Matthew Barney: The Enigma of a Performative Practice

Photo of Anne Cecile Surga
27 January 2016

The video and sculpture installations of Matthew Barney have provoked strong critical reaction, both positive and negative. While some call his works brilliantly inventive and compare them to the radical projects of Vito Acconci, others see them as garish displays of kitsch. Anne Cecil Surga looks at Barney’s creative intentions through some of his most famous works.

Whether they like him or not, art critics agree on one point: Matthew Barney obliges audiences to reconsider the concept of ‘the artist.’ His artworks, while not offering their full significance at the first glance, invite the viewer to study and explore in order to grasp their meaning. This fine line between comprehension and enigma, inherent in Barney’s artworks, places him not as a destructor of former artistic conventions, but as an artist re-exploring the notion of the creative self as a whole.
Barney’s art practice includes feature-length films, video installations, sculpture, photography, drawing, banners, and installations, which all interact to create the final works. Most of his exhibitions are centered on one or more films, around which are displayed sculptures and installations relating to the movie symbolically or as props in its production, thus composing a specific universe. Barney explores the notion of transcendence achieved through restrain and limitation, focusing especially on the notion of process: the mutability, metamorphosis, and creation of form. The artist’s body is used as the main object through which to examine the idea of restraint, both physiologically and psychologically, via attempts at artistic expression.
This interest in art and physicality can be explained by Barney’s background: born in San Francisco, California in 1967, he moved to Idaho with his family at the age of six. After his parents divorced, Barney continued to live with his father in Idaho, playing football on his high school team, and visiting his mother in New York City, where he was introduced to art and museums. He was recruited by Yale University to play on the football team, where he took classes in medicine and art. Upon receiving his BA in 1989, he moved to New York City, and worked as a model to help finance his early artworks. By 1991, Barney had already met success in the art world with his controversial and fantastical creatures and universes.
From 1994 to 2002 Barney worked on The Cremaster Cycle, his most famous project. This five-part film series was released out of sequence: Cremaster 4 (1994), Cremaster 1 (1995), Cremaster 5 (1997), Cremaster 2 (1999), and Cremaster 3 (2002). The cycle is named after the cremaster muscle, which raises and lowers the testicles according to temperature, external stimulation, or fear, and explores the notion of embryonic development at the phase when the sexual differentiation has yet to occur. Made in different geographical locations, from a stadium in Barney’s Idaho hometown to an opera house in Budapest, the movies feature Barney in various roles, including characters as diverse as a satyr, a ram, Harry Houdini, and even the infamous murderer Gary Gilmore.
Watch a Trailer for The Cremaster Cycle:

Barney’s interest in this moment of pure potentiality of forms is not only researched from a biological angle, but also from a biographical, geological, and mythological one. By taking inspiration from histories and cultures to create this multi-layered and inter-connected universe, Barney offers a beautiful if complex work with its own codes, signs and forms. The cycle was first exhibited at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, in June 2002, accompanied by related sculptures, photographs, and drawings. Following this initial show, The Cremaster Cylce traveled to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in October 2002 before being exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
An earlier series of works by Barney, titled Drawing Restraint, has been an ongoing project since 1987. Each session documents a performance in which Barney mixes athletics and arts by attempting to create a drawing while self-imposing resistance to his body. A parallel is drawn between artists and athletes through the way that Barney tries to strengthen creativity through resistance in much the same manner that athletes use resistance to build muscles. Each time the sessions were exhibited, whether alone or in a group, the artist displayed the films accompanied by the final artworks, photographs and installation/tools used during the process. In Drawing Restraint 1-6, Barney climbs around his studio attempting to create drawings on the walls while attached to the middle of the room with a body harness, and being further restrained by different obstacles around the space. The most famous and controversial session in the series is Drawing Restraint 9, which was made in a Japanese whaling ship, and stages Barney’s life partner Bjork. The 143-minute film focuses on the central theme of ritual and transformation by taking inspiration from Japanese culture and the constraints inherent to its traditions. In the latest session, Barney employs a skateboard as a drawing tool. The final piece was part of a benefit art show and auction to raise awareness and funds for a Do-It-Yourself skate park project in Detroit, Michigan.
Watch a Video of Matthew Barney Discussing Drawing Restraint:

Barney’s oeuvre has raised polemic among art critics more than once: opinions differ on his credibility as an artist. Some critics praise Barney for taking a new stance on the function of the artist among society, while others qualify his work as kitsch. Additionally, due to the secrecy of the artist, it has been difficult to establish whether or not his work is intended as sarcastic. Above all, it is important for one to recognise the aesthetic and coherence inherent in each of Barney’s projects. Through the reorganisation of historical and cultural symbols, Barney constructs his own intimate and intricate world into which the viewer is welcomed, even if the artist cannot guarantee that his audience will understand it all.
Barney was awarded the Aperto Prize in the 1993 Venice Biennale for Drawing Restraint 7. He is the first recipient of the 1996 Guggenheim Museum Hugo Boss Prize among other prestigious awards such as the Europa 2000 prize at the 1993 Venice Biennale, the Skowhegan Medal for Combined Media in 1999, and the James D. Phelan Art Award in Video by the Bay Area Video Coalition, San Francisco Foundation, in 2000.

By Anne Cecile Surga

Images Courtesy: mme psychosis/WikiCommons

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