Theatres of memory and restraint: Matthew Barney amongst the Neo-Platonists

Depper, Corin (2009) Theatres of memory and restraint: Matthew Barney amongst the Neo-Platonists. In: Georganta, Konstanta , Collignon, Fabienne and Millim, Anne-Marie, (eds.) The apothecary’s chest: magic, art and medication. Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K. : Cambridge Scholar's Publishing. pp. 71-82. ISBN 1443804940


This article explores how contemporary artistic practice has sought to bring together an essentially Western Christian tradition of representation with a renewed interest in pre-Christian and pagan culture through a 'medicalizing' of the figure of the artist, both as an individual capable of transfiguring the world, and as a bodily subject on which magical-medico practices are enacted. Central to this discussion will be an exploration of the American artist Matthew Barney whose work since the late 1980s has demonstrated a fascination with testing the limits of both representation and the body through a series performance and film works. Initially intending to pursue a career in medicine, Barney's work has maintained a focus on the body that can be seen to challenge the Foucauldian readings that have been crucial to much artistic theory and practice of the last three decades. His two central projects to date, The Cremaster Cycle and Drawing Restraint (both executed across a variety of media and lasting several years), have demonstrated a desire to test the bodily limits of the artist and to construct a system of personal mythology that is at once reliant on the imagery of popular culture and overwhelmingly, often perplexingly, hermetic. Barney's 'hermetic' approach, then, can be seen as offering a contemporary parallel to the work of such Renaissance Neo-Platonists as Giullio Camillo and John Dee, whose work presented similarly complex systems of knowledge through an arcane blending of art, science, and religion.

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