Matthew Barney’s OTTO Trilogy
By Maggie Nelson
An excerpt from Maggie Nelson’s essay “On Porousness, Perversity, and Pharmacopornographia: Matthew Barney’s OTTO Trilogy.”
Matthew Barney will be in conversation with Maggie Nelson on Thursday, June 4, as part of Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle and Select Early Works, now playing at 7 Ludlow.
Barney’s work has long been characterized by its combination of detailed, somewhat abstruse backstory (manifested in titles, explanations, accompanying drawings, and wide array of iconographic references) and the visceral impact of the work itself, whose import deepens with explanatory context, but which definitively holds its own without it. The OTTO trilogy is no exception. Barney has explained, for instance, that there is a chase going on here between an antagonist faction Jim Otto and Al Davis) and protagonist (the Character of Positive Restraint/Houdini), and an essential narrative conflict at stake (i.e., the antagonist faction wants the Houdini faction to expel energy—often figured as air from bagpipes on the cusp of playing “Amazing Grace”—whereas the Houdini faction wants to keep holes sealed, suspended in a state of unexpressed potential). But not much, if any, of this narrative is obvious to the viewer, certainly not on initial exposure, and perhaps not even with repeated, viewings. (Indeed, since the videos are silent, there is no way of knowing that the song “Amazing Grace” is even at issue, though the drama around expelling the air from the bagpipes is acutely legible.
Although he’s happy to offer a detailed explanation of the action at hand, I suspect Barney intends the relationship between such explanation and the immediate, visual experience to be loose. In fact, he says he was preoccupied at the time of this work’s making with the action being “suggestion, not concrete, and for the narrative to be nonlinear but looping.” He says he wanted the monitors “to feel ambient in the space, like those in an airport or Off Track Betting parlor,” and that the videos could “function like a proposal rather than a fact.” In other words, a chase might be going on, and one with a central conflict, but “chase” and “conflict” are here repurposed into dynamics or moods more than narrative unspoolings.
Cremaster 2 (2002)
The difference matters, especially as it lends insight into Barney’s particular way of working , with images, bodies, and ideas. Choreographer William Forsythe has said (in a 2006 Bomb interview) that Barney is himself “an absolutely superior choreographer in every sense. Really one of the best in our field. No one moves ideas around like he does.” In a 1995 piece in Parkett, Keith Seward compares Barney’s work to Artaud’s desire to stage “events” or “emanations of forces” rather than “men,” aka psychologized individuals. But Barney never vanishes particular bodies in order to shepherd ideas, events, or forces through space and time. Instead, he works through them—often literally, by exploring the body’s capacity to absorb, infiltrate, or expel. And while he has evidenced a long-standing interest in mythologies of different kinds, his use of them does not reflect the problem, articulated by Carter, that “[m]yths deal in false universals, to dull the pain of particular circumstances.” Bodies, no matter how strange, are always particular circumstances. Jim Otto may be the “porous, perforated” antagonist (aka the Hypothermal Penetrator) who “seeks to open more orifices in others,” and Houdini, the “self-contained, sealed-off, hermetic” protagonist, but these figures are not archetypes. Their universe and activities are too surprising and strange simply to “represent.” Instead, via their idiosyncrasy, they make a new thing—something suspended between myth, event, forces, characters, and individual bodies.
This suspension is critical for Barney; in the OTTO trilogy, it’s also literal. Though they constitute some of the longest video pieces here and have the least variability of image, I continue to find the two cross-ceiling climbs—MILE HIGH Threshold and BLIND PERINEUM—among the most compelling. The obvious difficulty of the physical feat being attempted, combined with the ridiculousness of the image (Barney dangling naked, save silicone swim cap, harness, socks and shoes, and a tail fan of ice screws), sets the viewer rocking between seriousness (will he make the next move without falling?!) and inanity (this is art?! Etc.). Over the course of watching, however, one gets enjoyably lost in the daft, mesmerizing momentum of simple physical effort. This momentum seems skimmed off any operative plot about Houdini and Jim Otto rather than constitutive of it—a feeling key to Barney’s approach to narrative and abstraction. Abstraction derives from the Latin, “to draw away”; the abstraction here arrives via Barney’s separation of the propulsive force of each scene from the more elaborate narrative that may have generated it, a method reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s activation of the power of the declarative while leaving sense-making behind (as in insistences such as “Sugar is not a vegetable”).
Delay of Game (1991)
As with Stein, a certain confidence of gesture, and of pacing, is critical. Consider the perfect, three-minute skit of DELAY OF GAME, in which the Character of Positive Restraint (played by Barney) appears in a retro one-piece white swimsuit, white sunglasses, white pumps, white turban, white robe, à la Lana Turner—and enacts a series of gestures involving the removal of a pearl from her glove, the depositing of the pearl into an orifice on the ground, a preparation for a snap from center that never arrives, and then an exit made while pushing a sculpture (the PACE CAR FOR THE HUBRIS PILL) and offering a First Lady-style wave and smile. The scene is remarkable for the physical grace of its character—Barney is as strong and beautiful cross-dressed as he is as Houdini—and for the sheer pleasure that this grace offers, a grace augmented by the scene’s narrative mystery.
That final smile seems to crack something in this work open. I’m not sure whether it’s just the glimpse, however theatrical, of someone enjoying herself in what can sometimes feel a grim, grayscale, sedulous landscape, or if it’s my projection of the pleasure Barney might be taking in this work, in making and inhabiting this world, these character zones. Whatever it is, it feels like a portal to the linked subjects of humor, physical grace, and the startling image in Barney’s work, all of which work together to suggest that something else is possible within the pharmacopornographic regime—a new game, or at least a novel way to play the field.
This is an excerpt from Maggie Nelson’s essay “On Porousness, Perversity, and Pharmacopornographia: Matthew Barney’s OTTO Trilogy,” which appears inside the 2016 book Matthew Barney: OTTO Trilogy, published by Gladstone Gallery.
Maggie Nelson is the author of several acclaimed books of poetry and prose, including the forthcoming collection Like Love: Essays and Conversations (2024), the national bestseller On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (2021), the National Book Critics Circle Award winner The Argonauts (2015), The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2011), Bluets (2009), The Red Parts (2007), Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (2007), and Jane: A Murder (2005). In 2016 she received a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship. She currently teaches at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles.
Blind Perineum (1991)