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Matthew Barney Research Project

Matthew Barney is a multimedia artist primarily known for his Cremaster film series. His arbitrary and ambiguous images provoke a densely surreal landscape of bizarre characters throughout a multitude of seemingly unrelated locations, such as the Isle of Man, the Chrysler Building, and Bronco stadium in Boise, Idaho. He was raised in Boise, and as a young boy spent his days playing football and other sports. Barney attempts to recreate the visual stimulus of highly saturated broadcast sports – the bright, thick colors and variety of swooping camera angles. In his films, he focuses on characters that are at times recognizable, but otherwise are essentially incomprehensible. Barney has the assistance of hundreds of actors and extras in his films, including that of his wife, Icelandic pop singer Bjork.

Cremaster 3 video still

Barney’s work is devoid of any easily-interpreted meaning, and are primarily an assortment of highly complex visual stimulus. His films are created, however, in a very comprehensible process. Barney describes, “This body of work began by selecting five locations that would eventually come together as one body. Once those locations were established, I went to those places and started writing stories that would grow out of those particular places.? The images and characters in his films are embodiments of the “mythology? of those places he describes. He relates his images and stories to those we see every day, citing his own inability to follow any one thread of storyline for very long – the sorts of stories we might glimpse into when passing someone on the street, or changing channels on the TV.

Of any artist we’ve studied in class, Matthew Barney relates most to alternative multimedia artist Chris Larson. Both of these artists are well known for their intriguing art-house films. Both rely heavily on bizarre visual stimuli, at times very grotesque, and other times very simple and mysterious. Both include unexplainable characters and some forms of sculpture. But in the convoluted sources behind these films is where they differ just slightly. Whereas Larson primarily documents the interaction of people with machines, Barney focuses more on the interaction of people with their locations. Larson presents a scant story-line if any, and Barney supplies us with a brief glimpse into many different stories. Beyond the visual portion of their works, Larson includes a deeper audio dimension to his pieces in a cacophony of rhythms and drums. Barney’s Cremaster series include a soundtrack, but are merely supplementary in a strange wishy-washy echo to his visuals.

I would probably not suggest a visit to see Barney’s work. At least not to my friends, who enjoy more culturally-infused political/social referenced works. They enjoy digging deep to find strong meaning. Barney’s work is intentionally incomprehensible, because his films are all about the visual stimuli. But even in an aesthetic respect, I don’t find his works very moving. The images force me to ask “Why?? When I keep having to ask “why,? I expect an answer now and then. But I don’t get an answer with Barney’s work. You’re not supposed to know why the characters are doing whatever it is they’re doing, why they’re dressed that way, or why they’re there. Every frame gives me more questions than answers, and I personally don’t dig it.



Littlejohn, David. Immersed in the Goo: The Surreal World of Matthew Barney. Wall Street Journal - Eastern Edition; 7/27/2006, Vol. 248 Issue 22, pD7, 0p