Film and TV

The Cremaster Cycle swings the biggest dick in contemporary art

Named for the muscle that turns your nut sack into a walnut when it gets cold, The Cremaster Cycle swings the biggest dick in contemporary art. Produced from 1994 through 2002, Matthew Barney's humongous riff on struggle, reproduction, conceptual drag, and several dozen strands of narrative gobbledygook is undeniably something to be reckoned with — if only as a relic of the boom years in contemporary art.

What kind of something it actually is depends on whom you ask. In a 1999 New York Times profile declaring Barney the most important American artist of his generation, Michael Kimmelman posited that the "fundamental goal" of Cremaster is to "maintain, through one phantasmagoric image after another, a state of creative redolence." To be sure, the elaborate tableaux of Cremaster ooze a pungent eau d'art. Taken as a whole, the five-film cycle — shot out of chronological order but intended to be watched sequentially — functions as a kind of nebulous postmodern gesamtkunstwerk, consolidating a century's worth of avant-garde tropes, motifs, strategies and postures.

There's an exquisite cut to be made from the nearly seven-hour yawn time of the complete cycle. Alas, it's not in the interest of collectors who pony up six-figure fees for Cremaster on DVD to enable illicit edits. Barney's career, for all its conceptual excess, is predicated on an economy of artificial scarcity.