The Cremaster Cycle

Matthew Barney

The Cremaster Cycle is an art project consisting of five feature length films, together with related sculptures, photographs, drawings, and artist’s books; it is the best-known work of American visual artist and filmmaker Matthew Barney.

The films were made over a period of eight years (1994–2002) and culminated in a major museum exhibition organized by Nancy Spector of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which traveled to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne and the Musée d’art Moderne in Paris from 2002-03. Barney’s longtime collaborator Jonathan Bepler composed and arranged the soundtracks for the films.

Barney has described the project as ‘a self-enclosed aesthetic system consisting of five films that explore processes of creation.’ The title is a reference to the cremaster muscle, which raises and lowers the testes in response to temperature. The films are filled with anatomical allusions to the position of the reproductive organs during the embryonic process of sexual differentiation: Cremaster 1 represents the most ‘ascended’ or undifferentiated state, Cremaster 5 the most ‘descended’ or differentiated.

The cycle repeatedly returns to those moments during early sexual development in which the outcome of the process is still unknown — in Barney’s metaphoric universe, these moments represent a condition of pure potentiality. As the cycle evolved over eight years, Barney looked beyond biology as a way to explore the creation of form, employing narrative models from other realms, such as biography, mythology, and geology.

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