Raising questions about the work of Matthew Barney, sculptor, performer, and video-artist, is a great deal easier than answering them. Since he graduated (in art and sport, rather than medicine) in 1989, Barney's artistic peregrinations have assumed something of the quality of legend, and his quests are so extreme, so odd, that they could not have been invented in jest. Matthew Barney is deadly serious and his work is seriously strange.
Barney's world may not be rational but it is no more improbable than say, The Prisoner, or Wagner's Ring cycle. But his thoroughly modern myths incorporate the props of the current age: the mass observance of stadium sport, the search for wonder-drug grails, and 20th-century neuroses about mortality, identity, sexuality and the body. The footballer, the coach, the escapologist, the satyr and the ram people Barney's waking hours and have become the protagonists of his fictive universe, his spurious system of belief. God only knows what his dreams must be like.
On 2 May, Barney's installation OTTOshaft inaugurates the exhibition series Art Now in a new space at the Tate Gallery. A mixture of installation, performance and video, OTTOshaft was first presented in an underground car park at the International Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, in 1992. With its cruel lighting, white vinyl floor and padded walls, strange accoutrements and American football training paraphernalia, OTTOshaft converts the Art Now room into a cross between a gym and an asylum cell. Named after the football star Jim Otto (of the Oakland Raiders, who spent the latter part of his career playing with a prosthetic knee), OTTOshaft's phallic symbolism is derived, by the curious twist of Barney's logic, from Otto's name: the two Ts form the graphic equivalent for the shaft of a penis, while the pendant Os represent the testicles. For Barney, football is abstract, and the venerable Jim Otto is "just a form". Not just any form, of course - Otto is all dick.
OTTOshaft interweaves videos of the artist clambering and abseiling around a lift shaft with sequences in which American footballers in their padded gear undergo a training session under the tutelage of Oakland Raiders' coach Al Davis (played by the artist's mother). The players transmute themselves into kilted and sporraned Scottish pipers and Barney is eventually penetrated in every possible orifice by a medical speculum and rubberised versions of the bagpipes. Barney's stated mission is to push ideas to their extreme.
Cremaster 4, which will be screened simultaneously at London's Metro Cinema, is an ambitious new video produced in conjunction with Artangel Trust. Shot on the Isle of Man, it is an elaborate rite of passage for Barney in his incarnation as satyr, dubbing himself the Loughton Candidate, after the Loughton Sheep, a rare breed found only on the island.
Barney was drawn to the Isle of Man partly because of its island geography (he sees the place as a trope of the body), partly its enigmatic Norse and Celtic mythology and three-legged Manx symbol (the film incorporates the ancient Celtic logo as one of its trappings, and is organised around a tripartite structure) and, most importantly, the Tourist Trophy bike races. Ever on the look- out for symbolic references, Barney noted that bikes have two wheels (two Os again) and that races are collectively known as the TT. As Cremaster 4 (perversely, versions 1,2 and 3 are yet to be realised) pushes into its 40th obscure minute, one begins to feel that the innocent Otto has a lot to answer for.
While Barney tap-dances at the end of a mile-long pier, watched over by faeries, two TT motorbike teams set off in opposite directions around the island. Gooey balls of vaseline work their way out of the riders' pockets and slither about on their leathers. Barney dances his way through the floor and plunges into the Irish Sea (luckily he can walk underwater), the Faeries wander the island, have a picnic (they've got a tartan Thermos), and obligingly change a tyre for one of the race teams. Being Faeries, they try to sneak a tyre which has bulbous testicles welded into the tread on to the bike, but their naughty pixie-prank fails. Meanwhile, Barney finds the secret tunnel back to the mainland. There's a great deal of scenic aerial camerawork (like old-fashioned Look at Britain filler footage) and a lot more visceral goo; the final scenes involve a resplendent Manx ram and some eye-watering crotch shots (they must be Barney's - I can't imagine any actor going through with this for anything less than a ten-figure fee).
Exposure to Matthew Barney's Brave New World, with its arcane mythological beings, strange rites and personal iconography, admits only two responses: bewildered admiration or stunned indifference. His works are rituals and scenes of psychic and sexual conflict, of private yearnings and desires. Amongst the lapiths and centaurs, the gods and men, we find footballers, boy-racers and post-Freudian gladiators playing out an ancient gameplan in the Elysian fields of art.
'OTTOshaft' is on display at the Tate Gallery, Millbank, London SW1, from 2 May to 18 June. 'Cremaster 4' will be screened at the Metro Cinema, Rupert Street, London W1, at 11pm on 9-11 May and at 3pm on 11-14 MayReuse content