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Matthew Barney - The Cremaster Cycle

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CREMASTER 2 (1999) is a gothic Western that introduces conflict into the system. On the biological level it corresponds to the phase of fetal development during which sexual division begins. In Barney's abstraction of this process, the system resists partition and tries to remain in the state of equilibrium imagined in Cremaster 1. The looping narrative of Cremaster 2 moves from 1977, the year of Gary Gilmore's execution, to 1893, when Harry Houdini, who may have been Gilmore's grandfather, performed at the World's Columbian Exposition. The film is structured around three interrelated themes—the landscape as witness, the story of Gilmore (played by Barney), and the life of bees—and describes the potential of moving backward in order to escape one's destiny. Both Gilmore's correlation with the male bee and his kinship to Houdini (played by Norman Mailer, Gilmore's real-life biographer) are established in the séance/conception scene. Gilmore's sense of his own doomed role as drone is expressed in the ensuing sequence in a recording studio where Dave Lombardo, former drummer of Slayer, is playing a solo to the sound of swarming bees and a man shrouded by bees growls into a telephone. These figures allude to Johnny Cash, who is said to have called Gilmore on the night of his execution in response to the convict's dying wish.

Barney depicts Gilmore's murder of a Mormon gas-station attendant in both sculptural and dramatic forms. Inferring that Gilmore killed out of a longing for union with his girlfriend, Nicole Baker, he represents their relationship through two conjoined Mustangs that, coincidentally, they both owned. In the murder sequence, Gilmore shoots his victim in the back of the head. This act sets in motion the trial and verdict that will condemn him to death. Barney stages the judgment of Gilmore in the Mormon Tabernacle. Gilmore refuses to appeal his sentence and opts for execution by firing squad, in a literal interpretation of the Mormon belief that blood must be shed in order for a sinner to obtain salvation. His execution is staged as a prison rodeo in a cast-salt arena in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats. In Barney's interpretation of the execution, Gilmore was less interested in attaining Mormon redemption than in performing a chronological two-step that would return him to the space of his alleged grandfather, Houdini, with whom he identified the notion of freedom through self-transformation. Seeking escape from his fate, he chose death in an act of ultimate self-will. Gilmore's metaphoric transportation back to the turn of the century is rendered in a dance sequence featuring the Texas two-step. The film ends in the Columbian Exposition hall, where Houdini is approached by Gilmore's future grandmother, Baby Fay La Foe, starting anew the circular narrative of Cremaster 2.
—Nancy Spector

CREMASTER 2: The Book of Mormon, 1999
C-print in acrylic frame (shown unframed)
54 x 43 x 1 inches
Edition of 6, 1 A.P.
Photo by Michael James O'Brien
© Matthew Barney, courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

CREMASTER 2: The Golden Tablet, 1999
C-print in acrylic frame (shown unframed)
52 1/2 x 43 x 1 inches
Edition of 6, 1 A.P.
Photo by Michael James O'Brien
© Matthew Barney, courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

Cremaster Suite, 1994–2002
1 of 5 C-prints in self-lubricating plastic frames (shown unframed)
45 1/4 x 35 1/4 x 1 1/4 inches each
Edition of 10, 2 A.P.
Photo by Michael James O'Brien
© Matthew Barney, courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

The Drones' Exposition, 1999 (detail)
35-mm film (color digital video transferred to film with Dolby SR sound); 2-part sculpture installation: nylon, acrylic, steel, salt, solar salt cast in epoxy resin, chrome-plated engraved brass, leather, sterling silver, brass, lead, Hungarian sidesaddle, carpet, carpet inlay, and quilted nylon; 12 silk banners with 12 nylon poles and 1 nylon wall mount; 5 drawings: graphite and petroleum jelly on paper in nylon frames; and 12 C-prints in acrylic frames
Overall dimensions variable
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through the Accessions Committee Fund, 2000
Photo by Marc Domage, courtesy Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris