Safety Curtain 2000/2001

On Matthew Barney and his design for the Safety Curtain 2000/2001

Matthew Barney's aesthetic universe is an intricately interrelated system governed by laws of metaphoric In his yet-to-be-completed, five-part Cremaster cycle, one thing always signifies another: the sporting events, elaborately staged pageants, heroic struggles, violent crimes, and love affairs collectively describe an ever-evolving organism – at once biological, psychological, and technological – that thrives through rigorous competition with itself. In his work, Barney is transcribing a new, post-Oedipal myth for our contemporary culture. His version is a counter-narrative that depicts internal conflict rather than external mastery; it is an epic saga in which definition is defied and resolution perpetually deferred. In contrast to the tragedy of Oedipus Rex, paternal law need not be overcome because it simply does not exist. Instead, form engenders form through a radical cycle of discipline, self-division, and resistance.

Barney upends the central narrative of Western civilization with both humor and hubris by borrowing its primary mode of representation: the dramatic narrative. For each of the films comprising his current Cremaster cycle (which is being produced out of chronological order), Barney manipulates a different theatrical and cinematic genre. Cremaster 1 gently parodies the musical extravaganzas of Busby Berkeley as filtered through the lens of Leni Riefenstahl's Third Reich athletics. Smiling chorus girls form shifting outlines of reproductive organs on a football field, their movements determined from above by a blonde starlet, who miraculously inhabits two Goodyear blimps simultaneously and creates anatomical diagrams by lining up rows of grapes. Cremaster 2 is a gothic Western premised loosely on the real-life story of Gary Gilmore, who was executed in Utah for the murder of a fellow Mormon. Gilmore's biography is conveyed through a series of fantastical sequences including an occultist séance enacted with ectoplasm and bee pollen to signify his conception and a prison rodeo staged in a cast salt arena to represent his death by firing squad. The film's plot unfolds to question the inevitability of man's fate as it is reflected in, and witnessed by, the expansive landscape. Cremaster 4 is set on the Isle of Man – a topographical body punctured by orifices and passageways – where a feverish motorbike race traverses the landscape, a dandified, tap-dancing satyr writhes his way through a treacherous underwater canal, and three burly, seemingly ambigendered fairies picnic on a grassy knoll. Part vaudeville, part Victorian comedy of manners, and part road-movie, this film portrays sheer drive in its eternal struggle to surpass itself. The final installment of the filmic chain, Cremaster 5 is set against the Baroque backdrop of the Hungarian State Opera House. Performed as a lyric opera complete with ribboned Jacobin pigeons, a love-lorn queen, and her tragic hero, this narrative flows from the gilded proscenium arch of the theater to the aqueous underworld of Budapest's Danube River to humid Thermal baths inhabited by hermaphroditic water-sprites frolicking in a pool of pearl bubbles.

The epic proportions and cosmological dimensions of Barney's Cremaster project have elicited comparisons to Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. This operatic analogy is particularly apt given that the artist's multivalent practice approaches the Wagnerian concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, for each Cremaster installment is far more than the film bearing its name. From each of the five individual but related narratives are spun sculptures, photographs, drawings, banners, an artist's book and special video edition, which, in turn, accumulate to embody and define the series as a whole. There are no ancillary components.

Barney's design for the Vienna State Opera safety curtain juxtaposes elements from the Cremaster cycle and his previous work to form an amalgam rich in allusive associations. The immense, pink "field" emblem – the artist's own iconic symbol – serves as the backdrop to an abstracted landscape from Cremaster 2, which shows the horizon line of Utah's vast Bonneville Salt Flats bisecting a mountain range and its reflection in a transient lake. When upended to stand vertically, this Rorschach-shaped image becomes at once an earthly crevice and a bodily orifice. Two young satyrs – a double portrait of the "Kid" character from Barney's 1993 video performance Drawing Restraint 7 – grasp the sides of a clear glass lens. Echoing the shape of the "field" emblem and constructed from the cool white plastic of Barney's vitrines and frames, this lens focuses on, and further distorts, the corporeal landscape. On a playful note, a bubble emerges from the oculus, poised to float away at any moment. Half human, half beast, the satyr is a mythological symbol of mercurial transformation and erotic hybridity. Depicted here as an adolescent – the creature has yet to grow its horns – the satyr also represents unbridled potentiality. The twin figures occupy opposing positions in the curtain's choreography: one opens outward to physically acknowledge the proscenium arch and the audience beyond; the other faces away, lost in the reverie of dramatic illusion. The space between them is a liminal one, where the physicality of live performance and theatrical artifice coexist in a state of perpetual tension. This threshold is explored by Barney as a realm of possibility for art in Cremaster 5, when the "Diva" character scales the proscenium arch of the opera house, hovering between audience and stage, reality and deception. Barney's curtain for the Vienna State Opera is a mobius-strip of past and present imagery, forever circling itself, like the "Kid" his own tail, to suggest a yet-to-be charted territory where performance and lived reality will coalesce to create new artistic forms.

(Nancy Spector, Curator of Contemporary Art, Guggenheim Museum)