Matthew Barney's grandiose, five-film extravaganza "The Cremaster Cycle" (1995–2003) established his role as myth-making wizard of the art-world Oz. Now three of his short films, on view for one week beginning today at the IFC Center, offer a uniquely concise résumé of the artist's development, as well as a peek into what he's been doing since his 2003 Guggenheim Museum retrospective. Many in the world of performance art claim Mr. Barney for themselves, and one of the films on view at IFC, "Scabaction" (1988) — his first video piece, conceived while Mr. Barney was still a student — was clearly inspired by such body-punishing, 1970s-era performance artists as Marina Abramovic and Ana Mendieta. We are confronted — and grossed out — by an ingrown hair on a man's neck, seen through a macro lens. Using tweezers, someone yanks bits of beard from around the sore, squeezes pus from it with his or her fingers, and then shaves the area smooth.
Using film to document a performance is commonplace, but Mr. Barney truly is a filmmaker at heart. From the start, performance was just one of his tools. The ingrown hair sequence in "Sacabaction," for example, is intercut with images of a person using a blowtorch to cut a hole in a metal plate and then mending it. The sound of the blowtorch (as well as petroleum jelly, which would become Mr. Barney's signature material) is heard in both sequences. This is no longer documentation: The montage makes it a film.
In the late 1970s, performance art evolved into the massive spectacles created by Robert Wilson and Laurie Anderson, though even these artists tended to use film primarily to record. By the time of "The Cremaster Cycle," Mr. Barney had also turned to spectacle, but again, his extravaganzas were (and remain) specifically cinematic, rather than filmed performances.
Even the second work here, 2006's "Drawing Restraint 13" (not to be confused with "Drawing Restraint 9," Mr. Barney's 2006 feature-length film starring his companion, the Icelandic pop singer Björk), which ostensibly captures a 13-minute private performance titled "The Occidental Guest," relies on cinematic techniques to enhance the story. Dressed as General Douglas McArthur, the artist, smoking an outsized corncob pipe and wearing the requisite dark shades, wades through a petroleum jelly barrier to a table manned by a "Japanese Delegate" and an "American Delegate" (played by Mr. Barney's dealer, Barbara Gladstone). MacArthur and the Japanese Delegate then set about signing a stack of the artist's framed drawings with an electric etching tool.
"Drawing Restraint 13" was shot in grainy black-and-white film to heighten the period feel, as well as to remind us that we're watching a film, not a performance piece. Unfortunately, this filmic adornment does nothing to mitigate the only partly intended comedy of watching the general put his stamp of authenticity on the artworks — titled, his buyers might like to know, "The Instrument of Surrender."
To his credit, Mr. Barney, no matter how cinematic his artworks become, never entirely surrenders to the dictates of a commercial audience. At one hour, the longest of the three works, "De Lama Lamina" (2004), opens with a close-up shot of a dark-skinned, flaccid penis. The rest of the film is equally astonishing. It began as a collaboration with the musician Arto Lindsay for the Carnival in Bahia, Brazil, based on the theme of eco-activism and using a storyline, drawn in part from the Afro-Brazilian Candomble religion, suggesting a sort of melding of nature and technology. The title means "of mud a blade."
Outwardly, the cameras roll through the streets, following the progress of local percussionists and vocalists as they accompany their "float," a mammoth and terrifying forestry truck clutching a huge, uprooted tree in its insectile front mandible. A white substance coats the tree's roots, white condom-shaped protrusions cap the sawn branches, and the whole parade becomes a fantastic, candelabra-like sculpture. Iron tools strapped to the truck's tires slap out a samba beat as it moves.
Yet, as the musicians march, another story unfolds. Among the "real" performers, Mr. Barney has placed two actors. Climbing the tree, a dreadlocked woman with a harness and carabiners plays Julia Butterfly Hill, the eco-activist who lived in a redwood tree in California for two years, trying to prevent it from being cut down. Underneath the truck, suspended below the drive shaft and petting a dead monkey, is the "Greenman," a naked, human-plant hybrid in serious need of beak job. It was his penis that began the film.
While Hill straddles the condom tips before stringing them together, elaborating the sculpture, the Greenman spins petroleum jelly on the drive shaft as if it were clay on a potter's wheel. Eventually, he spends some time very explicitly pleasuring himself on the spinning column of Vaseline.
If "De Lama Lamina" is in parts a hokey fertility myth, it's also an extraordinary film, taking Mr. Barney's artistic practice full circle. He aptly inserts theater into the carnival, and the film becomes a pseudo-documentary recording a real performance. It's quite a spectacle.
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