of communicating," he recalls. Nor did he have any compunction about using his body as a tool in his work. "Having been an athlete, it was quite natural to use myself that way," he says.

Perhaps predictably, Barney cites Bruce Nauman and Joseph Beuys as key influences, but when it comes to movies, his tastes are far more populist than might be imagined. The organisers of the Locarno Festival were pained to discover that he hadn't seen Fellini's Casanova (the film that was screened the night before Cremaster 3 in Locarno's vast Piazza Grande.) Nor is he any great expert on the works of Buñuel, to whom he is also often compared. His real passion is for horror films. He cites Jaws and The Shining as among his favourites: "Films in which the antagonistic force might live in the walls of the architecture or the water around as much as in the fish itself. Those are the films that were most useful to me when I started thinking about making moving images myself."

He also enjoyed King Vidor's wonderfully overblown version of the Ayn Rand novel, The Fountainhead, which partially inspired the look and some of the characters in Cremaster 3. Intrigued by zombie movies, he says that he is now eager to see Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, despite his misgivings about Trainspotting.

Barney has a peculiar enthusiasm for bagpipe music and Guinness (even if the drink of choice when he was growing up in Boise was Coors), and is fascinated by Celtic myth. In fact, one of the joys (and frustrations) of the Cremaster cycle is the way that it flits from such quintessentially American locations as the Chrysler Building or Bronco Stadium to the old Europe of 19th-century Budapest. Barney will throw in references to King Solomon one moment, and to computer games the next. While he insists that the films should be seen in cinemas rather than galleries, he describes the cycle as "narrative sculpture", and acknowledges that audiences who haven't been briefed beforehand might well end up perplexed.

Whether clambering up the inside of skyscrapers, being tied to a dentist's chair, leaping off a bridge, or having pigeons tied to his genitals and then made to fly off, he is invariably the prime exhibit in the Cremaster films. He accepts that some audiences will loathe both him and the movies. That's why he doesn't take the reviews praising him to the hilt too seriously. "I'm relieved that there's an equally present voice that is saying quite the opposite," he shrugs. "As extreme as that positive press is, there's some extremely negative press that keeps things in balance. I guess it's telling me that, one way or another, the work is getting under people's skins, and that feels right.

"If I felt like everybody felt that way, that it was superlative and important, I'd feel very, very nervous. But that's not the case..." He pauses before confiding, with evident relief: "There are many, many people out there who hate this body of work."

'Cremaster 4' and '1' will be screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival (0131-623 8030) this evening; 'Cremaster 5' and '2' on Saturday afternoon; 'Cremaster 3' on Sunday afternoon. 'The Cremaster Cycle' is out 17 October, and a DVD of 'The Order' (the final part of 'Cremaster 3') will be available in November