The films of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle are all conceived and shot from the biological perspective: the perspective of a living organism in response to its environment. The Cycle is titled after and built around the cremaster muscle, found in the scrotum, which contracts in response to fear, arousal, or extreme cold, to protect the testicles when they might be in danger of harm. This reflex is the core of the film series: raising and lowering, rising and falling, and their connection to physical assertion, resistance, or heightened drama vs. relative nonresistance or relaxation forms the basic binary from which the film radiates.
Cremaster 4 was the first film to be made, in 1994. The next four films followed, over the span of eight years, in the order 1, 5, 2, and finally 3, with each representing a different level in the ascension/ descension of the cremaster muscle. It is often noted that 4 is the most faithful to the Cycle’s core conceit, and as the series progresses, it grows in symbolic complexity, cinematic scope, and length (3 is three times as long as each of the preceding four). But even as the scope of the films expands, it always expresses itself from the biological perspective. One may not grasp on first-view the films’ references to Gary Gilmore, Finn McCool, Hiram Abiff, Mormonism, Masonic ritual, architecture, entomology, sport strategy, etc. But since the Cycle roots itself in the fundamental experience of the human organism, the movement of the films, while not immediately understood, can still be accessed on a visceral level.
The male anatomy provides Barney with his primary metaphor, but the human experience it represents is not gender-specific. The cremaster muscle is an obvious way of illustrating the human being between two states, in reaction to its environment. In the neutral environment, the environment to which one’s body is most suited, one feels comfortable, relaxed, safe, warm; it is reminiscent of the embryonic state, which also implies relative undifferentiation. In the antagonistic environment, one must resist/ assert oneself against the external world; in this state, one reaches the most heightened level of differentiation and selfhood. The films stage this biological drama, while seeking possibilities for equilibrium.
It is visceral storytelling. The world of the films often does not reflect the way the world looks, but the way it feels; from the perspective of the organism that receives the world by stimuli and then creates the world back from that perception. In the process, the Cycle absorbs myth, history, and personal narrative, breaks them down, and builds them back up with texture, sound, and imagery. At the center of the films is Barney, the human organism, who, an actor in each film, is both creator and performer, someone who performs as an act of creating. There is an emphasis on physicality and exertion, specifically Barney’s own, as he is subjected to the cavernous, claustrophobic, often viscous Labyrinths he himself conceives.
In Cremaster 3, there is a sequence titled “The Order,” based in part on Freemason initiation ritual, which finds the Guggenheim Museum repurposed into a large obstacle course. In the sequence of the films, “The Order” comes in the exact center: the middle of the middle film; but in the sequence the films were produced, it is among the last to be filmed, and so takes a retrospective look at the whole series. As Barney scales the walls of the five-levelled museum, he reenacts in miniature the movement of the entire Cycle. On each level, there is a different obstacle, but the obstacles Barney overcomes don’t seem to add up to any effect; there isn’t an overall goal. He simply climbs up and down the walls of the museum, endlessly repeating the same tasks. This up-and-down movement once again recalls the movement of the cremaster muscle, reinforces the Cycle’s circularity, and reenacts the internal journey of the individual traversing different states of being. There is no beginning or end, and so no end-goal; the meaning is in the movement.