Hans-Ulrich Obrist: To begin with the beginning. How did the Cremaster cycle start?
Matthew Barney: I guess it started in Kassel at Documenta. I was working with a story that was activated by several locations in the environment: namely the elevator shaft in all the museums of Documenta. Around that time I started thinking about how that could be extended into a kind of a drawing that would take a story from one geographical point to another, with each setting dictating a different narrative and being connected by a line.
HUO: Could you tell me about the generic title of Cremaster?
MB: It is part of a biological structure; the cremaster is a muscle that controls the raising or lowering of the testicles. Here it represents the of employing a kind of discipline onto a developing system. The narrative in the cycle describes a kind of metamorphosis from an undifferentiated state to a more differentiated state.
HUO: Cremaster is a finite cycle. At the same time by starting with 4 and not 1 you defined from the very beginning a non-linear sequence. Was there an a priori clearly defined situation of what would happen or has it evolved as a complex dynamic system?
MB: The five-part story is a geographical story and layers were built on top of these geographical stations. A story was developed for each location, one by one. The first location – for Cremaster 4 – was the Isle of Man, and it was there that the narrative started to develop. What did exist initially was a simple structure, the biological structure I just mentioned, and the five sites which stretch from west to east on, more or less, the same line of latitude. As the project has evolved and more of these locations have been executed, the biological structure has been less emphasized and other structures have come forward as each narrative is developed in tandem with its site. The individual stories, still, have remained secondary to the geographical/architectural character. Cremaster 2 takes on the Gary Gilmore story, but it could have taken up a hand full of other stories and function just as well, in that its primary character is the Rocky Mountain Range.
HUO: Your work exceeds the art context. It seems to be about multiplying contexts, about fluid transitions.
MB: I am interested in its potential as a form, to see how far this form can move out into an unprotected space and still operate as an artwork. Sculptural form, I think in most cases, needs the protection of the fine art institution. On the one hand I am interested in pushing it out of that and see if it can still defend itself. On the other, I am not working with the purpose of breaking boundaries. I am quite happy working within the art context and appreciate what it values.
HUO: What would be interesting in this interview could be to talk more about music. You have often worked with the composer Jonathan Bepler.
MB: Our significant collaboration started with Cremaster 5, when I was visiting Budapest, trying to understand the city a bit more. I was originally drawn to locations of the old empire – the old Turkish Baths, but then started to take more interest in the Budapest of the late 1800s. Jonathan Bepler had been steering me towards Mahler at the time and we decided to make a more romantic piece, based on the structure of opera, invoking the period when all that construction went on – when the opera house itself was built, when they connected Buda and Pest with the Chain Bridge, and when the art nouveau baths were built. We began a parallel development between his music and the libretto that I was writing, which had to do with the visual story I was constructing. It was a very enlightening procedure that has changed the way I've worked since then. With Cremaster 5, we had no choice but to finish the music before filming due to the onscreen singing and orchestra. This meant that the piece had a predetermined time base, and was virtually edited before it was shot. With the projects that followed, this process wasn't necessary, yet we were enthusiastic about continuing to work this way – to let the music and the picture develop in a sympathetic way.
HUO: How would you describe your interest in the medium of opera and the possibilities of reanimating it?
MB: Opera is a model that, in a lot of ways, I feel closer to than film. It is related to the way the architecture of the opera house is anatomical. It is built in such a way that amplification is not necessary. It is not unlike being inside a chest cavity, the way that the curves operate in terms of the acoustics. I think there is a similar relationship in the works that I make, where the frame or housing for the narrative is a kind of a body.
HUO: So within the actual body and not the virtual body?
MB: The element in the opera house that interests me most is the proscenium arch itself. This was explored in Cremaster 5 with the of describing a sort of pressure between the space of the stage and that of the audience in the house. something to do with an axis of performance. The proscenium arch in Cremaster 5 draws an axis which lies between three models: the first being the Caspar David Friedrich painting where a wanderer is looking over the foggy valley, and is looking out over this expanse in a posture that implies a feeling of dominance over this dictated backdrop. In contrast to that model is a press photo of Henry Rollins, lead singer of the band Black Flag, who is facing the audience, aggressively hunching forward, the cables tightly wrapped around his hand, screaming into the microphone, and dominating the crowd. I was thinking of these two types of authority over the constructed landscape of the stage set, and the constructed reality of the passive audience. What is between these two spaces is the proscenium arch, which was the third alternative within the Cremaster 5 story. The character was not comfortable turning away from the audience in some belief in the constructed backdrop, nor could he turn outward. The third option was to turn to the side . The character decides to take the third option and tries to exist in the space between.
HUO: Last but not least, let's talk about your project for the Vienna Opera House which is about the missing element.
MB: The curtain design is a similar meditation on the proscenium arch. One satyr faces the house, the other turns away to the stage. They are both simply chasing their tails. The constructed landscape in question is seen through the looking glass. The yellow, blue and green ribbon signify the three options. yellow representing the golden house, pale blue representing the painted landscape in the backdrop, and cool green representing the highlight in the reflection of the gilded arch itself.