The art joke

24/09/2011

I really hope Matthew Barney is kidding. It’s a dream of mine that one day, having made many hugely expensive, long and lavish films about testicles with other people’s money, he will make a public statement that his career was all a big prank on the art world. I think the world would be a more interesting place if that kind of thing happened, and I would finally understand what Bjork sees in him.

He is undoubtedly an important artist – not many people are making feature-length video art on 35mm, or staging huge elaborate scenes in spaces not accessible without impressive connections, like the Chrylser Building and Guggenheim Museum. His films depict mysterious masculine intitation rituals inspired by masonic tradition, and his artist persona seems to have emerged fully formed from a background in football and catalogue modelling.

But despite the beautiful and grandiose surface of the work, when you look for deeper meaning, all you find is viscous white liquid and obvious visual metaphors for testicles, presented entirely without humour. In Cremaster 4, which I caught at GoMA recently (one of the only films I didn’t see when the series – named after the muscle which holds the balls – screened at Dendy some years ago), pearly spheres are dropped into satin pouches during an obscure tap-dancing ceremony, and straight-faced actors attach pink tyres with scrotums to colour-coded racing cars. It’s pretty giggle-inducing.

This is what I wrote in my journal in 2005 when I saw De Lama Lamina:

“Modern Art: Bukkake meets Copraphilia

I just saw (crackpot artist and Bjork-impregnator) Matthew Barney’s latest film De Lama Lamina. I would like to propose it be re-titled to Semen: The Musical!. Don’t believe me? Here’s what happens: a tree-shaped float moves through South American streets in a parade of some sort. On top of it, a woman climbs around on the branches and extracts long white poles from inside white phallic posts that sit atop every branch. Below her thousands of dancing and chanting people trailing white tassels from their hair and bodies swarm all over the street. Underneath the truck, a naked man covered in lichen, with a turnip up his bottom and a flower blooming out of his mouth, rubs his erect penis against the rotating drive-shaft and ejaculates all over himself. Then all of a sudden he has a little monkey baby, who shits all over him and then disappears. He rubs the poo on the (already semen-coated) driveshaft, then he starts masturbating again. The end!”

(I was disappointed to see that his piece in Destricted, named Hoist, is just a short uncredited excerpt from this earlier work.)

Maybe there aren’t many artistic representations of specifically male sexual discovery and transition into adulthood, which might be why it seems questionable for Barney to make almost seven hours of deadly serious art about his genitals. But I think it’s a pity that someone with so much visual imagination and such extensive resources doesn’t have more to say. It would be ten times more interesting if he was having a huge joke at everyone’s expense.

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