New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman called Matthew Barney 'the most important artist of his generation'. Wagnerian, magisterial, and just plain weird, Barney's Cremaster Cycle is a psycho-sexual odyssey. Eight years in the making (1994-2002), it is named after the muscle which drives involuntary testicular contractions. The five films are rife with allusions to the reproductive organs' position during embryonic sexual differentiation. Arcane and audacious, compacted and multilayered, hermetic yet all-encompassing, these surreal costume dramas reach back into mythologies, biologies and geologies of creation, and look forward to a world of modified genetics, high-tech prosthesies, and malleable high-performance identities. They ingest material from a dizzying array of sources: Manx, Mormon, and Masonic. Extreme sport meets extreme religion. Action shifts from a sports stadium in Barney's home town of Boise, Idaho, to a Budapest Opera House. Riddled with art references and ramifications the Cycle was the subject of a massive exhibition at New York's Guggenheim Museum in 2003.
Clocking in at two hours and fifteen minutes, Barney's latest film Drawing Restraint 9 (2005) was shot in Nagasaki Bay on board the Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru. Its core idea is the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity, a theme it symbolically tracks through the construction and transformation of a vast sculpture of liquid vaseline called The Field, which is poured, molded, bisected, and reformed on the deck of the ship over the course of the film. Barriers hold the form in place, and when they are removed, the film tracks its atrophy. This physical change is mirrored through the narrative of the Guests, two occidental visitors to the ship played by Barney and Bjork (who also provides the soundtrack). They take part in a tea ceremony. As a powerful lightning storm breaks out overhead, the tatami mat room they occupy floods with liquid vaseline, which we sense has emanated from The Field itself. In a harrowing climax, the Guests, locked in an embrace and breathing through blowhole-like orifices on the backs of their necks, take out flensing knives and cut away each other's feet and thighs. The remains of their lower bodies are revealed to contain traces of whale tails at an early stage of development, suggesting rebirth, physical transformation, the possibility of new forms.