A man in argyle leggings and a fluffy pink drum major helmet climbs the circular ramps of the Guggenheim Museum, hoisting himself over railings and past choreographed ranks of costumed chorus girls, some topless, others dressed like sheep. A bloody towel hangs from the man’s mouth. A masked man scoops heated Vaseline and hurls it at the wall, where it slowly oozes down the ramps. Syncopated music rises and falls. Then there’s a huge bubble bath, more topless bathing beauties, dueling thrash-metal bands and a naked leopard-lady.

Welcome to “Cremaster.”

Brought to Portland in a joint effort by Space Gallery and Movies at the Museum, “The Cremaster Cycle” is a five-film, seven-hour avant garde, multimedia film epic from controversial performance artist/filmmaker Matthew Barney. It’s never been (and purportedly never will be) available on DVD, and it hasn’t been shown nationally since 2003.

And the museum’s got it.

Barney’s most infamous project is massive in scale, outrageous and often shocking in imagery — and maddeningly obscure. The cremaster muscle “raises and lowers the scrotum in order to regulate the temperature of the testes.” So that’s helpful in explaining why the theme of human sexual differentiation and reproduction runs through the work. But there are also allusions, reportedly, to Celtic mythology, Masonic ritual, Johnny Cash, Norman Mailer and mass murderer Gary Gilmore. There’s also a lot of Vaseline.

The “Cremaster Cycle,” like the best abstract art, is wildly divisive. Apart from the traditional chorus of “I don’t get it” from those all too quick to disdain experimental art, even the art community itself is not in consensus. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice once wrote that Cremaster’s “narcotized self-satisfaction gives the ridiculous a bad name,” while the Guardian’s critic, Peter Bradshaw, admiringly wrote that “the overall effect is like something by Busby Berkeley or Leni Riefenstahl, or perhaps a nightmare David Cronenberg could have after eating his bodyweight in Edam.” For film fans, I’d throw in comparisons to David Lynch, Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman — but less comprehensible.

“The Cremaster Cycle” opens tonight and runs through Sunday at the Portland Museum of Art. Tickets are $10 per film, or $20 for a weekend pass, offering a rare opportunity for lovers of experimental film, modern art or just plain general weirdness to see something truly unique. See portlandmuseum.org/events/movies.php for details. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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