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Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle”

Matthew Barney changed the way I make art. Karl Connolly, my high school art teacher, introduced me to his work my senior year. Luckily, this was right before his “Cremaster Cycle” retrospective at the Guggenheim. I spent two days at that show, watching the films and devouring every sculpture and drawing. Later armed with the collection’s book, I was able to read up on the seemingly infinite depth of meaning behind each symbol. Barney’s work solidified my own approach to video art, where plot became a mythological narrative fueled by sculpture and performance. His visual aesthetic encouraged my own to become highly symbolic and fantastical. And most importantly, he introduced me to the theoretical concepts of desire and drive, and the all-important state of “undifferentiated, pure potentiality” that continues to be central in my thinking.

Resistance and Creativity

Matthew Barney is most known for his “Cremaster Cycle,” which is a series of sculptures and films, but the seeds for this oeuvre began within the “Drawing Restraint” series. In the earliest iterations of this series, Barney attempts to make simple drawings in his studio while struggling against physical restraints. His aesthetic practice was influenced by the fact that he played football. For Barney, athletics is an aesthetics. As Nancy Spector summarizes in her essay on Barney, “Form cannot materialize or mutate unless it struggles against resistance in the process.”1 This logic comes directly from weightlifting, or any other athletic training, where physical growth in the body is induced via resistance. This is how our bodies work. Muscles encounter resistance, they struggle and swell, are torn down, and then grow back even bigger than before. Barney applies this logic to the process of creativity, where new artistic growth can only come from struggle.

Here is a short interview with Barney discussing the origins of the “Drawing Restraint” series:

During this time, an important symbol emerged from these experiments that would stay central to his aesthetic. This symbol is the “field emblem,” which can be read in at least two different ways.

Matthew Barney's "field emblem"

Matthew Barney’s “field emblem”

This symbol looks like a football field cut in half. This is Barney’s shorthand for a “system of resistance” and the creative potential it holds. Read in this way, we can see the field, which is a nice oval shape, being held back by a bar across its middle. Only through the system’s struggle against this restraint will it be able to grow and make art. In this sense, we can infer three stages of the process:

  1. The raw drive of athletic or creative energy.
  2. A system of resistance or discipline.
  3. Creative output, production, and growth of the body.

Alternatively, we could read this symbol biologically. The field can be seen as an orifice that has been short-circuited, creating a hermetic system. In Freudian terms, this represents the desire to link the body’s orifices and become a total system. This would result in a feedback loop, like the Ouroboros, the iconic mythological image of a snake eating its own tail, which stands for eternity, or a self-contained system in perfect cyclicality.

The Ouroboros - the symbol for cyclical self-creation

The Ouroboros – the symbol for cyclical self-creation

Much of Barney’s work surrounds this notion of a self-enclosed system, and the perverse desire for the utopia it signifies. Such a notion, when linked to biology, becomes essential for the “Cremaster Cycle.”

Undifferentiated Potentiality

The “Cremaster Cycle” takes the three stages of the restraint/creativity process described above, and makes them mythological. In Barney’s world, the first state of “raw creative potential” becomes a utopia, the “system of resistance” becomes a violent conflict and the movement of fate, and the “creative production,” instead of being a positive output, becomes a fall from grace into a state of ossification.

Barney links these three stages to the biological process that unfolds during the first six weeks of an embryo’s development. During this period, the embryo is neither male nor female, but rather exists in a state of “pure, undifferentiated potentiality.” It can become either sex, but for now, it is neither. For Barney, this is a utopian state, a self-enclosed system. But biology always intervenes. Genes trigger hormones, which introduce “resistance and conflict” into the system. This is the hand of fate.

Undifferentiated gender potentiality becomes single gender. Image source.

Undifferentiated gender potentiality becomes single gender through sexual differentiation. Image source.

The embryo has two gonads, which can rise and become ovaries, or can descend and become testicles. This then is the third state, the moment of outcome. A fetus becomes either male or female. In Barney’s universe, this “choosing a side” is felt as a cosmic loss, and the hand of fate becomes something that must be fought against so that the organism might return to the originary utopia of pure, undifferentiated potentiality. As Nancy Spector explains:

“The just-formed fetus is pure potential. Neither male nor female, it hovers in a realm of gender indeterminacy. Free from defining pronouns and anatomical indicators, the fetus, for one brief instant, occupies a space of possibility. It lingers before the moment of difference, the “either-or” that shapes all future thought and action. The Cremaster cycle imagines the prospect of suspending this phase indefinitely, resisting the inexorable impetus toward division.”2

This drama plays out over the course of five films, each supplemented with multiple sculptures, drawings, and photos. “Cremaster 1” represents the first stage of the process, the state of pure potentiality. This film transposes the aesthetics of a Busby Berkeley dance number onto a football field. The plot follows two copies of the same woman playing with grapes in two Goodyear blimps flying above the field. She/They form the grapes into a constantly shifting dance of biological diagrams. As she/they do this, a troupe of dancing girls mimic the shape of the diagrams with their choreography.

In “Cremaster 2” conflict is first introduced, and then fought. This film uses the aesthetics of a western, and follows the crimes and execution of Gary Gilmore, a Mormon murderer who was thought to be the grandson of Harry Houdini. Over the course of the film, Gilmore attempts to transcend time through blood sacrifice so that he might become Houdini himself, and use his powers of transformation to become un-gendered.

“Cremaster 3” represents the halfway point to sexual differentiation. The film depicts the hubris of attempting to achieve a utopia, and the inevitability of fate. This film is an art deco mix of mythologies, focusing mainly on Freemasonry rites and the construction of the Chrysler Building. The plot transposes the Masonic myth of Hiram Abiff, the chief architect of King Solomon’s Temple who was murdered by his apprentice for not revealing the secret of divine knowledge, onto the construction of the Chrysler building. In this telling of the myth, both master and apprentice die for their acts of hubris against God. “Cremaster 3” also includes another film within itself, entitled “The Order,” which is a performance art reinterpretation of all five “Cremaster” films within the Guggenheim museum.

“Cremaster 4” is a head-on rush toward differentiation. The film follows a motorcycle race on the Isle of Man, performed by two teams, one “ascending” and one “descending.” Since the “Cremaster Cycle” traces the course of the gendering of a male, it is the “descending” team who wins. During this strange race of biology, Barney plays the role of a satyr, a half-man half-goat creature, who attempts to escape the fate of “choosing a side.” In the end he looses and is forced to become a male.

The final installment, “Cremaster 5,” shows the fall into full sexual differentiation. This film is a lyric opera set in a bathhouse in late-nineteenth-century Budapest. The melancholy plot follows a tragic love story between a queen and her beloved magician. The queen laments the final feat of the magician, who plummeted from a bridge presumably to his death. The sadness of the film and its images of descent represent the becoming-male of the organism, while the love story stands as a final attempt to become whole again – not as a self-sufficient system, but externally as a couple.

What This Work Means to Me

Why do I like Matthew Barney’s art so much?

Most importantly, I simply love the way it looks and feels. Spending time with his art is like being within a fantastical dream, or having access to the mythological dramas that play out within my own subconscious. His art is the art of myth, insofar as every character and landscape is the realization of a psychological state or conceptual idea. I am also drawn, and intimidated by, the sheer scale of his gesamtkunstwerk. As I go deeper into his work, each layer seems to reveal another complex myth or conceptual analogy. Biology is folded upon narrative, which is folded upon location, which is folded upon history, etc. His conceptual worldview pierces each layer, permeating them all with meaning. This practice inspires me to do the same with my work, and fill each layer with depth and mythology. Finally, I find his concepts both endlessly fascinating and wonderfully productive.

Key Ideas for Being & Death

Barney’s key ideas, as they pertain to Being & Death:

  • Desire, Drive, and Discipline
    • “There is nothing that can set bounds to licentiousness… The best way of enlarging and multiplying one’s desires is to try and limit them.”3
    • Barney’s work circulates around one of the most fascinating aspects of desire and drive, namely: it’s limit toward the void. His work dramatizes the eroticism of this approach, and its implicit goal towards exiting the very system it is stuck inside. Such a model is important for my “Being” chapter, which examines this interplay as it exists within the system of language.
  • Undifferentiated Potentiality
    • “The most awful, most secret forces… lie at the heart of all things… a presence, that was neither man nor beast, neither the living nor the dead, but all things mingled, the form of all things but devoid of all form.”4
    • Barney’s later work, the “Cremaster Cycle” especially, is utterly fascinated by this void-space (which I simply call “the Void”). This is the death-space where duality collapses into paradoxical indistinction, and all opposites merge. Barney’s work imagines the perverse and horrifying aspects of this undifferentiated space, mainly because such a state is seen as a vital threat to difference, taxonomy, and the operations of power. My work, however, examines this space in a spiritually positive light.
  • Symbolic Narrative and Perverse Mythology
    • “His characters are born from psychological constructs; they are personifications of inner, largely unexplored topographies. In this way they are all facets of a single organism, iterations of one system seeking equilibrium.”5
    • All of Barney’s narratives are the work of mythology. As discussed in the Joseph Campbell podcast, this mythological structure allows for deep dives into the unknown, and provides inferential reasoning about all that lies beyond language. The goal, in its most Jungian sense, is individuation, or the becoming-whole of the organism, which in my work, happens not via totality, but rather through the dissolution of difference.


What does Matthew Barney’s art mean to you?

How does it make you feel, and what does it make you think about?


1. [Nancy Spector, Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle, p. 4, Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2002.]
2. [Ibid., p. 33.]
3. [Marquis de Sade, quoted in Ibid., p. 5.]
4. [Arthur Machen, quoted in Ibid., p. 22.]
5. [Ibid., p. 19.]

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