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Balls to the Walls: Matthew Barney

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At the Gene Siskel Film Center

February: the most mispronounced month, Black History Month, Library Lover’s Month, the shortest month, the month that boasts the Westminster Dog show, the Superbowl, Valentine’s day AND the NBA all-star game. Add one more ounce of intrigue and pizazz to the month of February and your calendar might just burst into flames, right? Well, get out the fire extinguisher, because the Gene Siskel Film Center is showing Matthew Barney’s entire Cremaster Cycle, along with Drawing Restraint 9, his newest film, and, if you can handle it, Alison Chernick’s documentary about Matthew Barney and his swan-bedazzled, Icelandic, beatbox-master Björk entitled, Matthew Barney: No Restraint.

I know, I know, you already know about Matthew Barney and Björk, right? You have a still from Cremaster 3 set as your default myspace profile picture, and your girlfriend went as Björk at the 2001 Oscars for Halloween last year, even though the costume took longer to put together than she anticipated, but she is dedicated, so she stayed up all night putting on the finishing touches. But consider this: you don’t know everything about Matthew Barney. You’ve never seen all the installments of the Cremaster Cycle, and you don’t know anyone that has. You certainly haven’t seen his bewildering new Japanese Björkcentric whaling flick. And you don’t really understand how he went from being the football -toting B.M.O.C. in high school to flexing his abs in a J. Crew catalog, to being an abstract film entrepreneur who got Richard Serra to pour hot Vaseline into a vise. How are you going to claim you’re a huge Barney fan if you don’t put in the requisite 358 minutes it takes to absorb the Cremaster Cycle and Drawing Restraint 9? How you gonna defend your street cred if you don’t catch the limited engagement that is the voyeuristic video retrospective of Matthew Barney: No Restraint?

For the four people out there that aren’t familiar with Matthew Barney and the Cremaster Cycle, let me give you a quick rundown so you don’t look like an idiot when you go to your Teaching Assistant’s Valentine’s Day party and everyone’s talking about their cremasters. Matthew Barney, love him or hate him, has had a tremendous impact on the world of Modern Art, if only because everyone says so. He has been called “the most important American artist of his generation because his imagination is so big” by Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times, alternatively, the joke about the Cremaster Cycle is that the trailers are arguably the best part, distilling about seven hours of striking visuals into manageable minutes. In five independent cinematic ventures, Barney builds a phosphorescent, lubricated world with its own logic. All installments vary greatly in length, from 40 to 182 minutes, but all five lean on familiar movie genres (think Busby Berkeley or Old Westerns), as vehicles for Barney’s exploration of maleness. In fact, the “cremaster” is an incredibly efficient muscle. Not only does it cover the testicles and regulate their temperature, the cremaster muscle lowers and raises the testicles. The films progress from an investigation of undifferentiated states of gender, through the struggle to resist gender identification, and then, finally, to the point of overwhelming masculinity, the point where male identity can no longer be denied: the descending of the testicles.

So why has it taken so long for the entire series to be shown at once in Chicago, if there are only four people world-wide who don’t know about Matthew Barney? “The films were previously available only under very restrictive circumstances, and it was not possible for us to book the cycle in the past (we tried),” says Barbara Scharres, Director of Programming at The Gene Siskel Film Center. The difficulty is understandable, considering Barney wasn’t trying to make movies in the first place. What started out as a five-part, site-specific, sculptural/performance piece snowballed into a lesson in film-making for Barney. When Barney tried to get his first installation, Cremaster 4, which was shot largely on hand-held video, played on television on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea and was rejected, Film Forum in New York offered to play it on their screen, but they didn’t have a video projector. So when Barney transposed his shakey video to film just to show it to his New York audience, he intuitively switched his focus to creating a cinematic pentalogy. The site specific art he started out with would instead become filmic props he could sell when the movie finished filming.

Showing what is, essentially, a timely survey of Barney’s work at the Siskel may seem a little too museum-y or gallery-esque for some tastes, but Barney would have you know that he prefers the come-sit-and-stay big screen to the comings-and-goings-and-chatter inherent in the gallery format. Barbara Scharres says about Barney’s fit at the Siskel, “The exciting thing about what we do here is that our mission is designed to encompass the entire history of the moving image, film and video, from the earliest work to the very latest, of every national origin and on every scale.”

If you’re interested in one-upping your fellow art consumers by putting in a good ten hours or so studying up on Barney, head on down to the Siskel. Not only will you get to experience the anxiety and glee of having your balls drop for the first or second time (depending), you’ll be able to enjoy the costumery of Isaac Mizrahi, before he designed frumpy mom jeans and ill-fitting blazers for Target, cameo appearances by heavy-hitters like Richard Serra, and over 1600 gallons of Vaseline in various vessels at multiple temperatures.

Barbara Scharres says: The release of the feature documentary Matthew Barney: No Restraint suggests that this is an ideal time to survey the film work of Matthew Barney.

No Restraint plays for a run the week of February 2-8. The director’s Cremaster Cycle and Drawing Restraint 9 have multiple screenings on selected dates throughout the month. See www.siskelfilmcenter.org for details about student discounts and multiple screenings.

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