Matthew Barney's epic Cremaster cycle (1994–2002) is a self-enclosed aesthetic system consisting of five feature-length films that explore processes of creation. The cycle unfolds not just cinematically, but also through the photographs, drawings, sculptures, and installations the artist produces in conjunction with each episode. Its conceptual departure point is the male cremaster muscle, which controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli. The project is rife 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.
The photographs, drawings, and sculptures radiate outward from the narrative core of each film installment. Barney's photographs—framed in plastic and often arranged in diptychs and triptychs that distill moments from the plot—often emulate classical portraiture. His graphite and Vaseline drawings represent key aspects of the project's conceptual framework. And the sculptures—constructed from the artist's signature materials, including plastic, metal, and Vaseline—are three-dimensional incarnations of the characters and settings. They exist independently from the films, but embody the same content—now expressed in space rather than time.
The exhibition fills the museum in a site-specific installation designed by the artist to encapsulate the five-part cycle, combining all its varied components into one cohesive whole. The 35-mm films, which are screened daily in the Peter B. Lewis Theater, are also shown on monitors throughout the installation to foreground the fundamental interrelationship between sculpture and the moving image in Barney's practice. The centerpiece of the installation is a five-channel video piece suspended in the middle of the Rotunda. Each screen shows different footage from "The Order," a sequence from Cremaster 3 shot in the Guggenheim. Staged as a perverse competition with Barney as its sole contestant, "The Order" deploys five levels of the Guggenheim's spiraling ramps in an allegory representing the five chapters of the cycle. The exhibition mirrors this structure—the Cremaster installments progress in ascending order from the Rotunda floor, up the ramps, and to the Annex Gallery at the top. Sculptures introduced in "The Order" as symbols for each Cremaster film are exhibited in the context of their respective chapters alongside earlier works in a chronological rhythm that reflects the looping flow of the cycle itself.