LONDON — For Carolee Schneemann, it was personal politics. She saw the body—her own body in particular—as inextricably intertwined with its physical and socio-political environment, and therefore as a primary place for both understanding the world and taking a stand of resistance. In the first UK survey of her work, Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics at the Barbican Center the artist’s body politics are shown to be radical, wild and challenging.
Although she began her career in what she called the “Art Stud Club” of 1950s New York, a breeding ground for abstract expressionism, she soon went beyond the confines of the canvas to explore sculpture, kinetic elements, and performance with explore her own body. It is interesting to learn from the opening screenings of the exhibition that Schneemann fundamentally saw himself as a painter; many of her early abstract canvasses feel dated today, but they help contextualize her later performative works, marking with mud, menstrual blood, or poured paint as a continuation of this tradition.
The exhibition shows that the early 1960s were remarkably productive for Schneemann. In 1964 she created her iconic work “Meat Joy”, in which a group of performers dressed in fur underwear writhe together on stage, dripping paint on each other and caressing dead fish and plucked chickens. Captured on grainy film, the piece is both riotously erotic and repugnant. At the time it was considered illegal; a performance in London resulted in a police raid and the dancers were smuggled out under blankets on the floors of waiting cars. Today, “Meat Joy” hasn’t lost its edge, though contemporary audiences may be more uncertain about the morality of using the bodies of animals than they are about the nudity and sexual overtones.
Nudity is a key figure in Schneemann’s oeuvre. She often appears nude in her performances and photographs, for which she has been both praised and criticized by feminist commentators. Through her art, she repeatedly asserts her right to do as she pleases with her own body and display it openly without shame or inhibition. However, some feminist colleagues argued that her work was narcissistic and problematically replicated standard Euro-American beauty conventions under the male gaze by showing her young, white, slender body. She replied that she was concerned about whether she could be “an image as well as an image-maker”; by making marks on or with her own body, she challenged the positioning of women as passive subjects. She once wrote: “I don’t ‘show’ my naked body! I AM MY BODY.”
Schneemann is perhaps most famous for her 1975 performance “Interior Scroll,” in which she posed nude before reading from her text, “Woman in the Year 2000,” a manifesto depicting an era in which women can create art without discrimination. She then took out a scroll from her vagina containing another text. Her actions exposed the continuity between the female body, feminist writing and socio-political protests.
Most of the exhibition is devoted to Schneemann’s better-known feminist works from the 1960s and 1970s. However, the final volume contains a number of works that examine world politics. For example, in “Viet-Flakes” and “More Wrong Things,” she sends a strong anti-war message denouncing male-led violent interventions abroad. The works contain documentary images of war, its atrocities and its aftermath. Schneemann draws attention to the ways news of war is mediated, and also reminds the British and American public of our privilege to be able to look away.
These works are difficult to look at. This is, of course, a conscious choice on Schneemann’s part, but the decision whether or not to look away is complicated by moral questions about what we should and shouldn’t look at – and what should and shouldn’t have been filmed or photographed. in the first place. Particularly distasteful are Schneemann’s greatly enlarged reproductions of photographs showing people jumping or falling to their deaths from the towers of the World Trade Center during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There is a disturbing lack of consent here, especially given that the motivation to expose the atrocities of Western military aggressors is not at play in this case.
Schneemann’s 1995 work Known/Unknown: Plague Column is a more compelling integration of her signature preoccupation with her own body and broader issues. The piece explores her experience with breast cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, while also confronting the gendered history of Western medicine and the hidden aesthetics of cancer treatment. The installation features magnified images of her mutating cells, along with videos of breast exams, fruit being squeezed, and the artist having sex. Oranges hang next to hypodermic needles, referencing her experience practicing injections on fruits before trying them on her own body. “Known/Unknown: Plague Column” also features lyrics and graphics that appeal to her exploration of how disease has traditionally been portrayed as feminine and “other,” with allusions to the persecution of witches and women with healing practices; the work shows how society has tried to control women and their bodies for generations. Schneemann battled cancer until her death in 2019.
Schneemann’s work proves time and again the intertwining of the personal and the political. Born out of her revolutionary use of her own body as both subject and object, she offers a theory of body politics that still feels daring today. Often provocative and sometimes problematic, this overview of her work unashamedly provokes debate and explores the darkest sides of humanity.
Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics continues at the Barbican Art Gallery (Silk Street, London, England) through January 8, 2023. The exhibition is curated by Lotte Johnson, with Chris Bayley and Amber Li.