In the 1990s, emerging technologies had a major impact on art. The introduction of digitalization, the internet and mobile phone communication became a new source of creativity and subject matter for artists. They began questioning the role of technology in society: was it a tool or an invasion? In 1994 Matthew Barney released Cremaster 4, a 42-minute film set on the Isle of Man featuring a red-headed satyr, fairies and a road race. The responses to the rich and singular world Barney portrayed on screen were mixed. He polarized opinions; for some his beautiful, disturbing visions were the best fusion of art and cinema since Un Chien Andalou, while others dismissed Cremaster 4 (named after the muscles that control the rise and fall of the testes) as absurdly confrontational. For the 27-year-old artist, Cremaster 4 was the beginning of an ongoing investigation into the possible futures technology might generate.
Born in San Francisco, California, Barney gained a football scholarship to Yale University in 1985. On graduating he was picked up by the prestigious Gladstone Gallery, and had his first solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1991. Wary of his early success, he made a conscious decision to slow things down, which is how The Cremaster Cycle came about. The project took eight years to complete, and consists of five films that are haunting conundrums that flow, like a bleeding entity, from Celtic myth to subterranean opera to gothic Western. What unites his work is a preoccupation with life, death, the body, creativity, religion, power and industry.
His most recent work is River of Fundament, a loose adaptation of Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel Ancient Evenings. Mailer had played Harry Houdini in Cremaster 2 and had declared Barney a ‘genius’. Years later he asked Barney to read the first 100 pages of Ancient Evenings, a florid tale of a mischievous sorcerer who attempts to manipulate the process of reincarnation. The resulting film is a sprawling, hallucinatory interpretation of the book that takes a long, fetishistic look at America’s auto industry.
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