In 1994 Matthew Barney exploded onto the contemporary art scene with a video piece named ‘Cremaster 4’, named after the male cremaster muscle, which ‘controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli’. The series continued with another 4 ‘Cremaster’ pieces, supported by sculpture (generally made from his ‘signature materials’ plastic, metal and Vaseline) and drawings (in graphite and Vaseline). Yes, Vaseline. Just to make this entirely clear when I use the word Vaseline I am referring to the petroleum jelly rugby players rub on their own thighs, and football players rub on each others thighs. The Guggenheim refers to Barney’s work as ‘rife with anatomical allusions to the position of the reproductive organs during the embryonic process of sexual differentiation’, and indeed sexual development seems to be a key theme within the majority of his pieces.
The oblong appears frequently within his work as a symbol of ‘the orifice and its closure’, and one of Barney’s more risqué movies features him masturbating with what can only be described as a celeriac in his anus. As the piece reaches its climax, Matthew unfortunately does too, then proceeds to explore his own fluids with his fingers, in a state of what I assume to be satisfaction. Despite my best efforts, I have not been able to track down the drawings or sculptures that accompany this piece.
Despite my obvious cynicism, I have been repeatedly reassured by lecturers and even other students that Matthew Barney literally is ‘the Shiz’. This immediately caused me to question my own idea of art – if I don’t like this stuff, yet everyone else loves it, does that mean all my conceptions of art are wrong? I always liked a bit of Degas, maybe a nice Van Gogh, and perhaps even some cubism thrown in for good measure, but now Iquestion all of this. If I don’t understand Matthew Barney’s work, perhaps I never understood any art at all. Maybe this is in fact art. It certainly disturbs, with the unnerving Bjork soundtracks that accompany many of Barneys pieces adding to the emotional response, and I start to think that this possibly is the future of art. Surely he couldn’t put it in a gallery if it wasn’t – least of all the well respected Guggenheim. Yes, Barney’s work has indeed evoked something in me, and also made me re-examine my perception of what I see as art, in the same way that Van Gogh, Egon Schiele and Marcel Duchamp did to their contemporaries. And why must art be aesthetically pleasing, or even involve any skill or craftmanship in its production at all? I slowly start to realise that Matthew Barney is a genius.
However, this feeling only lasts a moment, after which I snap myself out of it and tell myself that its only a man on a webcam wanking with a root vegetable in his arse. What a twat.