The night before his first New York exhibition in 1991, Matthew Barney performed what he calls an ’action’. Having locked himself into the Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea, he took off his clothes and scaled the walls and ceiling using ropes, a harness and some large titanium ice climbing screws which he embedded in the brickwork. Then, having inserted two Vaselined ice screws into his bum, he lowered himself back down again, ending up on the shoulders of an assistant dressed in an American football strip. Nearby stood a weightlifting bench cast in hardened Vaseline and a set of weights made from congealed tapioca.
You could interview Barney until the cows come home and never really get to the bottom (sorry) of this particular performance, a video of which subsequently became part of the exhibition. It is not that he is obstructive or uncooperative, more that he seems all at sea when he has to turn his thoughts into words.
I am unsure whether this inarticulacy is a device to deter critical intrusion, but the silences that punctuate our occasionally illuminating conversation echo like vast oceans of emptiness on my tape recorder while he stares off into the middle distance, lost in thought. For someone whose art often tends towards the baroquely outrageous (at the Manchester arts festival his performance piece featured a live bull and two women who urinated onto the stage from trapezes), Barney comes across in person as a shy, even vulnerable, individual.
When I ask him why he penetrates, transforms and pushes his body to the limits, he lapses into one of his long silences, then finally says : ’I find meaning for myself in surrender... [long pause] in artistic surrender... [even longer pause]... I find it very attractive to have to surrender to something... [long pause]... I guess I am attracted to things I cannot understand intellectually but only viscerally... [slightly shorter pause]... I can’t make work any other way. It’s the only way I can do it.’
Like David Lynch, to whom he has been compared, Barney has a slightly detached air and expresses the most startling things in the most matter-of-fact way. When I ask him why Vaseline recurs so much in his work, he thinks for nearly a minute-and-a-half before answering : ’I remember that I applied petroleum jelly to some things I had made as a student, and the impulse then seemed to me to be about making things moist, and also making those objects feel like they had just been removed from me, or could be inserted inside me somehow.’
It’s difficult to know where to go with an answer like that. It is said with such evident sincerity and lack of guile that I find myself nodding along. It is exactly this kind of thing, though, that has enraged certain critics, who have lambasted him for what the New Yorker recently described as his ’pretentiously gorgeous nonsense’. Nevertheless, Barney’s Ballardian impulses, and the ambitious complexity of his vision have made him one of the hottest properties on the American, and increasingly, the global, art scene.
Since his breakthrough show at the Guggenheim in New York in 2002, where his series of five films, The Cremaster Cycle, attracted huge crowds, many insiders believe the American contemporary art scene has finally found its own Damien Hirst. Michael Kimmelman, art critic of the New York Times, called him ’the most crucial artist of his generation’.
’There is a tremendous amount of respect for Matthew from audiences, critics and younger artists,’ says Barbara Gladstone, his gallerist, who also looks after Sarah Lucas and Anish Kapoor in America. ’The scope of his ambition is breathtaking. He is only 40 and already there is this big, impressive body of work. I think he is of the utmost importance right now for the sheer scale of his achievement.’
Like Hirst, though, he has his detractors. Hilton Kramer of the New York Observer said of that first Gladstone Gallery show that ’there is now almost nothing that someone won’t do in public in the name of art, no matter how stupid or nasty.’ Another critic, John Haber, called his Guggenheim show ’one of the silliest exhibitions in living memory’.
Barney, however, brings in the crowds, his art attracting a young and hip audience, many of whom do not usually set foot in galleries. This month there will be a buzz in the Britart world when his eponymous exhibition opens at the Serpentine Gallery. It will consist of drawings, sculptures and videos pertaining to his still-ongoing Drawing Restraint project.
’The Guggenheim show never came here for some reason’, says Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine, ’so there has been a kind of Barney vacuum in the UK and a lot of anticipation. The Drawing Restraint project is the spine of everything he has done to date, and thus incredibly important in his trajectory as an artist. Plus, Matthew will be in the space a few days before it opens, drawing and hanging and making a sculpture that will cross the threshold of the gallery into the outside space.’
Do not be surprised, then, if you come across a solidified lava stream of Vaseline in Hyde Park as you take your Sunday constitutional.
The centrepiece of the show will be Drawing Restraint 9, Barney’s latest film, which, though not as overloaded with myth, metaphor and psycho-sexual imagery as The Cremaster Cycle, is still an ambitious, demanding and often baffling experience. Commissioned by the Kanazawa Museum of Contemporary Art, Drawing Restraint 9 is set on a working Japanese whaling vessel, the Nisshin Maru, which has since been sabotaged by Greenpeace activists. The film cost £6m and took two years to make, most of that spent in patient negotiation with the Japanese whaling authorities who unsurprisingly greet all approaches from the West with suspicion. ’Right up to the last minute I thought it was not going to happen,’ he says. ’I mean we were looking at ships in Tierra del Fuego, Seattle and Greenland when we finally got the go-ahead.’
How did the crew feel about having an artist on board and the fact that, between harpooning and flensing - the ritual cutting up of the whale - they had to fashion a life-size whale-like sculpture out of Vaseline ?
’I’d met them all before I went on board, when we were negotiating for access. The younger guys were interested, you could see that. The older guys less so. Some of them came to the museum show. The captain did. I think they were intrigued, but it was hard to know.’
Drawing Restraint 9, the title a nod to the often extreme difficulties Barney imposes on himself in order to carry out his work, is his first collaboration with Bjork, the mercurial Icelandic pop star with whom he has a five-year-old daughter, Isadora. As well as starring alongside Barney, Bjork composed and recorded the soundtrack which, among other strange delights, features a virtuoso Japanese sho player - the sho is a flute shaped like a bird. The maverick singer, Will Oldham, sings the opening song, ’Gratitude’, the lyrics of which come from letters sent by Japanese people to General McArthur in 1946 thanking him for reversing the whaling ban that America had imposed during the war. Apparently, Barney had originally wanted Dolly Parton to sing the song but she was too busy. He also, he tells, initially wanted Charlton Heston to play General McArthur in the film, but came to the conclusion he was ’just too representational’.
A few days after interviewing Barney in New York, I speak to Bjork, who is in Paris preparing for a concert. ’I think Matthew and Will [Oldham] are very similar in one way,’ she says. ’They are roughly the same age and, as American males, they have a burden of guilt : Nagasaki guilt, global-warming guilt, the war and the oil and all this heavy stuff. If you are born a girl, you do not have that weight. There are not many girl dictators or executioners or generals. If you are a girl in Iceland, it is all nature and peace. So, I can see that Matthew’s work is essentially about being an American male. Both he and Will have not washed their hands of the problem, they are trying to negotiate it by being more ambiguous, trying to find a different angle on masculinity.’
How was it working together, though ? I had read somewhere that when they got together, they had vowed never to collaborate.
’Creatively, Matthew and I take opposite approaches that end in the same point,’ she says. ’He enjoys restraint and discipline and thrives on it like a sportsman. Growing up, he had the athlete’s attitude to limits. I was in a punk band, ignoring all restraints and embracing freedom. I still seek those heightened moments of freedom in my work. He does it the other way around, if that makes sense.’
Well, kind of. Like everything about Matthew Barney, in fact. When I meet him in his neat office overlooking a vast studio space, he looks tanned and fit. Bearded, dressed in denim workwear and sturdy boots, he looks like he’d be happier in the great outdoors than in his cavernous new warehouse studio on the edge of the East River in Long Island. There is a definite calmness about him that is immediately palpable and an easy charm that seems old-fashioned and unforced.
This is a guy who paid his way through Yale by modelling for Calvin Klein and J Crew, and you can see why they went for him. Now 40, he has the chiselled good looks of an all-American film star, albeit one from another time when the western was a Hollywood staple.
Barney describes himself as a sculptor, though most of his sculptures are, in fact, films : long, ambitious, slow-moving films that follow myriad overlapping non-linear narratives whose overall logic may only be apparent to their creator. His most celebrated work is The Cremaster Cycle, in which he manages to create his own self-contained universe, one in which myth, autobiography, architecture, metamorphosis, performance art, prosthetics, sport, secret societies and, yes, Vaseline seem to be both crucial, if often baffling, tropes.
’The films are narratives, definitely,’ he says. ’In fact, the way I put them together is not so different to the way I read other more conventional narratives. I actually find it very hard to read a book beginning to end and go completely inside that narrative. I have to be able to apply my day-to-day life to that narrative for there to be an even fractured understanding of that book. I have read a number of books where I have no idea what they are about in a narrative sense, but I am pretty confident I have a good sense of what the base of the story is.’
I am still processing this information when he says, ’I don’t know if that makes any sense to you, but it does to me,’ which could be the coda to all his films.
Cremaster 2, for instance, seems to be about the execution of Gary Gilmore, the murderer whose case was documented by Norman Mailer in The Executioner’s Song. It also features escapologist Harry Houdini (played by Mailer) and the lost tribes of Israel, and is set mainly on the Bonneville Salt Flats. According to the New Yorker, when first approached by Barney, Mailer replied, ’I’m 75 years old, I’m arthritic. It’s all I can do to tie my shoe laces and you want me to play Houdini ?’ Later, though, Mailer said of the end result, ’He does things no one has even done in movies.’
Cremaster 3 seems to be about the mythic history of New York, Freemasons, street gangs and Irish legends. It features Barney as ’the Entered Apprentice’, and artist Richard Serra as ’the Chief Architect’. There are flashes of self-deprecating humour, though the longueurs in between may inure you to them. Imagine a film about the inside of Joseph Beuys’s head, scripted by David Cronenberg, directed by Peter Greenaway and choreographed by a postmodern Busby Berkeley and you are halfway there.
Before he became an artist, Barney wanted to be a plastic surgeon and, before that, an American footballer. In his work, the medical, the macho and the mythic often merge. Born in San Francisco in 1967, he grew up in rural Idaho and seems to have been one of those extremely rare children who embraced both sport and art. Indeed, as far as I can ascertain, he is the only artist who started out as an American footballer. In his teens he was a quarterback for the Capital High School team in Boise, Idaho.
Barney’s father, Robert, worked in the food services industry while his mother pursued a fitful career as a painter. His parents separated when Barney was in his teens, his mother moving to New York where, he says, she specialised in ’biomorphic abstraction’.
’I was aware from her that art could be a viable path,’ he elaborates. ’It wasn’t so much the actual paintings, though. It was these books that were lying around about body performance artists in the Sixties. It was the body that fascinated me - in sport and in art. The limits, the possibilities of the body. I realised pretty early on that I could bring elements of the physicality of sport into my work.’
It was Barney’s sister, Tracy, though, who exposed him to the downtown New York art scene while he was studying medicine at Yale. He immediately switched to the art course and began making abstract drawings and sculptures, before concentrating on video-based work. At college he completed Field Work, a video which introduced certain Barneyian tropes : harnesses, Vaseline, athletic equipment - objects that signified both sporting endeavour and sexual experimentation.
’I heard about him from a friend who suggested I go to his studio,’ says Barbara Gladstone. ’It was immediately apparent to me he was doing something new and brave, using non-art materials such as plastic and petroleum jelly. His whole way of thinking about his work was so thought-out. I asked him if he had a plan for the next five years and he told he wanted to do this big work in five parts, a visual opera that would move geographically from the west to the east. He had the locations, the structure in his head. It was incredibly impressive.’
Soon afterwards, Nicholas Serota saw Barney’s early video piece OTTOshaft at the Documenta IX art exhibition in Kassel, Germany in 1992, and snapped it up for the Tate Modern collection. It is a strange homage to Jim Otto, an American footballer who fascinated Barney because, following serious injury, he continued playing using plastic kneecaps. By then, Barney had thrown himself headlong into what would become The Cremaster Cycle, working relentlessly and in often extreme conditions.
’If The Cremaster Cycle belongs to any tradition, it belongs to earth works,’ he says when I ask him what inspired him initially. ’As a sculptor, the space and the environment are critical for me. A sense of place is crucial. The mythologies I address come out of that place, those hidden narratives that are often embedded deep in the soil. So, the landscape becomes both character and narrative. The films often move at a geological pace, too. Place is the first thing and maybe the most important thing.’
Budapest, the Bonneville Salt Flats, the Isle of Man, the Chrysler Building in New York, the Giants Causeway, a football stadium in Idaho... these are the mythic landscapes that feature. Some critics have suggested that the films add up to a sexual creation myth. The title alone suggests that this is indeed the case - the term ’cremaster’ refers to the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles in response to changes in temperature. It also controls the descent of the reproductive organs and thus is the initial determinant of maleness - one of Barney’s central preoccupations-cum-obsessions. The films are so full of rising and falling imagery that one critic has dubbed Barney ’the Michelangelo of genital art’ and placed him at the forefront of an art movement called Onanism.
Cremaster 4 is the film that makes the sexual reproductive metaphor most explicit, not least in its close-ups of Barney’s own testicles. The film’s most surreal sequence, a close-up of a motorcyclist on the Isle of Man circuit, shows a pair of vaselined testicles slipping out of his leather trouser pocket. This queasy image gives way to an image of a giant beribboned scrotum belonging to a goat-man played by Barney. You get the picture ? Or, maybe not.
Looking for literal meaning in Barney’s films, of course, may be a pointless as well as fruitless task. He is a conceptual artist, after all. Whatever, there is no doubting the extreme and often perverse nature of his vision.
’I’m an obsessive. For sure,’ he grins. ’But there is part of it that is therapeutic, too. I might be in trouble if I could not exercise that level of obsession. It kind of keeps me stable.’
Having just re-watched the climactic scene from Drawing Restraint 9, I am inclined to agree. In it, Bjork and Barney engage in a ritual sexual act in a cabin on board the ship. As the cabin slowly fills with a slimy liquid, they take turns snogging the openings that have appeared in the back of each of their heads, then take flensing knives and slice strips of flesh from each other’s legs until the bottom half of their torsos resemble flayed sea creatures. What, I ask, was going on there ?
’I was wanting to begin to suggest that they entered that space as land mammals and left as sea mammals,’ Barney elaborates, looking slightly pained perhaps at having to explain what he thinks is blindingly obvious, ’but I was not interested in that mutation or metamorphosis being illustrated literally.’
Having surrendered myself to Barney’s films over an intense and demanding few days, and then having met the quiet, charming, slightly gauche individual who made them, I was struck by the extraordinary difference - and distance - between the art and the artist. In a New Yorker profile from 2003, his mother said : ’Matthew thinks through his body. As a young child he could run right into you instead of stopping and saying hi.’ A friend noted, too, that ’he was not good at intimacy’.
This otherness has served him well in his art, which possesses a narrative and formulism that is singular, and is informed with the slow and meticulous attention to detail of the true obsessive. Does this make it good art, though ?
At present, the very few - and very powerful - tastemakers who decide for the rest of us have canonised Matthew Barney, but there remains the underlying sense that some art-world observers remain unconvinced. ’His climb up the Guggenheim,’ wrote the aforementioned Harber caustically, ’could serve as a metaphor for a generation caught between the health club and the museum.’
Like Beuys before him, though, Barney goes his own way, and, like Beuys, he may yet change the course of contemporary art.
· The Matthew Barney show is at the Serpentine Gallery from 20 September (serpentinegallery.org). The Observer is media partner.