Jacki Willson / Visual Culture

Extract: Being Gorgeous

Jacki Willson’s Being Gorgeous explores the ways in which extravagance, flamboyance and dressing up can open up possibilities for women to play around anarchically with familiar stereotypical tropes of femininity. In this exclusive extract, Jacki visits Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle exhibition in New York in 2003.
Guggenheim, Museum, Atrium, Matthew Barney, The Cremaster Cycle

Chapter 1

Drop Dead Gorgeous

Exquisite Surfaces

I arrived in New York in 2003 jetlagged at 4am my time. I looked in the What’s On and noticed that there was an exhibition opening of The Cremaster Cycle at the Guggenheim by artist Matthew Barney, showcasing the culmination of eight years of work. I got on the underground and joined the queue. Snaking away from the gallery was a camp array of drag queens, flaneurs, fashionistas and impresarios: men in ostentatious wigs, platform shoes and thickly made-up faces and long legged beauties à la Folie Bergère, littered the line.

I was in for a treat.

Once inside the building I wandered up a swirling staircase, which contained in its centre a large-scale five channel video installation of The Order, the sequence from Cremaster 3 which had been filmed in the Guggenheim. This contained a visual extravaganza of Busby Berkeley-esque synchronised hypnotic dancing, fixed smiling faces, and seductive sparkling women. In the background we can hear twinkling, glittering music as if sounding from a fairy godmother’s wand. This feminine fairy tale poise is punctuated by masculine aggression, with loud throbbing punk splintering your brain as you try to take in the succulent visual imagery. As the smiling lovelies bath and frolic in a pool of bubbles at the centre of the atrium, this jarring hateful cacophony issues from a band playing on a stage from one of the floors.

Then there is the protagonist, Barney himself, pink tartan, pink wig, strong muscular body climbing up the insides of the Guggenheim, athletic and determined. The female protagonist is the gorgeous, fascinating Amy Mollins, with glass legs sculptured into a stiletto-heeled finish. This spectacle is hypnotic: it attracts yet also repels with its glitter and ear splitting thundering. Nancy Spector in her essay on Barney’s work argues through Glen Helfand that: ‘Gender is raw material for Barney. He molds it much as he molds space. The feminine and the masculine, or some combination thereof, become zones of articulation within the narrative.’1 If we consider gender in this artwork as ‘zones of articulation’ then what is being articulated?

In The Order, masculinity and femininity are expressed by way of exquisite haptic surfaces. They carve out the outer boundary of signifiers, which culturally express the sexual differentiation between the biological male and female body. By virtue however of their extreme differentiation, these binary constructions become the extreme positions in between which the main character can construct his own narrative. We see Barney in a pink kilt, muscular toned body and pink busby. This is an intriguing combination and creates a very masculine shape with the added female sartoral ‘pink’ element. The kilt and the busby (military head-dress) are the few chinks of flamboyance permitted on firmly female territory. Within the cultural guarded category of ‘the skirt’ and wigs/head-dress accessories, the kilt and the busby become culturally permitted limited outlets for masculinity, and create another vocabulary which is exempt from usual culturally guarded rules.

This is not ‘drag’. What this extravagant display is doing is exploring the cultural parameters for being male and finding other outlets for expression which enmeshes opposing gendered signifiers – such as the colour pink with a muscular heterosexual male body, or ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ with physical exertion – to create new meanings and significance. Barney is using his erotic male body to challenge corporeal and social boundaries. Barney’s work is, as Francesco Bonami argues, ‘a celebration of desire and its repression’.2 And this, Bonami states, is made tangible through the physical exertions of the protagonist who tosses a heavy caber-like object and climbs up the inside of the atrium. By doing this Barney continues with his own obsession with the, ‘hypertrophy of the muscles’, a ‘process that allows muscles to expand when subjected to strain or resistance.’3

This hypertrophic process is also applied to gendered signifiers and stereotypes. He uses pornographic excess in his imagery to the point where this excess moves the body and its meanings beyond the conventional – much like when one says a word over and over again it becomes nonsensical and therefore morphs into another sense. With Barney we see this performed in the way the diegetic bubble of smiles and bare breasts – light and fluffy and vacuous – creates a visual wonder full of electric energy when these bodies break into a dazzling display of synchronized tap dancing. Here, feminine ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, which represses the female body into passivity, is given an electric energy expressed through the collective unity and skill of these female bodies.

We also have this play off in relation to hyper-masculinity with Barney’s masculinity set in motion next to the more destructive, ‘conqueror and vanquished’ masculinity as represented by the overpowering violence of the band. The male protagonist exerts his body, pushing against his physical, environmental, architectural and cultural boundaries, in order to allow for more expansion and growth. The Cremaster Series explores the process by which we become sexually differentiated and ultimately finds creativity in the sexually undifferentiated as Nancy Spector argues in, ‘Only the Perverse Fantasy can Save Us’.4 There is therefore an energy and growth of these bodies in motion, which expands the body’s significance and meaning. We see this with the lead female protagonist Aimee Mullins. Being both model and athlete with no legs, she challenges numerous categories and stereotypes for her sex. Her body is lean and ‘drop dead gorgeous’ – her body supported by glass prosthetics, which makes seemingly fragile material appear solid. This is a powerful perversion of elegance and visual charm demonstrating potentiality and vigour.

Indeed this fusion of the artificial and the natural is also demonstrated in Barney’s use of ‘showgirls’. Throughout the film we see a synchronised display of women’s bodies dancing and smiling in theatrical head-dresses and sparkling body-revealing costumes. In one scene, of half-naked female flesh submerged and playful in bubbles, the self-conscious voyeuristic spectacle prevents this pornographic visual pleasure from imploding into a ‘wet dream’. This is still visually pleasurable but the pleasure remains on the highly constructed surfaces – it seems natural, all of the expected elements are there – yet the excessive play of femininity disturbs the natural. What we watch is compelling yet strange. This artificial scene makes the naturalness of femininity and poise feel awkward. There is a sense of wonder and a playful sensual pleasure of bubbles on flesh, yet this sense of wonder is also constructed, also acted out. The feminine surfaces are as fictive as the cinematic surfaces – they are acting, acting. They are playing the part of themselves.

Being Gorgeous, Jacki Willson, Book, I.B.Tauris, FeminismBeing Gorgeous: Feminism, Sexuality and the Pleasures of the Visual is available now

Jacki Willson is a Cultural Studies lecturer for Fashion, textiles and Jewellery students at Central Saint martins, University of the Arts London. She is the author of The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque (I.B.Tauris, 2008).


  1. Spector, N., ‘Only the Perverse Fantasy can Save Us’ in The Cremaster Cycle, Matthew Barney, Guggenheim Museum: New York, 2002
  2. Bonami, F., (ed.) Matthew Barney, Electa: Milan, 2007
  3. Ibid
  4. Spector, ‘Only the Perverse Fantasy can Save Us’, 2002

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