By Henry Jenkins

"I'm less interested in skin than in fascia -- connective tissue."
--Matthew Barney

"We've not devised an aesthetic for the inside of the body any more than we have developed an aesthetic of disease. Most people are disgusted…but if you develop an aesthetic for it, it ceases to be ugly. I'm trying to force the audience to change its aesthetic sense."
--David Cronenberg

"We have such sights to show you!"
--Pinhead, Hellraiser

Deep in the subterranean vaults of the Chrysler Building, a creature stirs. The sequence opens with a hand breaking through the earth and the appearance of a red-haired, blue-skinned, zombie pushing her way out of the ground. She is hauntingly beautiful and yet otherworldly, an object of both desire and dread. Yet, no sooner does she reach the surface, then she wilts and withers in the sunlight, collapsing onto the ground again. She is surrounded by undertakers who lift her up and carry her in their arms, finally placing her to rest inside a 1930 Chrysler Imperial New Yorker. Thus opens Matthew Barney's Cremaster 3, which has been described as the culminating piece, the cornerstone, of the entire Cremaster cycle.

In e-mail correspondence with the author, Barney explained that the "dryness" of the classic Zombie figure had always "repulsed" him, where-as "The creatures that attract me are wet, sensual, and more unseen" than the undead on view in most contemporary horror films. In this sequence, Barney finds ways to focus on the sensuality of the zombie figure, the wet earth that clings to her nakedness, the ways that decay resculpts her body, the stiffened grace of her movements, and the saturated colors of her thinning hair and decaying flesh. Here, Barney would seem to be drawing inspiration from other horror filmmakers Mario Bava or Dario Argenta come most immediately to mind who wanted us to celebrate the transformations which the human body undergoes after death as a thing of intense, otherworldly beauty, who wanted to blur together eros and thantos so that we could confront the natural human fascination with death not as morbidity but as desire.

Images of death and decay recur throughout Cremaster 3. In one of the most disturbing sequences in the entire cycle, the Apprentice is lead into a dental operation chamber and forcibly stripped of his clothing to reveal his mutant anatomy underneath a fleshy apron of skin extending from his navel, strangely shaped genitals. The compressed metal remains of a classic automobile is shoved into his toothless mouth, amidst pools of blood and speechless moans. His intestines are excreted from his rectum onto the operating table and studied with strange fascination with his tormentors/healers. The Apprentice's body undergoes a strange metamorphosis, his apron transformed into a kilt, with the tartan pattern formed from pulsating veins and arteries. Or at another point, we watch two horses, whose bodies seem to consist of little more than rotting flesh sliding slowly off of their parched bones.

To be sure, Cremaster 3, like the other films in the cycle, is a complex work that takes its inspiration from many different sources with horror being simply one strand among many. No one viewer is apt to recognize or be able to contextualize the full range of references contained within any of the Cremaster films, creating the kind of openness of interpretation which Barney has described as a central goal of his art. As Barney explains, "it excites me that my work can be understood in different ways by different audiences. what operates as an abstract notion for one audience can function as a more charged cultural icon for another. i want both readings to be simultaneously possible, but I am more concerned with preserving the former (because that quality is much more elusive and fragile)" Barney seems to be drawn towards the materials of popular entertainment genres precisely because they are so deeply embedded within our culture, because they already provoke strong associations and affective reactions, and because he wants us to look at them from a fresh perspective by removing them from their normal contexts.

On one level, Cremaster 3 brings together the iconography, the mythology, the visual patterning, and the color schemes of the earlier Cremaster films into one final vision a dreamlike condensation of the series as a whole. Again and again, these images surface in contexts of competition and contest Barney uses these colors to set apart cars in a demolition derby or horses in a racetrack sequence and uses those characters and settings to depict levels in a giant videogame which is played out within the Guggenheim Museum. Here, Barney, the former quarterback, returns to his first love, sports. If critics have struggled in the past to understand what the various Cremaster films had in common, this final work in the cycle brings them together to form one unified mythology which has unfolded across the entire sequences of film and indeed, across the full body of Barney's work.

At the same time, the film represents a composite of the complex aesthetic influences that shaped American culture in the 1930s. Some images seem to recall the monumentalism with which Lewis Hines depicted the construction workers building Manhattan's skyrises; others the autumnal colors with which Edward Hopper depicted late-night New York; still others the brash spectacle of Busby Berkley musicals or the strange gadgetry of Rube Goldberg or the sudsy slapstick of a Three Stooges comedy. One sequence draws inspiration from the expressionist settings of Universal monster movies, while others evoke images from gangster films or romantic comedies. And there is the recurring fascination with classic cars and art deco architectural details. And, for good measure, this artist, whom Thryza Nichols Goodeve has compared to a modern day vaudevillian, throws in the Rockettes and the fashion runway. Cremaster 3, in other words, is entertainment for children of all ages!

Here as in the earlier Cremaster films, Barney shows a fascination with the mise-en-scene of popular culture, transforming what might seem to be background details in other works into the central focus of his cinema. Cremaster 5 turned the costume drama, for example, into a drama about costumes and in Cremaster 3, Barney gives free reign to his fascination with architecture and spatiality. Barney's works have always depended upon the production of remarkable spaces or on our previous awareness of and associated with spaces which are already deeply encoded within our culture (the Morman temple and rodeo corrals in Cremaster 2, the opera houses and bridges of old world Europe in Cremaster 5, the football stadiums and Goodyear blimp in Cremaster 1, or the Isle of Mann in Cremaster 4). Architectural metaphors resurfaced again and again in my on-line exchange with Barney. He discussed, for example, his childhood fascination with the haunted house or "cabin in the woods" subgenre of horror, where an "activated architectural form" becomes a central character. He described himself as intrigued with "how an energy could live within the walls of the cabin (lightbulbs could bleed, elevator doors could bleed), and how that could put the inanimate form at odds with itself." He described football as "my first religion", citing a long-standing interest in the relationship that exists between players and the contested spaces they move through I can't help but find a connection here between Barney's fascination with space and the video game metaphor which runs through Cremaster 3, having written extensively about the ways that computer games transform the temporal focus of traditional storytelling into a fascination with spectacular and enigmatic spaces. The art of games depends upon the expressive use of atmospheric design and expressive movement as much or more than upon the design of interactions and interfaces. Barney confessed in the interview to having played only a few games and knowing little about the aesthetic debates within the game design community, but his fascination with evocative spaces would have put him in good stead if he were to turn his attention to developing the next Myst or Final Fantasy game.

Barney's aesthetic is one of appropriation and synthesis. Even that wanderlust would resonate within contemporary popular culture, where many artists construct fresh new synthesis of the heavily encoded icons and genre conventions of the past, where many artists are seeking to create idiosyncratic mythologies which draw their affective power from their tactical raids on earlier artworks. Such appropriations refuse to acknowledge any easy separation between elite and popular culture, seeking inspiration whenever and wherever it may be found. So, Barney is just as comfortable seeking inspiration from headbanger music (in Cremaster 2) as from opera (in Cremaster 5). In this essay, I want to revisit Barney's relationship to popular culture, especially the horror film, seeing Barney as involved in a conversation with other popular artists who have them own aesthetic sensibilities and thematic fixations, who are themselves involved in formal experimentation and in stretching the boundaries of the ways we think about how we live in our bodies.

I will admit straight out that I am a scholar of popular culture and not the avant-garde. Frankly, I knew very little of Barney's growing reputation when I agreed to write this essay and I have had to struggle throughout the editorial process with many aspects of art criticism that seem alien to the way that I approach my own scholarship. Yet, I have come to admire Barney precisely because he respects the popular artists and genre traditions that inspire his work. What I don't respect terribly much is the way that many art critics have felt compelled to distance him (and themselves) from the popular in order to justify their own aesthetic interests in his creations. Art in America's Jerry Salt, for example, makes a passing reference to Barney's borrowings from "certain recent horror films" but assumes his readers won't know or care which ones. Alexander Horwath writes, "so imagine, for the sake of it, a new form of film: the psychodrama studies of Cocteau or Bunuel, Maya Deren or Kenneth Anger, designed with the production materials and attraction values of a Vincente Minnelli or James Cameron film." One could write a whole paper describing the complex ways that Cocteau, Bunuel, Deren and Anger situated themselves in relation to popular culture or Minnelli and Cameron in relation to high art, or the ways that filmmakers -- from Dario Argenta to Roger Corman -- have sought to create a category of "art horror" which does what Horwath says only Barney does -- create a fusion of aesthetic experimentation and Hollywood exploitation. Often, avant garde discourse falls back on a logic of exceptionalism -- for an artist to innovate, they have to exist outside of genre altogether. Michael Kimmelman told New York Times readers: "His work has nothing really to do with films in the sense that most people think of them, except, maybe, for Bunuel's and Dali's films." Barney is depicted as a contemporary alchemist transforming popular dross into avant-garde gold. Dan Cameron writes: "even our postmodern landscape of disconnected signs and referents is loaded with more of the substance of meaning than nearly any other artist has been able to locate, much less decipher." There is almost no appreciation here that popular culture might itself be the site of aesthetic experimentation or that Barney's work might be read as part of a larger dialogue between avant-garde and popular artists. For example, a number of writers have discussed how Cremaster 1 reveals the mechanization of Busby Berkley's musical numbers and suggests their relationship with the Nuremberg rally sequences of Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Few of these critics recognize that many of Berkley's earliest and less well-known numbers (in films like Palmy Days and Kid Millions) explicitly sought to aestheticize the assembly line, to explore the intersection between human expressivity, machine-like precision, and industrial regimentation.

To be fair, Cultural Studies has paid little attention to the aesthetics of popular culture either. Writing in the 1920s, Gilbert Seldes could discuss American popular culture -- what he called the "lively arts" -- as the seed bed of aesthetic experimentation and contrast it with the stale and formulaic studio and salon arts of his era. Seldes would situate the slapstick of Chaplin and Sennett, the production numbers of Flo Zeigfeld, the comic strips of George Herrman, unapologetically on par with the painting of Pablo Picasso, suggesting that they both expressed the dynamism of twentieth century culture, and insisting that any educated person who cared about American arts needed to be fully knowledgeable about emerging popular art traditions. Selde's then-controversial claims proved prescient and today, we consider those once disreputable materials as major artistic accomplishments. J. Hoberman builds on Seldes when he describes a tradition of "vulgar modernism" (including the comic arts of Harvey Kurtzman, the films of Frank Tashlin, the cartoons of Tex Avery, and the television skits of Ernie Kovacs) which operates alongside modern art movements, introducing a self-conscious critique of mass media and consumerism into the heart of popular culture. Yet, much contemporary writing on popular culture addresses ideological rather than aesthetic questions where-as art historians have felt justified in preserving relatively solid hierarchical boundaries even as they discuss "postmodernist" artists whose work freely appropriates from popular culture. Postmodernism is read symptomatically when discussing popular culture and aesthetically when discussing high arts.

Much postmodernist theory assumes, in fact, that contemporary culture has suffered from an implosion of meaning, that we are dealing with relatively empty signifiers, a play with surfaces, and a flattening of affect. I have little doubt that much of popular culture looks flat and empty to anyone who lacks a solid grounding in its aesthetic traditions. The same might be said for modern dance. The difference is that the person who can't understand modern dance is thought to lack preparation, where-as the person who can't see depth in popular culture is assumed to be an intellectual. Fans still seek the immediacy of the lively arts and still find meaning and distinctiveness in individual works, artists, and icons. Rather than seeing postmodernism as a play with empty signifiers, it might make sense to see a postmodern collage or pastiche as a memory palace, with each appropriated element bearing complex layers of meaning and association for those familiar with the genre traditions from which they originated. To make sense of the work of an artist like Matthew Barney requires us to abandon easy cultural distinctions and to look more closely at his roots in popular culture. I mean no disrespect to Barney's artistic accomplishments when I contend that he may be an artist who works across genres but he is hardly an artist who is sui genre.

The release of the final film in the Cremaster Cycle foregrounds the urgent need for a reassessment of Barney's borrowings from popular entertainment. To fully understand what is perhaps his most complex genre synthesis to date, we would need to dig deeply into a range of different aspects in the history of popular art, including the American musical (and its roots in vaudeville and Broadway revues), the action film and its influence on the computer game, the design of classic automobiles, the heavy metal tradition, and so forth. I agree with Richard Flood that "trying to prioritize entries in Barney's syllabus is seductive but not particularly productive, as hierarchies keep mutating like the alien virus in a sci-fi movie." Yet, ultimately, one has to start somewhere and see where it leads us. Inspired by the image of the zombie clawing her way to the surface at the opening of the film and by recurring evocations of horror genre elements throughout the cycle, I want to discuss Barney's relationship to recent developments in the horror genre which have similarly sought to explore bodily limits and the transformation of human identity. I will be describing horror as itself a site of artistic experimentation working within popular culture to reshape our aesthetic sensibility, reroute our erotic desires, and revitalize our perceptual norms.


"The whole point about good horror fiction is that it subverts systems without offering coherent alternative systems."
--Clive Barker

The core definition of the horror film, according to film critic Robin Wood, can be reduced to the deceptively simple proposition: "normality is threatened by the monstrous." If much mainstream horror simply reproduces a Judeo-Christian world view in which anything that steps off the narrow path of righteousness is ultimately punished, if not destroyed, Wood speaks of a subversive tradition in American horror which encourages our attachment to the monstrous and our rejection of the repressiveness of the normative. Many horror auteurs are less interested in scaring us with a glimpse of forbidden knowledge than they are with critiquing institutions, like the family or the state, which seek to regulate sexuality and eradicate difference.

The modern horror genre was born in the context of romanticism (with authors seeking within the monster and his creator powerful metaphors for their own uneasy relationship with bourgeois culture) and the horror film originated in the context of German expressionism (with the studios demanding that madness or the supernatural be put forth as a justification for the powerful feelings generated by that new aesthetic sensibility.) The popular aesthetic's demand for affective intensity and novelty requires that popular artists constantly renew their formal vocabulary. Representing the monstrous gives popular artists a chance to move beyond conventional modes of representation, to imagine alternative forms of sensuality and perception, and to invert or transform dominant ideological assumptions. Historically, horror filmmakers have drawn on the "shock of the new" associated with cutting edge art movements to throw us off guard and open us up to new sensations. From the start, horror films have required a complex balancing between the destabilization represented by those avant garde techniques and the restabilization represented by the reassertion of traditional moral categories and aesthetic norms in the films' final moments. There is always the danger that these new devices will prove so fascinating in their own right that they will swamp any moral framing or narrative positioning. For many horror fans, the genre becomes most compelling and interesting where narrative breaks down and erotic spectacle and visual excess takes over. If the horror film has a moment of original sin, it came when the producers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inserted, at the last moment, a frame story that recontextualized the film's expressionist mise-en-scene as the distorted vision of a mad man. Through this compromise, they created a permanent space for modern art sensibilities within popular culture but only at the price of them no longer being taken seriously as art.

Many top horror artists (including David Lynch and David Cronenberg) began their careers as experimental filmmakers, often introducing themes and images which would inform their later works. Clive Barker was involved in avant garde theater productions. Wes Craven started as a philosophy and literature professor. Many contemporary artists, including Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Rita Mae Brown, Yoko Ono, and George Franju, have flirted with horror. Surrealist H.R. Giger influenced the otherworldly look of the Aliens films, where as Japanese fashion designer Eiko Ishioka has gotten mainstream visibility through capturing the subjective experience of a psycho killer in The Cell. As Cronenberg explains, "the horror genre is very kind if you are and want to be outrageous. It forgives a lot of faults and it encourages madness of a certain kind. I'm not too worried about staying within it because it encourages exactly those things that I most value about art." Joan Hawkins notes the central role which horror film distributors have played in insuring the continued circulation of art and experimental films, starting with Roger Corman's role in introducing films by directors like Fellini into the American market and continuing with niche video companies which will distribute any film with an unconventional aesthetic or shocking content.

The most hardcore segments of the horror audience are, in effect, avant-garde in their tastes, with fanzine critics functioning as the low culture counterpart of arts journals in identifying and interpreting what is distinctive about emerging figures within the genre. Documenting how fanzines helped to promote the "art horror" of Lynch, Craven, or Cronenberg, David Saniek writes, "This devotion to uniqueness of vision has led the fanzines to value most works which bear the mark of an uninhibited visionary sensibility, one which pushes the boundaries of social, sexual, and aesthetic assumptions." Horror fan Mark Kermode has described the role such publications played in his own initiation into horror aesthetics, suggesting that his first encounter with horror films provoked unanticipated feelings, but he lacked a critical vocabulary to articulate the meanings he felt lurking within the cryptic and often disturbing images. He writes, "Essentially a surrealistic genre, contemporary horror demands to be read metaphorically rather than literally. Throughout the 1980s, advanced latex special effects processes allowed directors like David Cronenberg, Brian Yuza, and Clive Barker to stretch the envelope of on-screen surrealism with a previously impossible ease. Yet the work of all of these directors is meaningless if taken at face value… The horror fan understands this, and is thus not only able but positively compelled to 'read' rather than merely 'watch' such movies. The novice, however, sees only the dismembered bodies, hears only the screams and groans, reacts only with revulsion or contempt." In other words, horror films provoke for non-initiated viewers pretty much the same range of emotions that the "Sensations" exhibition provoked in Rudolph Giuliani, a parallel which should give us pause before dismissing too easily the aesthetic value of these low culture productions. Like the avant-garde, horror is an acquired taste, a fringe subculture whose subversiveness lies in the challenge it poses to the hegemony of more mainstream sensibilities. Also like the avant-garde, horror generates its own aesthetic discourse, positioning itself in opposition to the ideological and aesthetic norms of dominant cinema.

Almost all of the films which Barney identifies as influential on his work are in fact drawn from the canon of what Jeff Sconce has identified as the paracinema movement. While Barney has told interviewers very little about his own fannish interests, he betrays an awareness of this alternative film culture simply by the films he references. One doesn't have to look very hard to see the horror influences in his work. The bleeding blade that is the logo of Cremaster 2 recalls similar images that open the Hellraiser or Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Recall the unnerving juxtaposition of swarming bees and naked flesh in Cremaster 2, the strange orbs that crawl out of the driver's pockets or the closing shots of a purplish organ soaking in a vat of white goo or of strange instruments attached to what looks like genitals in Cremaster 4. Consider Barney's expressed fascination with guts, connective tissue, and bodily fluids. Consider the deformed and freakish figures that creep in the corners and crawl along the floor at various points in his films. Such images draw deeply upon the generic repertoire of contemporary horror.

We might compare such moments with the "shunting sequence" in Brian Yuza's Society, a film which Barney has cited in previous interviews. At first glance, Society represents pretty blunt agitprop. Made at the end of the Reagan era, the movie depicts a world where the wealthy literally devour the flesh of the poor and gather behind closed doors to shed their clothes, their inhibitions, and oh, yeah, their skin. We see all of this debauchery through the eyes of a rather bland boy-next-door type who is shocked and outraged to learn that his preppy classmates are part of this grisly conspiracy or that the girl he has a crush on will be "coming out" at their next blood orgy. But, the film's simple moral oppositions break down in its climactic sequence; Yuza draws us from dread to horror to fascination to desire as we watch these hot and sticky, well, more like melting and mutant, bodies come together, penetrate and be penetrated by each other, in every imaginable combination. Yuza, no less than Barney, demonstrates a fascination with what Hansmartin Siegrist calls "the ooze of life," mixing and matching flesh and synthetic materials, luxuriating in the slipperiness and sheen of various bodily fluids, and eroticizing the dissolution of individual identity into collective consciousness. Yuza, no less than Barney, wants to defamiliarize the ways we look at the human body and to make some fresh discoveries about the elasticity of erotic desire.


"The body that scares and appalls changes over time, as do the individual characteristics that add up to monstrosity, as do the preferred interpretations of that monstrosity."
-- Judith Halbertstam

If, as Judith Halberstam has suggested, monsters are "meaning machines," then the introduction of new topics into cultural discourse can often result in the creation of new visual metaphors within horror. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a number of social and technological developments have destabilized our conceptions of bodily integrity, subjectivity, and sexuality: medical improvements including heart transplants, sex change operations, new imaging technologies, and improvements in prosthetic devices; growing awareness of the threat/potential of genetic engineering; a growing discourse about the social construction of sexuality; the renewal of piercing, tattooing, and other forms of voluntary bodily modifications… David Cronenberg has summed up these new attitudes towards the body: "We are physically different from our forefathers, partly because of what we take into our bodies and partly because of things like glasses and surgery. But there is a further step that could happen, which would be that you could grow another arm, that you could actually physically change the way you look -- mutate. Human beings could swap sexual organs, or do without sexual organs as sexual organs per se, for procreation. We're free to develop different kinds of organs that would give pleasure and that have nothing to do with sex. The distinction between male and female would diminish, and perhaps we would become less polarized and more integrated creatures." [p.82] Artists, both high and low, have been tempted to explore the further implications of these changes, to imagine radically different ways of living within our bodies.

Critics have labeled the popular representations of these "posthuman" identities as "body horror," pointing to a new degree of explicitness in the depiction of the body and its processes, a new anxiety about bodily invasion or transformation, a new fascination with images of mutation and plague, and a new openness about the intersection of horror and sexuality, pleasure and pain. These themes have both fueled and exploited significant improvements in special effects and make-up technologies that enable filmmakers to morph and mutate the human body beyond recognition. These shifts altered our conception of what makes us human and in doing so, enabled new conceptualizations and visualizations of the monstrous. Now filmmakers can and do depict anything that the human mind can imagine. They don't simply want to pull out our guts and shove them in our faces; they want us to relish their distinctive texture, their pungent odor, their sensual sheen. After all, the horror film now competes with documentaries that can run fiber optics up every bodily passage and show us what the real thing looks like. As Linda Ruth Williams explains, "contemporary horror has specialized in making the inside visible, opening it up and bringing it out and pushing the spectacle of interiority to the limit to find out what that limit is." The extreme end of this tendency became known as "splatterpunk," in reference to its coupling of intensely graphic representations of violence and gore with a hip street smart sensibility. Such works pushed the current destabilization of our thinking about bodily transformations to its apocalyptic endpoint, creating images of bodies and identities stretched, mutated, ripped open, and stitched together again.

At the same time, any stable separation between the monstrous and the normal is breaking down. What might provoke unimaginable horror a decade ago might well become mundane and mainstream today. Consider, for example, how once unassemblable images pierced genitals say now surface as a conventional, almost obligatory, image in mass market men's magazines. As Clive Barker explains, "liberated from the constraints of classicism, the unjaundiced eye may greet the sight of the monster much as it greets things of beauty: with awe, fascination and a little envy." [p.223} The horror writer, he suggests, doesn't simply want to represent the new shape of human flesh but to evoke its sensations for the reader, to "get inside its impossible skin" and encourage us to see the realm of our normal experiences from a fresh perspective. It is this transformation of sensation and perception which links this popular art movement to the historical function of the avant-garde. The best artists working in the genre don't just want to provoke horror or revulsion, they want to slowly reshape our sensibilities so that we come to look at some of the most outré images as aesthetically pleasing and erotically desirable. Cronenberg joked about a future in which we might have "a beauty contest for the inside of the human body where people would unzip themselves and show you the best spleen and the best heart." These popular artists wanted to confront spectators with the dark, repressed, and kinky sides of their own erotic fantasies. As Barker explains, "This fiction is all about desiring other experience. It's all about wanting more than what our bodies apparently limit us to."[p.222] It was also, in an age of queer politics, about imagining a freedom from social constraint.

Barker's Hellraiser films, for example, depict the Cenobytes as "ageless experts in the art of refined pleasure and even more refined pain"; his human characters are restless pleasure seekers who will pay any price for the ultimate sensation. The film's imagery constantly blurs the line between the erotic and the horrific, juxtaposing a passionate sex scene with the image of a hand scraping across a rusty nail, depicting a woman kissing and licking the bloody fingers of her newly resurrected lover, or the demons lovingly reconstructing the splayed face of the protagonist like a fleshy jigsaw puzzle. In Clive Barker's world, monsters see the world with the innocence of children, seeking out pleasure and sensation, refusing to respect the limits human morality places on the body: "The monsters concede no limitations. Amongst their tribe, eyes, ears, mouths, teeth, tongues, limbs, bellies and genitals are designed to devour experience on a scale we dream of as children, thinking it will be the reward of adulthood, only to find in maturity we were freer as infants."[p.337]

Charles Burns's comic book series, Black Hole, takes us on a similar trajectory: one by one, a group of teenagers succumb to a sexually-transmitted "plague." The plague results in a wide range of bodily mutations, which the teens initially hide behind their clothing like so many hickeys. When the changes become too great, the infected take refuge in an outcast community, a modern day leper colony, on the outskirts of town. Each teen initially confronts the "plague" in silent horror and self-loathing, confronting these changes in absolute ignorance, since no one dares talk openly about the bodily changes they are confronting. Burn's self-consciously lurid style, which mimics the conventions of E.C. comics from the 1950s, suggests the contradictions of a culture that both stirs up erotic desires and then refuses to discuss its consequences. Yet, as the work continues, Burns suggests more complex and ambivalent feelings about what the teens are becoming. Consider for example two matching scenes. In the first, a young woman eagerly tongues the mouth-like opening on her boyfriend's neck ("Nothing about you is gross. It was warm and salty. It was like the ocean. A clean, sharp taste. And further inside, a tiny tongue. I could feel it trembling, fluttering up against mine"). In the second, a boy discovers that the woman he is making love with has sprouted a tail which, without reflection, he integrates into their lovemaking ("I grabbed it and it felt good. It was strong and alive in my hand. Something to hold onto…I was moving, twisting. I was holding on as hard as I could but it was slipping away.") Both scenes represent the remapping of erogenous zones not simply for the fictional characters but also for the readers. Both represent a conscious blurring of male and female sexual anatomy. Often, these popular artists sought ways of escaping human subjectivity altogether. For example, Ernst Fuchs praises H.R. Giger's work for Alien: "Here, for the first time, were images that I found to be completely alien in construct. There was no human trace, tool mark, or evolutionary chain to grab onto….Nothing can be more difficult than to create something as a human being that has no human resonances whatever." Cronenberg repeatedly discusses his work as though it were framed from the perspective of a virus: "I think most diseases would be very shocked to be considered diseases at all. It's a very negative connotation. For them, it's very positive when they take over your body and destroy you. It's a triumph." [p. 82] Greg Bear's novel, Blood Music, takes this analogy to its logical extreme, depicting a plague through the competing perspectives of the human hosts and their viral conquers. By the concluding passages, we view the destruction of the human race as a moment of transcendence, rather than an apocalypse. Humans escape the limitations of the body and the isolation of individual consciousness by becoming micro-organisms: "The small bursts upon him and his world is suddenly filled with action and simplicity. There is no light, but there is sound. It fills him in great sluggish waves, not heard but felt through his hundred cells. The cells pulse, separate, contract according to the rush of fluid. He is in his own blood. He can taste the presence of the cells making up his new being, and of cells not directly part of him. He can feel the rasping of the microtubles propelling his cyticism….Sensation along the membranes of his cells is intense."

These popular artists, no less than their avant garde counterparts, are pursuing what has been one of the overriding goals of modern art trying to brush aside encrusted layers of meaning, shatter the "glass armour" of our everyday perception, and open us to fresh experiences. It is this goal of helping us learn to stop worrying and love being posthumans that links Barney's work and this "body horror" tradition. Like Cronenberg, Barney is fascinated with the ways that new synthetic materials facilitate radically different constructions of the human body, enabling him to materialize mutant figures from his imagination. Like Barker and Burns, he is interested in exploring new forms of sensuality. And like all of these popular artists, he is interested in reconfiguring core cultural myths from an alien or mutant perspective. And to cite some of the claims made by art critics, these popular artists, no less than Barney, are "mythographer[s] of a world less recognizably human," are attempting "to tell stories of gender and generation differently, " are developing "a choreography of the body's limits", and are exploring more "polymorphous" and "onanistic" structures of desire. Read in that light, we may no longer wonder what an artist like Barney sees in films like Hellraiser, Evil Dead II, or Society, but rather why Barney chooses the avant garde -- rather than the popular cinema -- to explore his pet obsessions.

Barney has himself expressed enormous admiration for Cronenberg and Barker, in particular, seeing them as artists who share his own interests in creating "internal landscapes" ripe with the possibility of metamorphosis and transformation. Yet, Barney also expresses some frustration that the horror genre does not allow them to sustain that level of abstraction for long, but instead pulls them constantly back to moral evaluation and conventional modes of thought. Barney seeks through the avant-garde the thing that eludes these popular artists freedom from the constraints of narrative and denotation, a pure play with abstraction and connotation.


Linda Williams has proposed the category of "body genres," to refer to forms of popular fiction, such as horror, pornography, and melodrama, whose aesthetics focus around images of bodily excess. She writes, "The body spectacle is featured most sensationally in pornography's portrayal of orgasm, in horror's portrayal of violence and terror, and in melodrama's portrayal of weeping." In other words, each of these body genres depend ultimately on the sounds and images of bodies out of control, "beside themselves" with pleasure, fear, or sadness.

Barney's work, on the other hand, is all about bodies under control -- perhaps stretched to the limits, perhaps doing things we never imagined possible, but also perfectly regulated. He returns again and again to images of repetitive and ritualized behavior. I was struck, for example, by the bull-riding sequence in Cremaster 2. Bull riding in a conventional film might well conjure up a profound sensation of unboundness and a loss of control, as the rider is flung hither and yon by the pounding motion of the bull, barely able to hold on and almost inevitably going to be flung off into the dust. Barney, however, films the bull as if its every rise and fall had been choreographed. The rocking bull becomes the very image of bodily constraint, sinking slowly to its knees, under drugs or some other form of bewitchment. Something similar occurs earlier in the film, when we see Gary Gilmore's conception. The sexuality is explicit enough that some critics have labeled it pornographic, but it has none of the sense of bodily abandon one associates with pornography. This is sex for procreation, not pleasure. Even when Gilmore's mother throws her head back in release, it seems as much a gesture of spiritual uplift as one of orgasm. Or consider the ways that Barney films the murder sequence. There is certainly blood spilt, yet the camera seems as interested in the stacks of tires in the foreground of the shot as in the murder itself. The first gunshot is filmed through and muffled by a window. When he shows us the blood, it seems to be slowly leaking from the dead man's skull onto the tile floor.

As Williams suggests, the popular aesthetic of the horror film depends on provoking intense sensations. Its success is measured in part by its ability to shape the viewer's affective experiences. Barney's works are more open-ended; they present us with images of bodily transformations, strange couplings and unfamiliar rituals, but they do not tell us what we should think or feel about them. Barney draws visual elements from the horror film, yet he drains them of their horror. No one screams when they encounter the monstrous in these films; there is no sense of perversity or damnation. There is something remarkably mundane about the opening images of Cremaster 4 when we watch the Longhton Candidate comb and part his orangish-red hair to reveal the vestigial horns underneath.

Cronenberg, Barker, and Burns contrast the "new flesh" with what came before. Much as pornography depends on the construction and crossing of taboos, horror depends on the construction and transgression of norms. Yet, Barney's work shows only limited interest in our existing norms. He depicts the process of filling up Gary Gilmore's gas tank as if it were no more or less normal than the process by which the medium conducts her seance.

Cronenberg, Barker, and Burns all struggle against the trappings of their genre. Creating horror allows them to inject their avant garde sensibilities into the memestream, to get their ideas before a larger public, but it also dooms them to a certain predetermined response at least from a significant portion of their audience. We may pause for a sublime moment to savor unanticipated sensations, to imagine new forms of pleasure which transcend the limits of our current bodies and consciousness, yet we are pulled back too swiftly into the onward progression of their narratives, which ultimately, in most cases, reinscribe the moral values that they sought to dislocate. Although Cronenberg, Barker, and their contemporaries have worked hard to pull the monstrous out of the shadows, these images remain, ultimately, the stuff of quick cuts and shocking revelations. The horror film always depends on an element of surprise, of being caught unawares, of seeing things we weren't quite ready to confront. By contrast, Barney prolongs the moment of our confrontation with the unfamiliar. It is hard to call his cinematography static when there is so much movement both within the frame and of the camera itself and yet one comes away from watching his films with a sense of stillness. We scrutinize his images; actions are performed over and over; all of the shock wears away and what we are left with is the beauty, the erotic fascination, the sense of transformation and enchantment. Even the category of the monstrous seems altogether wrong for what we see in the Cremaster films. Barney refuses to "other" the freakish creatures who populate his film, often taking on the most traditionally grotesque roles himself, becoming the giant, the hunchback, the psycho killer, the sheep-man, rather than holding them at a distance.

Barney doesn't so much enact his narratives as re-enact them, much as the way that a nativity set reminds us a story we all already know and don't really need to be told again. He reduces the stories to holy icons, blessed sacraments, ritualized gestures, and sacred spaces. Nothing feels as if it is happening for the first time. Nothing seems spontaneous or innocent of higher orders of symbolism. Not surprisingly, many critics have found Barney's films more rewarding on second or subsequent viewings. We need to get inside these images, work through the complex web of associations and transformations. We need, in other words, to be initiates within the Church of Matthew Barney before we understand the full power and mystery of his iconography. Barney's enthusiasts become as obsessive as any other movie cultist so many fan boys eagerly winding and rewinding their videos, no matter what their intellectual pretensions. As Jerry Saltz reports, "I've seen it [Cremaster 4] more than 75 times. Each time, I catch something new; every viewing is different and makes the experience of the work more complex and more complete."

In that sense, Barney reminds me not so much of Cronenberg and Barker, or even of contemporary popular artists, such as Neil Gaiman (The Sandman) or Alan Moore (Prometheus), who share Barney's desire to construct a personal mythology and who develop elaborate keys to help readers work through their various allusions and references. Rather, he reminds me of the short stories of 1950s science fiction author, Cordwainer Smith. Like Barney, Smith sought to link together the full body of his work -- some fifty-plus short stories and several novels -- into one overarching mythological vision. Like Barney, Smith was fascinated with images of bodily transformation, whether it is the complex fusion of man and machine in "Scanners Lived in Vane," the horrific images of body parts being grown on and harvested from living humans in "A Planet Called Shayol" or the experiments which transform animals into half-human servants in "The Dead Lady of Clown Town." Read retrospectively, Smith's stories look forward to 1980s body horror and cyberpunk, but they are just plain weird in the context of 1950s America. Smith's narrative style was equally idiosyncratic, inspired by his studies of classical Chinese folktales but reflecting a distinctly modernist sensibility. Smith would interrupt an original short story with asides about how these same events had been represented in paintings or in stage dramas or television productions, how they had been told and retold to previous generations, and how the actual events deviated from those familiar representations. In other words, he was a revisionist within a mythology that existed no where outside his own imagination.

Cronenberg, Barker, Burns, and their contemporaries show us what it might feel like to be a posthuman, inviting us to experience new sensations, to taste new desires. Cordwainer Smith and Matthew Barney created a mythology for the posthuman world. Cronenberg and Barker address us as humans on the verge of transformation; Smith and Barney address us as posthumans who have already made the transition. They do not offer us any comfortable point of entry into their work. They are speaking, as it were, to an audience that does not yet exist and demanding of their current audience that they struggle to keep up. We do not so much consume their images as decipher them. This doesn't necessarily make Barney a better artist than Barker, only a different kind.

1. Matthew Barney, as quoted in Richard Flood, "The Land of Everlasting Hills, Cremaster 2 book.

2. David Cronenberg as quoted in Ian Conrich, "An Aesthetic Sense: Cronenberg and Neo-Horror Film Culture," in Michael Grant (Ed.), The Modern Fantastic: The Films of David Cronenberg (Westport: Praeger, 2000), p.37

3. Richard Flood, "Notes on Digestion and Film," Matthew Barney, Race Car For the Hubris Pill, Museum Boymmans-Van Veuningen, Rotterdam, 21,19,1995-1.1.1996.

4. Hansmartin Siegrist,

5. Jerry Saltz, "The Next Sex," Art in America, October 1999.

6. Alexander Horwath, "Le Cremystere: Some Ideas on Matthew Barney, Cremaster 1 and the Cinema," 1997.

7. Michael Kimmelman, "The Importance of Matthew Barney," New York Times Magazine, October 10 1999.

8. Dan Cameron, "Matthew Barney, Escape Artist," Matthew Barney, Cremaster 1, Cremaster 4, Del 30 de juny al 8 de julio l de 1998, Sala Montcade de la Fundacio la Caiza, p. 33.

9. Gilbert Seldes, The 7 Lively Arts (New York: Sagamore Press, 1957; originally, 1927).

10. J. Hoberman, "Vulgar Modernism," in Vulgar Modernism: Writing on Movies and Other Media (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).

11. Richard Flood, "The Land of Everlasting Hills," Cremaster 2 artists book.

12. All quotes from Clive Barker are taken from Stephen Jones (Ed.) Shadow in Eden: The Books, Films and Art of Clive Barker (Lancaster: Underwood-Miller, 1991) and page numbers will be cited in the text.

13. Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986),

14. On the production of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, see Mike Budd, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Texts, Contexts, Histories ( Trenton: Rutgers University, 1990).

15. Unless otherwise noted, quotations from David Cronenberg are taken from Chris Rodley (Ed.), Cronenberg on Cronenberg (London: Faber and Faber, 1992).

16. Joan Hawkins, Cutting Edge: Art Horror and The Horrific Avant Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000)

17. David Sanjek, "Fans' Notes: The Horror Film Fanzine," in Ken Gelder (Ed.), The Horror Reader (New York: Routledge, 2000).

18. Mark Kermode, "I Was A Teenage Horror Fan, Or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Linda Blair," in Martin Barker and Julian Petley (Eds.), Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate (London: Routledge, 1997).

19. Jeff Sconce, ... Richard Flood cites...

20. Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), p. 8.

21. Ibid.

22. See, for example, Philip Brophy, "Horrality the Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films," in Ken Gelder (Ed.), The Horror Reader (New York: Routledge, 2000).

23. Linda Ruth Williams, "The Inside-Out of Masculinity: David Cronenberg's Visceral Pleasures," in Michael Aaron (Ed.), The Body's Perilous Pleasures: Dangerous Desires and Contemporary Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), p.34.

24. Cronenberg, as quoted in Conrich, op. cit.

25. Charles Burns... tongue

26. Charles Burns... tail

27. H.R. Giger, Retrospective, 1964-1984 (Zurich: ABC Verlag, 1985).

28. Greg Bear, Blood Music

29. The quotes come from, in order, Thryza Nichols Goodeve, "Travels in Hypertophia," Art Forum, May 1995; ibid; Neville Wakefield, "Matthew Barney's Forincation with the Fabric of Space," Parkett, No. 39, 1994; ibid.

30. Linda Williams, "Body Genres,"

31. Jerry Saltz, "The Next Sex," Art in America, October 1999

32. See, for example, Hy Bender and Neil Gaiman, The Sandman Companion (New York: Dc, 1999)

33. For a useful introduction to Cordwainer Smith's work, see James A. Mann (ed.), The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Stories of Cordwainer Smith (Boston: NESFA, 1993).



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