‘Cremaster’ exhibit is the master of the Guggenheim

Art critic for The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, describes Matthew Barney as “the closest we get to an American art star with reach beyond the art world.”

While Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle” is stocked with references to more formal aspects of art history, the show is so self-contained that anyone who puts in the time can virtually become an expert. It should be noted that time is essential to the Barney experience. The installations that take up the vast majority of the Guggenheim’s exhibition space revolve around five feature length films. Due to size and density, the Guggenheim has established the option of a two-day pass, which can be used on any two days until June 1.

Although time can be a luxury, it is a worthwhile indulgence for Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle.” The audience, however, should not expect to find any profound statements about life or answers to big teleological questions. Instead, we engage the “Cremaster Cycle” much as we would a puzzle, the boundaries of which are the walls of the Guggenheim itself. Our reward is not in some definite answer, but rather in the sensation of the journey.

For those who are familiar with the Guggenheim’s space, the evident changes to its interior supply an immediate source of curiosity. We are introduced to Barney’s world through a segment of “Cremaster 3” called “The Order,” which symbolically represents all five of the “Cremaster” films. It is imagined as a competition, wherein the “Entered Apprentice” must face five obstacles, one on each of the levels of the museum’s rotunda. At the top, the artist Richard Serra is continually hurling ladles of melted petroleum onto the wall. The contestant, played by Barney, needs to overcome the set challenges before the petroleum descends to the bottom. As we watch “The Order,” we might take pleasure in relating the actions on screen to their vestiges in the museum itself, such as the trail of petroleum and grips for scaling the spiral.

Aside from staging “The Order” in the Guggenheim, Barney takes a number of subtle steps to articulate the museum’s unique and integral role in his creation. To the artist’s credit, the slight change in lighting is easy to miss. But having been tipped off, it should become clear that Barney deliberately projects the same eerie glow onto the audience that he does into his films. This delicate sensibility is best realized while trying to comprehend what appear to be otherwise senseless sculptural installations.While texturally interesting, with sharp contrasts in medium, like petroleum and metal, Barney’s sculptures are, nonetheless, meaningless when taken by themselves.

It is through absorbing the “Cremaster” films that the installations become animated and fall into context. The viewer acts very much like an archeologist, pursuing past events in an effort to make a group of artifacts intelligible. Barney’s consistent brand of lighting accentuates the environmental link between the “Cremaster” films and sculptures, thereby, casting the Guggenheim as the archeological site. Under this aegis, even the bare walls of the museum become a fitting subject of display.

The “Cremaster Cycle” carries with it a strong sense of its own history. The films proceed in a metaphorically running narrative, which, by a combination of the fantastic and the worldly, feels like a dream. However, the “Cremaster” films should not be thought of as artistic renderings of the subconscious imagination, since they are a very conscious construction of an allegorical sequence.

Providing each of the films with its own coat of arms, Barney depicts “The Cremaster Cycle” as some kind of mystical history. After a nine year effort, the completed work finally comes to us with a seemingly infinite supply of connections that we may delight in stringing together.

Just as with Cubism, the viewer would do well to approach Matthew Barney’s work as an intellectual exercise. With that said, I would be remiss not to emphasize the spectacular beauty along this path of understanding.

The “Cremaster” films take us through stunning locations like the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest, to mention just a couple. Fulfilling as it is on so many levels, Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle” is an experience that should not be missed.