Sparrow reviews the work of artist Matthew Barney

 by Sparrow

 "Art is possible, even in this drowning-in-TV world.”

{mosgoogle}    Some art shows are like rock concerts—full of 25-year olds with impassive eyes and mildly aggressive clothes. Usually, these viewers speak little. There is a sense of ‘cool’ and of community.
 I enjoy these shows.
 Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle is an extreme example—in fact, there are real rock groups in the show (although on film). At the very top of the spiral that is the Guggenheim Museum, four video monitors show two notable New York punk bands: Murphy’s Law and Agnostic Front. In the video, Barney appears in their mosh pit dressed as ‘The Entered Apprentice’—in a kilt, a giant pink wig, blue leggings, and holding in his mouth (which has been smeared with red) a pink rag. His wrists and feet are bandaged.
 Why is Barney dressed in this obscure manner? Because he is seeking Secret Knowledge, of the kind The Order of the Masons possesses. The ‘Entered Apprentice’ is a term from the Masons, and Hiram Abiff, who appears in the film (played by Richard Serra) is the legendary architect of Solomon’s Temple, according to the Masons.
 Can Barney possibly be sincere about Masonry?
 I asked Jennifer Russo, at the Public Affairs Department of the Guggenheim Museum, “Is Matthew Barney a Mason?”
 “To be perfectly honest, I can’t answer,” she replied, “because I don’t know what a Mason is.”
 The Freemasons first organized into a Grand Lodge in London in 1717; before that, their origins are shadowy. They may have begun as a medieval guild of stonemasons. Because of their secrecy, little of their doctrine is known for certain. Apparently they trace their beginnings to Egypt, and to mystic traditions throughout Western history. Prominent Masons include Mozart, Goethe and George Washington.
 The audience seems central to Matthew Barney’s exhibition—in a sense, the audience is the exhibition. In a museum, everyone is normally in motion—like boats on a river—but here, large rooms of people stare upward together, at Barney’s films.
 Sometimes I would stop watching Cremaster (a series of five movies), and watch the crowd. (I wonder if other people did, too.) The scene was so unusual: many standing, others sitting cross-legged, all in a state of absorption.
 Most movies, of course, occur in the dark, so you barely see the audience. Here the crowd was on display. In an art museum, everything begins to look like art. The gathered audience, standing still like statues, became an ‘installation.’ This installation was a portrait of a self-conscious, introspective group.
 Barney asks the question: “What shape would art take in the 21st century?”
 In a world where reading is endangered—perhaps unnecessary—the visual arts tell stories. Even music occurs on television as videos, little skits we see.
 In the 19th century, Van Gogh wrote thoughtful letters to his brother Theo. He also painted vivid, tremulant landscapes. His letters and paintings were two separate creations. Today, we want words and pictures to coexist, to compose a unity. We might enjoy a Van Gogh film—perhaps a murder mystery, where Vincent is a reluctant detective. (The villain, fighting Van Gogh, slices off part of his ear.) The story would furnish us a connection to Vincent. We would cheer the artist, in his struggle to solve this crime.
 A single painting has no social meaning for us anymore. It lacks the depth a story furnishes.
 This is because a painting is viewed in the present. The viewer and the painting confront each other, in one moment. A movie takes place in the past—but moving forward. Only the last frame of the movie exists in the present.
 At the Matthew Barney show, no one wore a headset. This was a wonderful relief, for me. Nowadays, every major exhibition includes these devices, which explain the art, often in the voice of a celebrity. The voices present a narrative (and literally tell the artist’s life story) to imbue the pictures with meaning. They essentially transform a walk through a museum into a television show.
 The Cremaster Cycle doesn’t need a headset—it is a headset. It tells a convoluted story, which in fact takes place (in part) within the Guggenheim Museum. Thus we, the audience, are both watching the movie, and inhabiting its ‘set.’
 When the Guggenheim was built, the last major work by Frank Lloyd Wright (who died before its completion), the building itself, with its symphonic, snailshell-like appearance, was satisfying. Now, we feel this architecture—which is largely one ascending ramp—cries out for a story.
 Matthew Barney has created that story. It is the tale of a man—the artist—seeking wisdom, ascending through five levels (corresponding to the five ‘floors’ of the Guggenheim). Each of these levels is one movie.
 I watched a section of Cremaster 3, the most recent of Barney’s films. (The five films are numbered out of order.) In it, a bartender is serving the Entered Apprentice beer. The glass he pours into (from a tap) is on little wheels. The bartender sets the glass on the bar; it tips over, spilling. Again, the bartender fills the glass. Again he lowers it onto the bar. Again it falls over. Beer and suds cover the floor. The bartender continues undaunted, refilling the glass. Each time the glass falls over. The bartender slips on the wet floor. The scene is comic—I was laughing—but also pained, pitiful.

 Finally, the bartender secures the wheels of the glass, forcing a small wedge under them.

 Throughout this performance, the Entered Apprentice (Matthew Barney) watches patiently, bemused. He seems unconcerned about his beer.

 In this scene, Matthew Barney is defining art. We all live through repetitive vexations. Only the artist becomes fascinated with the vexations, forgetting her goal (in this case, to drink beer).
 At the Motor Vehicles Bureau, non-artists complain about the slow, unmoving line. The artist thinks: “How curious to be on a line!”
 Near the top of the Guggenheim’s spiral, I saw a former neighbor of mine, Tad. He and his girlfriend had been watching Matthew Barney movies for seven hours and 20 minutes. Now they were on a break, for half an hour. Soon they would return for a third movie.
 Tad and his girlfriend were in a state of delirious satisfaction. They had spent the day viewing another world, a world they approved of. They reminded me of Deadheads (followers of the rock group, The Grateful Dead). The look in their eyes said: “I have met a prophet.”

 Barney respects his audience. He approaches his fans almost romantically. What draws people to him is disenchantment with VCR-and-TV culture—a disenchantment verging on anger.

 Mass culture is directed towards 11-year olds. (My own daughter is 11, so I see this in action.) The complex plotting of, for example, the recent Disney movie, Holes, fascinates a 6th grader (as well it should). Older people, however, find less and less to admire. “All movies are either sentimental or cynical,” I overheard a 26-year-old say a month ago.
 Matthew Barney does not manipulate his viewers. (For this reason, his movies seem slow, even tedious.) His message is not “Everything sucks.” Instead, he is saying: “Art is possible, even in this drowning-in-TV world.” And he presents the possibility of a spiritual quest—though perhaps ironically. “The Order of the Masons may have some intuitive knowledge,” Barney whispers.

 You will not hear that in a Tom Cruise movie.
 The Cremaster Cycle appeared at the Guggenheim Museum, February 21-June 11. For more information, see
Sparrow is currently studying chess and the history of the Mennonite religion. He works as a substitute teacher in the Catskill Mountains of the United States. His latest book, Yes, You ARE a Revolutionary! is available from