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The Bizarre Blarney of Matthew Barney:

Celtic Myth, Modernity, Migration, Mobsters, and Masonry in The Cremaster Cycle

Philip R. Fagan
Copyright Date:
I. Introduction

It would be difficult to overstate the scope and complexity of New York artist Matthew Barney’s avant-garde multimedia epic, The Cremaster Cycle. So named after the muscle that raises and lowers the male genitalia in response to emotion and temperature, the cremaster in Barney’s work symbolizes a return to a genderless perfection in a mythical and magical past. In addition to five feature films which total nearly seven hours of running time, the works comprising The Cremaster Cycle include still photography, drawings, collage, sculpture, and architecture.

The interrelated and ever-morphing characters, settings, themes and narratives of the cycle comprise an even broader palette than the diversity of mediums. A postmodern potpourri that co-opts numerous genres, narratives, and styles for its own purposes, The Cremaster Cycle includes (but is not limited to): A variety of mythical deities, magical beings, beasts, and monsters; Mormonism; the magician Harry Houdini; the murderer Gary Gilmore; the construction of the Chrysler building in New York City; horror films and Busby Berkeley musicals; Freemasonry; body play and sadomasochism; process art; professional sports; prosthetics; Celtic, punk, country and opera music; and various American and European locales and their respective legends and lore. Thus, “the most fundamental character or element in each Cremaster film is the location in which the narrative takes place” (Spector, 2002, p.20).

Additionally, despite rich ambient and musical soundscapes, the five installments of the series are essentially silent films, offering nothing in the manner of traditional spoken dialogue. Eschewing all traditional notions of film narrative, The Cremaster Cycle demands to be experienced in its own bizarre lexicon, and to attempt in mere prose to convey the genius, the beauty, or the shock value which the films convey is a daunting task to say the least.

To quote Nancy Spector (2002), the cycle ...is a self-enclosed aesthetic system (symbolizing) the potential of sheer creative force…A contemporary creation myth… Driven by a narrative impulse, the iconography is multivalent and illusive. Objects and images, always striking, bizarre, and seductive, function simultaneously on various levels of meaning. Created out of sequence…the cycle has at least two sets of beginnings, at least two endings, and many more points of entry. It is a polymorphous organism of an artwork, continuously shifting guises and following its own eccentric set of rules, many of which Barney has employed since his earliest body-centric projects (p.4). As Spector’s illuminating study of Barney’s work notes, the artist’s dense puzzle of signs and metaphors is further complicated in that the films were shot out of sequence.

Cremaster 4 dates from 1994, followed by 1, 5, and 2 respectively; while Cremaster 3 is the last entry, completed in 2002. The temporal bookends of the series being then 4 and 3, these two entries also consist of almost exclusively Celtic narratives, themes and imagery. It can only be assumed that Barney views his revisionist creation saga as inseparable from his own Celtic heritage, and the mystery, mythology and folklore surrounding the ancient British Isles.

In Cremaster 4, “the chronology circles back on itself to a time before birth: The Isle of Man, situated in the Irish Sea midway between England, Ireland, and Scotland, suggests the artist’s own Celtic ancestry …as also, for that matter, do the allusions to the Irish labor unions of 1930s New York in Cremaster 3…” (Spector, p.32).

Barney’s earlier film and video works also contain distinctly Celtic elements, such as the Highland bagpipers and ancient Scottish tartans (OTTOshaft, 1992), which resurface in the Cremaster 3 centerpiece; and the goat-men, or satyrs (Drawing Restraint 7, 1993), who anticipate Barney’s “Loughton Candidate” character on the Isle of Man in Cremaster 4. It is in these two pivotal Cremaster films that these authorial motifs are most fully realized, and it is telling that Barney has denoted his vast project a “cycle”, the word used to denote various traditions within Celtic legendry, as in the Ultonian, Fenian and Ossianic Cycles (Colum, 1954; Rolleston, 1917). The artist has effectively retooled such lore to craft a truly unique cinematic experience that aggressively examines the tension between ancient tradition and modernity, the cultural clash which separates myth from Modernism. II. Cremaster 4 (1997)

Perhaps the only consistent symbol uniting the five entries of the cycle is Barney’s “field emblem”, an oval bisected by a straight horizontal line. The emblem signifies at once “the orifice and its closure, the hermetic body, an arena of possibility” (Spector, p.7), just as the biological organ of the cremaster muscle becomes, in Barney’s world, the symbol of a utopian gender mutability and creative potential.

This form features prominently throughout the cycle, although always modified to reflect the themes of the individual films. In the hour long Cremaster 4, the transgressed ellipsis is augmented by the national symbol of the Isle of Man, the Manx Arms: Three running armored legs connected to a single axis. In his Folklore of the Isle of Man (1891), A.W. Moore describes the legend surrounding this emblem: The natives say that many centuries before the Christian era the Island was inhabited by Fairies, and that all business was carried on in a supernatural manner. They affirm that a blue mist continually hung over the land, and prevented mariners, who passed in ships that way, from even suspecting that there was an island so near at hand, till a few fishermen, by stress of weather, were stranded on the shore. As they were preparing to kindle a fire on the beach, they were astounded by a fearful noise issuing from the dark cloud which concealed the Island from their view. When the first spark of fire fell into their tinder box, the fog began to move up the side of the mountain, closely followed by a revolving object, closely resembling three legs of men joined together at the upper part of the thighs, and spread out so as to resemble the spokes of a wheel. Hence, the Arms of the Island (p.37).

The Isle of Man setting has a unique reputation as a hotbed of Celtic mythology, particularly that of the Irish: Mythical personages connected with the Island, all… appear in ancient Irish tales, though nothing can be discovered of them from purely native sources of early date. In fact, the Isle of Man was so intimately associated with Ireland till the coming of the Northmen, that it is not likely that it would have any early myths distinct from those in Ireland. It is, therefore, to the early Irish legends that we have to refer for any mention of the Isle of Man, and they tell us that it was considered to be a sort of Fairy-land to which the Irish gods and heroes occasionally resorted (Moore, p.1).

Furthermore, if Ireland (and Scotland to a less dramatic degree) is often considered to have dallied overlong in the shadow of a primitive Agrarian society, and to have failed to embrace the tide of industrialization that the larger European nations fashioned into Modernity; then the tiny Isle of Man is perhaps the last stronghold of a bygone age when man was still in the thrall of magic and at the mercy of mystery and superstition.

As late as 1891, Moore writes that there were still… remote parts of the Island, away from the towns and highways, where beliefs in Fairies, Goblins, Demons, and Ghosts still remain; where the “Evil Eye” is still a power; where there is still a vague distrust of solitary old crones; and where the “Charmer” has a larger practice than the ordinary medical practitioner (p.ii.)...Tales of Goblins, Ghosts, and Spectres; legends of Saints and Demons, of Fairies and familiar Spirits, in no corner of the British dominions are told and received with more absolute credulity than in the Isle of Man (p.vi.). It is in such a setting that the action of Cremaster 4 unfolds, a realm of fairies and mythical beasts under duress by the Modern Age.

Of all Barney’s sideshow spectacles, the Loughton Candidate is perhaps his most arresting. Played by Barney himself, this creature is a red-haired satyr, with the body of a man and the facial features of a goat. Both whimsical and sinister in countenance, he is impeccably dressed in a white Edwardian suit. Parting his hair with a comb, he curiously fingers the sockets where horns will someday presumably develop, then begins an emphatic tap dance within his empty white abode on a Manx seaside pier. So named for the “loghtan, or native (Manx) sheep” (Moore, p.iv), the Candidate’s namesake is a unique four-horned creature, found only on the Isle of Man.

The Loughton ram is not only thought to be an intimate of the satyrs and goat-men of Manx lore, but is itself considered a magical being. Thus, even the most recent witch doctors and charmers of the Island adorned themselves exclusively in “loughtyan wool” (Moore, p.79). Nancy Spector locates Barney’s source for the Loughton Candidate in the Manx legend of the Phynnodderee (p.60). According to Moore’s folklore, this creature was “a ‘satyr’…a fallen Fairy…In appearance, he is something between man and beast, being covered in shaggy hair and having fiery eyes…Cursed…with an undying existence on the Manx mountains in the form of a satyr…he became a strange, sad, solitary wanderer…” (p.53).

The old folks of Man apparently still lamented the disappearance of the Phynnodderee as late as Moore’s time, claiming to the folklore collector that “There has not been a merry world since he lost his ground” (p.56). A trio of nude androgynous redheaded fairies, portrayed by mannish female bodybuilders with make-up effects concealing any hint of genitalia, observe the Candidate’s fevered tapping.

Moore notes that the Manx Fairies are believed by the locals to be the earliest denizens of the Island (p.37), and, tellingly, they are also intimately associated with the Irish legend of Finn Mac Coole (Moore, p.13), who will figure prominently in Cremaster 3. Intercut with the surreal action at the pier, is the world famous Tourist Trophy motorcycle race, blazing through the idyllic landscapes of the Island past ancient stone walls, a modern cacophony of air and noise pollution.

The contrast between the mythic, unspoiled past, now resigned to the folklore of satyrs and fairies; and its encroaching destruction by ultra-modernity, embodied by the race (and also by the aggressively invasive nomenclature of Tourist Trophy) is jarring and disturbing. The two motorcycles and their teams are adorned with the Cremaster 4 logo, Barney’s field emblem inlaid with the Manx Arms symbol. As the cyclists zoom frantically across the countryside, strange gonad-like objects crawl from their leather racing uniforms, as if humanity and nature herself are trying to escape from this modern profanation; an abomination of the unspoiled Island’s realm of fancy.

The Loughton Candidate’s relentless tap-dance eventually wears a hole in the floor, plunging him into the Irish Sea. Meanwhile, one of the cycles crashes and the fairies emerge, now in cockpit uniforms, to act as a pit crew. Using a tartan-patterned jack, they replace a tire with one that is flesh-colored and sporting what appears to be a large pair of hanging testicles. It is as if the fairies are seeking to restore the idyllic balance of the Celtic Isle by infusing the state-of-the-art racing machine with a source of regenerative humanity.

The machine, of course, cannot function if humanized (naturalized) in such a manner. Meanwhile, the Candidate swims and dances his way into an underwater cavern leading into the bowels of the Island. The space is womb-like and gradually closes in on him like a birth canal. The Isle of Man now literally contains this mythic beast, the progenitor of man, and therefore acts as the source (and force) of all Nature.

The Candidate eventually finds himself beneath the ground of a high hill overlooking the sea, where the fairies picnic, frolic and play child-like games. He begins to hear the screams of the cycles as the race continues. A Loughton ram, its four horns decorated like May-poles with Tartan fabric, stands at the intersection where the racers will pass one another; another figure attempting to reconcile the old world with the forces of modernity, or at least representing the inevitable collision of the two.

The fairies are cloistered in the hills, the Candidate buried deep in the earth, and the indigenous ram, in danger of being destroyed by the two speeding vehicles, is the last vestige of the perfect and magical pre-modern existence the Manx once knew. The racing road which circles the Isle of Man is the ellipsis of the Cremaster’s field symbol, and the ram becomes the line the racers must converge at and transgress in order to destroy the ancient world and ring in the Modern Age.

The final image drives the theme home, as the motorcyclists affix lanyards first to their bikes and then to a disembodied sexless groin (Disembodied to the viewer at any rate; the groin is foregrounded on the screen). To the strains of a bagpipe funeral dirge, the cyclists presumably prepare to destroy the perfect state of gender mutability, and with it the ancient Celtic Utopia, by and tearing it asunder with their machines. III. Cremaster 3 (2002) The ever-present field emblem immediately establishes this centerpiece (or conclusion) of the cycle as an Irish-themed work.

Here, the emblem forms the centralized white stripe of the tripartite Irish national flag, surrounded by the colors green and orange. Within the white field emblem is yet another design, containing various Masonic symbols such as a two-headed eagle, the Masonic star, sword, square, compass, apron and a temple (Anonymous, 1996; Picknett & Prince, 1997; Street, 1922), the latter of which strongly resembles the Chrysler Building. This colorful flag, then, contains the various interrelated themes of the film, and also invokes the shadowy relationship between Ireland and the secret societies and ancient religions associated with Freemasonry.

Cremaster 3 opens with an oft-told tale of Celtic mythology. The Irish legend Finn MacCumhail (Colum, 1954; Moore, 1891; Rolleston, 1917), an elfin creature in Barney’s film, challenges a Scottish giant to a fight. Finn builds the immense step-like formations known as Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, extending the structure across the sea to his opponent’s isle, and thus allowing the giant to cross over. Hearing the thunderous din of the giant’s footsteps, Finn and his wife realize the immensity and strength of the foe they have engaged. The wife conveys to Finn that the giant’s vitality lies in its brass finger, and they quickly concoct a plan in which Finn disguises himself as a babe in swaddling clothes. The wife having baked several loaves of bread, they await the giant’s arrival, and the prologue of the piece comes to a close.

Shifting abruptly from the ancient past to the height of the Modern Era, the Chrysler Building narrative then begins. Deep below the construction site of the New York landmark, in a cavernous netherworld, an emaciated corpse-like female child clumsily digs herself out of a grave. Collapsing from the effort, she is picked up and carried by a group of boys, who deposit her in a Chrysler New Yorker automobile parked in the building’s ornate marble lobby. The New Yorker comes to life and engages in a perverse demolition derby with the other beautiful antique cars parked in the lobby.

In light of the Manx theme previously explored in Cremaster 4, it is worth noting that the sinister babe unearthed beneath the construction site resembles nothing so much as the description of the Manx changelings in Moore’s folklore. One mother’s child, demonically transformed by fairies, resembled “something like a child, but far different from her own, who was a very beautiful, fat, well-featured babe, whereas, what was now in the room of it was a poor, lean, withered, deformed creature…It neither spoke nor could stand and go…” (p.44-45). Intercut with the preceding scene, is the Entered Apprentice (played by Barney), an Irish laborer (circa 1930) involved in the Chrysler’s construction who appears to be intentionally sabotaging the building.

Using his cigarette lighter, he sets off sprinkler systems in the elevator shafts, then heaps buckets of concrete down them. The character’s name evokes the initiation ritual of the First Degree of the Grand Lodge of Ireland, known in Masonic tradition as Opening (Anonymous, 1996, p.3). In a wood-paneled pub on one of the upper floors, three cigar-smoking Masons- who figure as labor bosses and Irish mobsters as well- meet in a clandestine “snug” to discuss the punishment of the Apprentice over pints of Guinness Stout beer, the foamy heads of which are “topped off” by Barney’s field emblem rather than the traditional “shamrock-in-suds”.

Interestingly, in the Cremaster glossary which follows Spector’s study, Neville Wakefield directly associates the use of such snugs with war-like Irish underworld groups by including under the entry of “Partition” a brief synopsis of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, or long-standing feud between the murder gangs of the Orangemen and the IRA (Spector, p.107).

Despite the overwhelming number of Irish references in the cycle, Barney only indirectly addresses the Troubles through his shady IRA-type New York hooligans, while Spector specifically uses the word “partition” in describing the snug scene in Cremaster3 (Spector, p.47). Both writers apparently intuit that the scope of Barney's vision attempts to embrace the whole range of Irish history. It should be noted however that the floor of the pub is emblazoned with a harp and partitioned in the orange and green of the Irish flag, which, in theory, represents the two warring groups and their traditional affiliation to Protestantism and Catholicism respectively The Entered Apprentice arrives at the pub, which is presided over by real-life Irish tenor Paul Brady.

Further affirming the relationship of Ireland to music, the Apprentice and publican begin to fashion instruments from the building itself, pulling wires from the wall to make a harp and a wind instrument. The publican sings a baleful Irish air evoking Freemasonry, Manx legendry, and other esoteric lore. As Henry O’Brien (1834) writes of the unparalleled musical tradition of the Irish, “We know little or nothing at this remote day of the ancient music of the Bardic order; that it was eminent, however, and transcendentally superior to that of all other countries, is evident from it having maintained its character when all our other attributes notoriously vanished…Fuller, in his account of the Crusade, conducted by Godfrey of Boulogne, says, ‘Yea, we might well think that all the concerts of Christendom in this war would have made no music, if the Irish harp had been wanting’ (pp. 405-6)…The lyre, or harp, which the (ancient Irish people) brought with them…continues still our national emblem” (p.447).

As the Chrysler’s construction (and, presumably, its sabotage) continues, the publican is relentlessly degraded in the tradition of zany “stage Irishness”. He experiences one pratfall after another, sliding buffoonishly around in Guinness suds as the kegs behind the bar pop their seals. As this slapstick “paddywhackery” ensues, a woman “dressed in ethereal chainmail, like some hybrid Celtic archetype of agriculture and warfare” (Spector, p.48), slices potatoes (a very loaded Irish signifier) with blades on the feet of her prosthetic legs and uses the spuds to seemingly shift the base of the building; thus sabotaging its construction in apparent alliance with the Apprentice. It is as though the encroaching weight of modernity is crushing the old world of magic and superstition, and the Irish are perhaps, at once, the people most resistant to this change, and, in the United States, some of its greatest facilitators.

That the Celtic priestess’ legs are synthetic adds another layer to the metaphor. The Masonic gangsters in the snug react by testing the building’s levels with their plumb lines. The Apprentice and the Celtic potato woman are next seen on a date at the horseraces, a spectator sport both immensely popular with the Irish (in Ireland and America), and closely associated with the underworld.

The horses, apparently unable to withstand the modern threat posed by the Chrysler construction (and the automobiles the building represents, which will eclipse their own usefulness to man), wither as they run the race, becoming as zombies, the flesh hanging from their exposed and bloody ribs. At the track, the Apprentice is nabbed by the gangsters, who sadistically smash his teeth out with a bizarre steel device. A torture session in the Chrysler Building follows, inundated with Masonic symbolism as the Entered Apprentice ascends the Second Degree of Knowledge, that of Passing (Anonymous, 1996, pp. 32-44).

The Architect (played by artist Richard Serra) is introduced next, pouring over esoteric tomes and surrounded by Masonic sculptures in the top floor of the unfinished tower. He proceeds downstairs to the dentist’s office-like torture chamber to confront the saboteur, violently ramming a set of steel teeth into his victim’s mouth. The Entered Apprentice shits his intestines onto the table. Having thus asserted himself as a violent criminal, the Architect ascends again to the topmost spire of the Chrysler, adorning himself with the familiar implements of Irish Freemasonry (the apron and various symbolic tools). He proceeds to conduct a Modernist Druidic ritual from the highest man-made structure on earth (at that time). The floor of the spire transforms into a grassy mound, like that of Tara or Newgrange in Ireland, and enormous orange and green ribbons, the symbolic colors of Ireland, are attached to his body by workmen.Draping the Architect’s torso, the ribbons flow from the windows of the huge spire, transforming the Chrysler Building into a Modernist Celtic MayPole, the colorful banners waving dramatically across the New York skyline.

The May Day festivals of the British Isles, which involve revelry around brightly beribboned and flowered totems, are considered the most ancient Celtic rituals still widely celebrated. Rolleston locates the roots of the MayPole Celebration in this bit of lore: “It was on a Thursday, the first of May, and the seventeenth day of the moon, that the sons of Miled first arrived in Ireland” (p.133.).

O’Brien posits its source in ancient Freemasonry: “ The Maypole festival…(is) but the remains of an ancient institution of India and Egypt… (which were) in fact, but part and parcel of (Irish) Round Tower Worship. May the first is the day on which its orgies were celebrated; nor is the custom, even now, confined to the British Isles alone, but as naturally prevails universally throughout the East…” (p.233). The Architect, then, simultaneously represents the ancient, pre-Christian Irishman of legend and glory – the deistic Masonic Druid of proud warfare, Atlantian totems and nature worship- and the corruption of the Irish immigrant through assimilation into the new world – the mob boss, IRA man, lodge member, and corrupt labor leader. In case the analogy be missed, Brady delivers another gorgeous ballad of Irish antiquity, the “Irish tenor” phenomenon serving as another rich metaphor of the commingling of the traditional and the modern within Celtic cultures.

And what has become of the brutalized Entered Apprentice? The action shifts to the interior of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, its circular multi-leveled construction recalling both ancient Freemasonry and the mysterious round towers that pervade the Irish countryside. In this way, the museum acts as the postmodern descendent to the Chrysler’s beacon of High Modernism. This segment of Cremaster 3, titled “The Order”, follows the now transformed Entered Apprentice through a bizarre postmodern reenactment of the ancient athletic competitions of the Scottish Highlanders.

Barney’s character retains his torn and bleeding mouth, from which now protrudes a conical piece of cloth (the shape of which recalls both the Masonic Pyramid and the Manx Arms symbol). He sports a tartan kilt, flesh-colored and patterned by blue and red stripes suggesting the circulatory system (Spector, p.54), as well as the large furry hat worn by bagpipe players. Barefoot and bare chested, his hands and feet wrapped in boxer’s tape, Barney, with his athletic frame and Scottish ensemble, resembles nothing so much as a mutilated and sinister monster by way of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, fresh from battle and ready for more. His opponent is the Guggenheim structure itself; his war is with the forces of Modernity.

The Apprentice must scale the walls like a rock-climber in order to reach the various levels of the museum (which represent the five parts of the cycle and contain their respective banners), and meet the challenges contained by each. Although the level designated Cremaster 1 (the film of which tells the story of Gary Gilmore and trades in Mormon imagery) features a Rockettes-like troupe of dancing girls in fishnets, hooves and lamb costumes, this motif also undoubtedly recalls the Loughton Candidate of Cremaster 4.

On this first level, the Apprentice dons the skin of a baby lamb in the manner of the Masonic apron.

Level Two features a battle of the bands between New York hard-core punks Agnostic front and Murphy’s Law.

The third level represents not only the film Cremaster3, of which it is but a part, but also the Third Degree of the Irish Ritual of Freemasonry, known as Raising, in which the Apprentice attains the status of Master Mason (Anonymous, pp. 50-70). Here, the Apprentice slays a female satyr (also recalling 4’s mythical Manx beast) who is played by double-amputee and model-athlete Aimee Mullins (having previously portrayed the “Potato Girl” and the Apprentice’s date at the races before his abduction by the Architect’s Irish mob).

On the fourth level, the Apprentice encounters a large white bagpipe-like object that seems to have been formed from the corpse of a white Loughton ram. On Level Five, he encounters the artist Richard Serra, his nemesis, who heaps molten Vaseline into a descending trough. The Apprentice apparently must solve the challenges of the five levels before the goop reaches the lower level of the Guggenheim. The Order seems to take place in the unconscious mind of the brutalized Apprentice; a torture-induced daydream of his Celtic and Masonic roots, the setting for the vision conjured by the reality of his daily toil on the ultimate Modernist structure. As the Apprentice strikes Mullins’ Satyr dead in the Guggenheim of “The Order”, he also delivers a deathblow to the Architect in the spire of the Chrysler. The base of the spire collapses into the building and into the Apprentice’s head.

Like the original ancient work of the Masons, Solomon’s temple, this new temple of American Modernism and Modernity appears destined to remain unfinished. The final act of the three-hour film is a return to its prologue. The Scottish giant has crossed the Causeway into Ireland and enters Finn MacCumhail’s thatched abode. Seeing Finn disguised as a babe, he seems to wonder how big the child’s father, Finn, might be. The giant helps himself to some fresh bread and breaks a tooth on it. Finn quickly attacks him and bites off his magic finger. The giant flees back to Scotland as the bridge collapses into the sea behind him. Finn tosses a boulder after him, but it falls short, thus forming the Isle of Man and setting the scene for the fourth installment.

IV. Conclusion Barney’s explicit connections between Ireland and Freemasonry are hardly a new association. The artist is undoubtedly familiar with works of speculative history such as Henry O’Brien’s The Round Towers of Atlantis (1834). O’Brien, a brilliant and highly regarded young linguist, historian, and professor at Trinity College in Dublin, was among many serious scholars and historians who located the ancient Celtic realm’s roots in an Eastern Masonic religious culture.

Drawing from past and contemporary research, and his own superior knowledge of linguistics, O’Brien posited that the word Erin (Ireland) was at its source the same as Iran, and proceeded to argue that the mysterious round towers, Celtic crosses, and other inexplicable structures of Ireland were, in fact, distinctly Persian in origin, the products of a forgotten migratory race of people unrivaled in Masonic skills. There is much evidence to his lengthy thesis, both in his copious amounts of linguistic proofs and in the unearthing of similar unexplained Pre-Christian structures in the Middle East and Orient. His theories have never been altogether discarded by scientists and historians, and the origins, not to mention the beauty and strength of these mysterious structures continue to be a source of astonishment and wonder.

It is supposedly the ancient spiritual secrets of these original Celts that the Masonic societies and Lodges of the world have handed down through the generations in their clandestine rituals. The various Scottish Freemason Lodges, dating from 1650, are the oldest ones documented, and remain the most popular while retaining a distinctly occult Celtic character (Picknett & Prince, 1997, p.366); as do their close associates in the Grand Lodges of Ireland. The Irish Architect who oversees the construction of the Chrysler Building is named, by Barney, Hiram Abiff. So in connecting the Irish at once with the US labor unions of the Depression era and the ancient lore of Masonry, the architect of the Chrysler becomes, in Barney’s world, the original Mason of Solomon’s Temple (O’Brien, 1834; Picknett & Price, 1996; Street, 1924).

As devoted to Christian worship as the Irish are, they also still look backward to a glorious, idealized Pre-Christian past when they effectively ruled the Earth and controlled nature herself. St.Patrick’s conversion of the island acted as both a blessing and a curse, leading to Christian salvation, but simultaneously sounding the death knell of the Celtic Heaven-on-Earth. It is telling that on first level of Cremaster 3’s The Order, the Entered Apprentice, in his Celtic battle garb, faces as his obstacle the fashioning of a cross, puzzle-like, from various Masonic tools and symbols. Christianity eclipsed the ancient ways, and any attempt to recover them now lies in the mystical rites of Freemasonry. Freemasonry also functions as one way in which the Irish assimilated into America as racially white, while keeping their supposed ancient customs and heritage intact. Irish immigrants flowing into the United States during the Diaspora of the Potato Famine were largely treated as subhuman second class citizens, while their country’s mythology suggested to them that they were members of an advanced society older than recorded time. While largely a devoutly Christian people, the Lodges of metropolises like Manhattan, Chicago and Boston surely seemed to offer a key to their lost ancient customs and a boost to their dignity, as well as a sense of community in the strange New World.

That such organizations were shrouded in mystery and potential empowerment added to the appeal. Barney seems to suggest that there is little difference between the shadowy realms of the Masons, organized crime and labor unions, and the stateside Irish Republican Army, all comprised of Irish immigrants trading in mystery and intrigue. In the United States in 1930, Spector states, “Prohibition was still law; organized crime…had infiltrated organized labor in Manhattan; there were some 260 Masonic lodges in the city; forty-seven thousand Irish immigrants had settled since 1925; and the Chrysler Building was nearing completion” (p.45).

In his collection of essays examining the collision of tradition and modernity in contemporary Ireland, Luke Gibbons (1996) suggests the island is in effect “a First World Country, but with a Third World Memory” (p.3). Although, Gibbons is referring to Ireland’s late entry into the Industrial Age due to its Colonial history, the sentiment could as readily be applied to the unconscious desires of its people. As the Celtic cultures enter the Modern world full-steam, they do so with mixed feelings, nostalgic for a history and mythology; a collective identity, that will soon become irrelevant. Like Barney’s field emblem, memory, especially cultural or national memory, is often the wish to return full-circle; to a magical past, to the womb, to the “Motherland.” The effort inevitably leads to mutability, stasis and nullification, but the desire persists.

And so artists like Matthew Barney, whether through abstract sculptures or cinematic freakshows, seek to keep what they interpret to be their own history alive. A history both personal and global, but forever unattainable and shrouded in mystery and speculation. A history of passage and transformation, of death and transcendence, of eternal becoming. In the all too recent and uneasy alliance of the ancient and modern that defines contemporary Celtic culture, Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle locates an eternally circuitous metaphor for his distinctly postmodern creation myth.

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  • The round towers of Atlantis. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press. Picknett, L. & Prince, C. (1997).
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