Post Road Magazine #10

Matthew Barney versus Donkey Kong

by Wayne Bremser

Offering three dialogue-free hours of whimsy and discomfort, Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3 (2002) is an art-world adaptation of Donkey Kong (1981) that begins a serious negotiation between art and video games. Named after the muscle that controls the rising and lowering of the testicles, Cremaster 3 is the final entry in a cycle of five films.

In recent years there have been exhibits and books celebrating game design, such as the 2002 exhibition Game On at the Barbican Gallery in London. At the same time, exhibitions like the Whitney’s Bitstreams (2001) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s 010101 (2001) have introduced the interactivity of digital art into museums. Cremaster 3 lacks obvious cultural references to gaming, but its absurdity, repetition, level design, and use of landscape as narrative establishes a stronger connection to video games than digital art that appropriates game characters or employs an intentional pixilated style.

Despite the popularity of the Cremaster films, only a small percentage of museumgoers have ever seen a feature-length “art film.” And after twenty-five years of cultural relevance, video games have not found a serious place in museums and galleries. Cremaster 3 is important not only because it has attracted a wider audience to an art film, but also because it is one of the first works of contemporary art to incorporate video game narrative.

Characters and Myth

Donkey Kong’s myth of a man fighting a giant ape on a skyscraper has its origin in the King Kong films (1933 is the Fay Wray classic), in which the largest ape in the world, after being captured in the jungle and brought to the city by greedy men, climbs the tallest building in New York where he fights humans to the death. Cremaster 3 is based on the Masonic myth of Hiram Abiff, the architect of Solomon’s Temple; Barney uses the Chrysler Building as a character to play the temple. In Donkey Kong, the construction worker Mario moves in pursuit of Pauline, while Cremaster 3’s construction worker, the Entered Apprentice, climbs in pursuit of the architect, Hiram Abiff. Both workers are presented with a single facial expression, no dialogue, and no significant character development except their determination to move ever upwards.

The hubris of the Entered Apprentice and Mario is both awarded and punished. The ability to honor rites is highly valued in Masonic culture.

Barney’s locations include a heavy layer of personal and cultural meaning that game designers often ignore. He builds and qualifies levels with variations on color and light, giving the viewer signs about the amount of danger the protagonist faces. The majority of Cremaster 3 takes place in the Chrysler Building and the Guggenheim Museum, both in New York. The interiors have been altered to remove the buildings from reality, much in the way a game that relies on real locations focuses on certain details and erases others to establish a backdrop that enhances game play without getting in the way of it.

Both Barney’s Entered Apprentice and Donkey Kong’s Mario climb structures modified from what architects have intended. In the Chrysler Building, Barney ascends the elevator shaft, which exposes the building's innards. In the rivets degree of Donkey Kong, Mario must climb around an exposed, unfinished structure, walking over rivets to remove them. The perfect disorder of the tilted girders in the ramps degree of Donkey Kong, transformed by an enormous jumping ape, match the perfect order of the ramps in the Guggenheim rotunda, created by America’s most famous architect. A climbing rig allows Barney to scale the rotunda, bypassing the ramps.

As previously discussed, in both Cremaster 3 and Donkey Kong, reaching the top level of the structures both rewards the protagonist and punishes him for hubris. When Mario reaches the top of the steel structures, Donkey Kong finds a way to take Pauline away to the next screen. When Barney’s Entered Apprentice reaches the top of the Chrysler Building, the film cuts to a scene where he suffers a setback: his teeth are knocked out.

The Entered Apprentice is then placed in the Guggenheim sequence, which opens with naked women who introduce players to each level of the game. Barney explains, “This scene was shot in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum on the different levels and feels almost like a video game. There are five levels, which take on five different allegories of the five Cremaster chapters [films].3” The scene feels like a parody of a television quiz show mixed with a video game’s level introductions. Recall Donkey Kong asking the player, without a wink, "How high can you get?"

In Donkey Kong and Cremaster 3, levels are determined by a combination of architecture and dangers that await the protagonist. Each ramp of the Guggenheim features a test, symbolizing Barney’s five Cremaster chapters, his own quasi-Masonic ritual of passage, an artist testing his own artistic progress. Barney uses the museum space as an interface to both confront and create art. With the tools of a Mason, Barney calculates and smashes his way to the top of the rotunda, leaving a trail of work cobbled together from shards of previous generations.

Donkey Kong (arcade version) has four degrees:
• Ramps: Mario must climb steel beams that the ape has tilted by his ferocious jumping.
•Girders: Mario must deconstruct a girder structure by removing a series of rivets. Kong tumbles to ground.
•Elevators: Mario must jump between a set of fast-moving elevators to reach Pauline.
•Factory: In a pie factory with moving conveyor belts.

Guggenheim in Cremaster 3 has five degrees:
• Order of the Rainbow for Girls: Duck the legs of Rockettes in bunny suits.
•Agnostic Front versus Murphy’s Law: Recover Masonic tools in floor between two 1980s hardcore bands in a battle of the bands
• Aimee Mullins: Battle beautiful woman who transforms into a deadly cat.
• Five Points of Fellowship: Assemble one of Barney’s sculptures.
• Richard Serra: Confront the sculptor tossing Vaseline.

Future of the Game Exhibit

At the same time that they are overwhelmed by the films, critics have routinely panned the sculpture that Barney has created for the Cremaster series. Some snidely compare filling the Guggenheim with artifacts from the films to the The Magic of Myth museum show of Star Wars costumes and props (1997-99;

The Guggenheim exhibit, Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle (February 2002–June 2003), allowed Barney to show Cremaster 3 in the physical space in which the film was set—an opportunity not yet given to a game designer. Barney transforms the rotunda like a designer. Flags and icons adorn different levels of the museum. Sounds echo through the spiraling chamber. A spaceship attached to the ceiling delivers scenes from Cremaster 3 on five video monitors.

The exhibit feels like a visit to watch movies and play video games in the finished basement of a very wealthy childhood friend. The first gallery had elaborate cases that Barney has designed for videodisc and DVD versions of the films. From these discs at the bottom level, up to the giant fantasy television that dominates the top of the rotunda, the Cremaster exhibit is an exaltation of video, but without the game depicted in the film.

Barney uses the building as an interface, confronting the Guggenheim with the goal of creating a single piece of art. The most significant thing Barney changes in the museum is the light. A giant blue object covers the skylight of the building. In the midday sun, the light is dim, and a blue tinge is cast on everything. The blanket of blue material (perhaps the blue Astroturf from Cremaster 1) is in the shape of the

Of course the dialogue between those who create games and those who decide what is art is very new. Adaptation and the exchange of ideas will expand what is considered fine art and what is considered a video game. A wider set of influences and greater personal responsibility will inspire game designers to create engaging works of art that are also fun to play. Increasing dialogue means that in the future, artists will be more likely than they are now to turn to games like World of Warcraft (2004) for characters and myth. Artists have already created short films starring their personas acting in the world of the Sims (2000) and Sims2 (2004), which are fantasy games set in reality, featuring no orcs or dragons, but only human social interaction. The customized everyday places, interactions, and objects found inside the Sims could be rendered by artists working in various mediums.

The time, costs, and skills required to produce a video game rival those involved in film production. And while artists may not choose to produce games, they could yet be informed by the process of character and level design that game designers use. This would result, for instance, in an exhibit experience that moves beyond Matthew Barney’s collection of sculpture, video discs, and props.

The architectural projects undertaken by museums in recent years have resulted in massive exhibit spaces that are intended to be filled by cinema-sized video projections, mammoth sculpture, and installation pieces. These new spaces can also serve as the narrative landscape for video games. Instead of where to put each object, an artist might ask: What should the player experience when they stand in this spot, what should happen, what adversary should they face, what part of the myth should they experience?


  • [1] Lacayo, Richard. “The Strange Sensation.” Time March 3, 2003.
  • [2] Tracing their origin back to biblical times, Freemasons celebrate the myth of Hiram Abiff, famed builder of Solomon's Temple. Before the temple was complete, Abiff was taunted by three ruffians who wanted his great knowledge. Abiff refused and was attacked by each and finally killed. Like many social orders, such as the military or priesthood, the Masons have created a system of levels (Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, Master Mason, Mark Master, etc.). Barney's character in the film, the Entered Apprentice, appears at the bottom of the order(represented by diagrams of steps or ladders). As a rite of passage, the candidate for Master Mason will be taken through a ritual of three stages, which simulates the experience Abiff went through holding onto his secrets and integrity against his three attackers.

  • [3]Lingwood, James. “Artist Project: Matthew Barney.” Tate Magazine No. 2, November/December 2002.(Interview with Barney.)(

Wayne Bremser lives in San Francisco. He is a freelance writer covering technology, and he maintains a web site about jazz history,

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