The Dantesque work of Matthew Barney

[24 Jan 2011]


Matthew Barney is an unusual person, known to the general public mainly for being the partner of the Icelandic singer Björk. A former top-level American Footballer, he first caught the attention of a small circle of American art fans through his performance art before developing a universe of significant theatrical intensity whose seductive and yet dissonant imagery has reinvented the place of film in Contemporary art.
His first solo exhibition dates back to 1991 at a Los Angeles gallery. Several months later, his work was exhibited in New York, then at the Venice Biennial and then at the Whitney Museum in 1993. That kind of exposure put Barney on an art market fast track although, at the time, he hadn’t even started the work that made him one of the most important artists of his generation. The major project that really confirmed Barney’s status was in fact a cycle of five art films – seven hours in all – entitled Cremaster (named after the muscle linking the sperm duct to the testicles and the only ‘uncontrollable’ muscle since it only reacts to external stimuli) that he created between 1994 and 2002.
Cremaster is a most unusual work in the field of Contemporary art. It invents a new mythology of the cycle of life and of spiritual evolution. The Cremaster universe oscillates between dreams and nightmares and is populated by hermaphrodite creatures, mutants, hybrid beings fighting with their animality, and satyrs trying rites of passage. These textless stories – with highly convoluted narrative threads – are full of metaphors and incursions into pagan mythologies and they conjure up all sorts of allegories and rites, with all kinds of references to art, technology, architecture, nature and pop culture.
Matthew BARNEY’s artistic ambitions have been generously met by, for example, the New York Guggenheim Museum and the grand Opera in Budapest, both of which allowed him to film certain scenes of his film on their premises. Ursula Andress participated in the adventure with a remarkable appearance in Cremaster 5.

Then there is the question of the financing of the epic films and their extravagant decors and accessories. In effect, Matthew Barney operates in much the same way as CHRISTOJEANNE-CLAUDE whose monumental projects are self-financed by the sale of peripheral objects that were used or contributed to the project. In additions he overturns the standard economic rules of Contemporary art by asking collectors to invest prior to the production of a work. Thus, Barney sells the accessories, photographs, drawings, installations and costumes that were used in making his films.
Collectors therefore invest by conviction and are not tempted to speculate. As a result, there are few cases of “quick resale” and Matthew Barney’s auction market is not particularly dense: over the last fifteen years only 255 of his works have been offered at auctions and only ten since the beginning of 2010… that is just one sixth of Jeff KOONS’ auction volume and 1/24 of Takashi MURAKAMI’s!

Barney’s auction record is $350,000 for an installation created for Cremaster 4. This record was set in 1999 just a few months before he received the Prix Europa 2000 for the best young artist. At the time his index remained stable on the back of this score. But his major works such as Cremaster 4 – that can properly be described as “museum quality” – are rare, and buyers are essentially faced with a supply of prints and photographic works in an affordable price range. Certain lithographs change hands for less than $500 (Cremaster 5, sold on 5 December 2009 at Karl & Faber in Munich). More interesting works like his photos usually fetch between $3,000 and $5,000. Recently, the photograph Cremaster 2: The Royal Cell of Baby Fay, edited in only 40 copies, fetched $3,500 at Christie’s New York (22 September 2010).

The secondary market for works by Matthew Barney – so discrete and limited – does not measure up to his work, which is so spectacular… and with his price index at its lowest for a decade… now is an excellent time to bid for his works!