Salvador Dali meets 'Fantasia'

Matthew Barney's exhibit transforms the Guggenheim into a fantasyland inspired by his 'Cremaster' films.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Walk into the Guggenheim Museum and you'll enter a world transformed into a funhouse, complete with blue Astroturf, morphing images, odd sculptures, and ramps swaddled in athletic padding.

The exhibit was designed by Matthew Barney and inspired by the bizarre "Cremaster" series of five films written, directed by, and featuring Barney. For an idea of the films' tenor, imagine a kind of "Fantasia" with set designs by Salvador Dali and scripts far kookier than David Lynch's.

Visitors unfamiliar with the films' mythology will be amused, bemused, discombobulated, and astonished by the fantasyland atmosphere engulfing the Guggenheim, on view until June 11.

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"This is one of the most remarkable one-person exhibitions ever to take place in the history of the Guggenheim," says Thomas Krens, director of the museum. "Matthew has fused sculpture and film in new and unprecedented ways, redefining [how] we view contemporary art."

Sounds like hyperbole, but he may be right. Nancy Spector, who curated the show, calls it "a site-specific installation to encapsulate and complete the entire 'Cremaster' series."

Barney's five films, completed between 1994 and 2002, are shown in the auditorium and on monitors throughout the museum. Accompanying the films are photographs, drawings, and sculptures used in the productions.

From the central skylight hangs a pentagonal monitor showing "Cremaster 3" scenes, in which Barney interacts with the museum's architecture. Dressed in an outrageous costume of salmon-colored kilt, blue argyle knee socks, ostrich-feather wig, with a swatch of satin flowing from his mouth, the artist scales the ramps. He ascends to the top by overcoming such obstacles as a chorus line of dancers dressed in lamb costumes.

If this sounds bizarre, rest assured the strangeness only escalates. Ms. Spector recommends how to approach the art: "Spend a week!" She adds, "The ideal way to see the show is to go through it once to get a sense of the language," keeping in mind that "everything - the choice of fabrics, the colors - is deliberate."

In the elaborate catalog, she praises Barney's "attention to detail." For "Cremaster 2," Barney used 144 truckloads of salt to create one set. He hired "bee trainers" as assistants for another scene.

Ms. Spector says it's not necessary to see the mesmerizing films to appreciate the sculptures.

"There's no hierarchy of form," she says. "The films are a kind of pretext for making the sculpture. They're not props, relics, or souvenirs," left over from his films, but they are "content carriers in the way that Bernini pieces are narrative."

The narrative they convey is a contemporary version of a creation myth. Biology and embryology loom large in Barney's iconography. For Barney, the incipient stages of creation represent pure potential. As the films evolve, the hero faces resistance and develops discipline, gradually refining his form. It's all about climbing - ascending or descending - and about avoiding the ignoble fate of being a drone.

To propel the story, Barney uses not just characters and action, but every cinematic element, such as landscapes, architecture, set design, costumes, and makeup. The Chrysler Building spire represents ambitious striving, a blimp symbolizes unlimited possibility, and a four-horned Loughton ram with two horns curving up and two sloping down represents a hybrid zone of indeterminacy.

The films are endlessly allusive and elusive. Barney uses football, fashion, Houdini, Celtic lore, Mormonism, art history, heavy-metal music, Busby Berkeley dance routines, and horror films to give physical form to his ideas. Every medium - film, sculpture, drawing, photography, performance art, multimedia installations, book design - furthers the story.

Ms. Spector calls Barney's aesthetic "polymorphous." The whole exhibition is his unified composition. In Barney's universe, forms constantly transform, without resolution. Grapes become dancers, cars become aggressors, and rising becomes falling. The passage and the quest are all-important; the process, rather than the goal, is supreme.

Ursula Andress (who acts in the fifth film) describes Barney's films in the catalog as "a form of moving art." It's an apt form for our multitasking, mutating millennium.

If only the sculptures were as evocative as Barney's imagination. As supporting cast in the films, the objects are imbued with drama. In the spotlight as stand-alone sculptures, they're inert and mute. While Barney makes sculpture of idiosyncratic materials such as petroleum jelly and tapioca, many are incoherent forms in white plastic - lacking nuance and texture.

You also have to wonder about the durability of art that requires arcane background information to be understood. Private fantasy may not be accessible or moving to a wide public. Still, you've got to hand it to Barney, a former football quarterback. He doesn't play it safe. He throws the bomb, going all out for a touchdown. It may not always work, but it's exciting to watch.

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