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 Matthew Barney - The Cremaster Cycle

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CREMASTER 5 (1997), in which total descension is finally attained, is envisioned as a tragic love story set in the romantic dreamscape of late-19th-century Budapest. The film is cast in the shape of a lyric opera. Biological metaphors shift form to inhabit emotional states—longing and despair—that become musical leitmotivs in the orchestral score. The opera's primary characters—the Queen of Chain (played by Ursula Andress) and her Diva, Magician, and Giant (all played by Barney)—enact collectively the final release promised by the project as a whole.

Cremaster 5 opens with an overture that introduces the opera's characters and lays out the map of Budapest that the narrative will traverse. The Magician crosses the Lánchíd Bridge on horseback. The Queen ascends the staircase of the Hungarian State Opera House with her two ushers. She settles onto her throne in the royal booth, and the ushers arrange a fleet of Jacobin pigeons around her. Pearls float on the surface of the pools in the Gellért Thermal Baths, partially concealing the Füdór sprites, who inhabit their underwater realms. The curtain rises to an empty theater, the conductor readies his orchestra, and the opera begins.

As the Queen sings, her Diva appears on the stage, delineates the proscenium arch of the stage by laying ribbons across its floor, and then scales its contours. The Queen's mind wanders to memories of her beloved Magician preparing for a leap into the waters of the Danube from the Lánchíd Bridge. His ritualistic actions recall the famed bridge jumps of Harry Houdini, who was born in Budapest in 1874. The Magician is seeking transcendence, but the Queen misunderstands his actions and thinks he is trying to take his own life.

The Queen's ushers direct her attention to orifices in her throne through which she can see into the Gellért Baths below. Her birds plummet through the passages in the throne, trailing long satin ribbons into the bath. Her Giant enters the watery path between the two pools. The sprites cluster around him with a garland—woven from the ribbons attached to the birds—which they affix to the Giant's scrotum. In the warm waters of the thermal baths, the cremaster muscle releases and the testicles descend. This climactic moment—the emergence of a fully differentiated state—becomes visible when the pigeons soar upward then fly downward with ribbons trailing. The Queen then relives the Magician's leap into the river and swoons from the horror of her recollection. At this point the narrative mirrors the path of descension just revealed: having completed his climb, the Diva tumbles to the stage, and the Magician plunges to the bottom of the river. Two water sprites caress his fallen body and insert a black pearl into his mouth. The Queen performs her mournful aria, preparing to join her lover in death. A thin stream of liquid trickles from her mouth into the pools below. On its descent, the stream divides into two droplets that strike the water simultaneously. Two perfect circles resonate outward, filling the surface of the bath with their waves, suggesting, in turn, eternal renewal or the echoes of a system expiring. The Cremaster cycle defers any definitive conclusion.
—Nancy Spector

Production photograph
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

CREMASTER 5: her Diva, 1997
C-print in acrylic frame (shown unframed)
52 3/4 x 42 5/8 x 1 inches
Edition of 6, 2 A.P.
Photo by Michael James O'Brien
© Matthew Barney, courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

Lánchíd: The Lament of the Queen of Chain, 1997
Acrylic, cast polyurethane, Vivak, Pyrex, polyethylene, and prosthetic plastic
10 x 20 x 16 feet
Astrup Fearnley Collection, Oslo
© Matthew Barney, courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery