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Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics

“London was the worst,” Carolee Schneemann groaned in an interview in 2014. She was justified in complaining, as she often did, about the English: they had not been her best audience. The 1964 London performance of arguably her most famous work, Meat Joy (1964), an “erotic rite” of men and women clad in fur-lined bikinis writhing in wet paint and raw meat was met with a reproachful and unresponsive crowd. When she returned in 1967 for the Dialectics of Liberation Congress, she was regarded as a second-class participant and was given the wrong address; her performance of Naked Action Lecture (1968) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts only drew outrage. This didn’t stop her from relocating to the city in 1970, though she never felt adequately understood or respected by the British art world. But the tides are turning thanks to her current landmark show at the Barbican Centre, Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics, her first retrospective in the United Kingdom and the first major presentation of her work since her death in 2019. Providing a long-awaited look into the full span of her prolific six-decade-long practice, it showcases her most iconic performances alongside lesser-known chapters of her revolutionary career.

Kicking off with her rarely exhibited paintings from the 1950s and 1960s, the show locates her formative years as taking place during the apex of Abstract Expressionism and the Black Mountain College group. We’re reminded that Schneemann later asserted, “I consider myself a painter still and forever (no matter what ‘medium’).” Her steadfast dedication to this label is curious, and though it is not further curatorially probed, it does make you wonder what qualities she meant to identify herself with, and if there is a way to articulate the subjectivity specific to a painter that so deeply resonated with her. She was a kind of belated postmodern Post-Impressionist, a lover of Cézanne whose abstracted landscapes were sometimes kinetic and activated by spinning mechanisms. Closely attuned to but never restricted by compositional conventions, she strove to find the balance between the harmony of Seurat and the pure expression of Abstract Expressionism, interchanging space and time in a flurry of brushstrokes just barely held from the brink of chaos.

As a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater in the early 1960s, her collaborative work kept at this precarious dance—a careful polyphony of independent acts. This balance is palpable when reading through her instructions for Newspaper Event (1963), which assigned everyone general roles and rules for interaction to be manifested in the performers’ own improvisations. Indelibly influenced by Gestalt, a German concept that loosely refers to an entity that is greater than the sum of its parts, the performances from her Judson era are evocative of pointillist paintings: unified wholes composed of individual and autonomous atoms vibrating side-by-side. This mirrored their collaborative process—programs on view betray their densely interconnected network.

Moving (roughly) chronologically in the Barbican exhibition, this struggle between group and individual identity resurfaces again and again, and one of the show’s greatest strengths is its understated tracing of New York’s post-war artistic climate through her own development. When she felt the pendulum had swung too far to the collaborative side, she began to focus on her body as both a material and the site for art production itself. This renewed focus on her own identity, as both a woman and an artist, was a rejection of the mainstream art world, which she dubbed the “Art Stud Club.” “I do not ‘show’ my naked body!” she wrote to a friend. “I AM BEING MY BODY.”

Thus began one of her most iconic bodies of work, an extremely personal turn that solidified her role in feminist art “istory,” as Schneemann would say. As is typical with retrospectives of performance artists, we have no choice but to rely on our imagination to reconstruct these events. A wealth of archival material covers the walls and fills the vitrines of the exhibition, the different fragments from which we can try to piece together the puzzle of her work. This is largely thanks to the foresight of Schneemann herself, who meticulously documented her performances as a means of extending their lifespan.

Seeing photographs of the artist pulling a roll of paper out of her vagina—the scroll itself is also on view—and then reading the text written on it, a hypothetical conversation with a condescending male filmmaker, is certainly jarring. But it is an entirely different experience from what it was to bear witness to Interior Scroll (1975) in the flesh: the live confrontation with her nude body; her fingers, the agent of her vaginal cavity two years post-Roe v. Wade, slowly pulling out her script; her voice carrying its contents across the room.

Few critics seem to be eager to unpack this dissonance, and the lack of fresh discourse surrounding the unique encounter with the documentation of her work—instead of viewing it firsthand—is especially disappointing because it is the archival and ephemeral abundance that makes the exhibition a watershed event. With new distance, we can examine Schneemann’s interiority and the planning behind the live performances that contemporary reviews still use reductive vocabulary to describe. “Shocking,” “outrageous,” “abject”—is this monotony a result of critics’ unwillingness to consider the archival material before them as objects themselves? Or are tedious descriptors such as these simply meant to play into scandalous labels for her work to drive clicks and interest?

It’s a shame as the exhibition aims to construct a fuller portrait of Schneemann—and is largely successful. And while corporeality is one of her most enduring themes, her body is not what is on display at the Barbican. This couldn’t be made clearer than through the installation of the crayon drawings she executed during her performance Up to and Including Her Limits (1971–1976) and the harness, now empty, which suspended her; the only thing missing is her presence. When perusing her notes and photographs, meditating on how she chose to portray herself, the question that guided her approach seems all the more relevant: “Could a nude woman artist be both image and image-maker?”

Always pushing up against the limitations of her reception at the time, she struggled with the tension between challenging patriarchal standards of beauty and sexuality and naturally conforming to them as the beautiful, thin, white woman she was. In every picture her nipples are perfectly erect, her thighs toned but not muscular. Through no fault of her own, seeing her performances reproduced as static photographs can cause her work to appear to oscillate between exhibitionism and revolt. These are often described as empowered images, and in a sense they undisputedly were—especially Fuses (1964–1967), her daring and infamous erotic film collage that documented her sex life with her partner James Tenney. The question of self-representation is as pertinent now as ever. Today her photographs ask: is it possible to create an image of ourselves that at once empowers us (as people who have measured themselves against socially constructed notions of beauty) and emancipates us from those very standards?

The tension of representation runs beyond portraying herself and takes root in the second half of the exhibition. Compelled to speak out against American atrocities in Vietnam, Schneemann began to make work confronting the dilution of the potency of global conflict imagery due to its increasing dissemination by mass media. Viet-Flakes (1965) was a film made from what she called her “obsessive collection of Vietnam atrocity images,” and was intended to undercut the salaciousness and anonymity of photographs that documented the war’s innocent victims. The same is the case for War Mop (1983), an installation of a rag mop striking a television that shows the remains of a bombed refugee camp and a Palestinian woman screaming at the camera, as well as for Terminal Velocity (2001–2005), blown-up inkjets of people falling to their deaths on 9/11.

The political efficacy of these images is a complex discussion, one that traverses her contextualization of these photographs to the very ethics of documentary. In my opinion, in her attempt to problematize the media and the public’s fetishism of this imagery, she only furthered it. In reproducing and enlarging representations of suffering, artists sometimes intend for them to confront the viewer; often they just end up coming across as exploitative.

The use of animals, both living and dead, in her oeuvre is similarly provoking. Aiming to subvert the human-animal hierarchy, she claimed to “live with” as opposed to own cats, and included them—including one, Kitch, who died and was then taxidermied—in her photographs and performances. This decision, as well as her use of dead chickens and raw meat to evoke objectified flesh in Meat Joy, is ripe for debate on the ethics of the inclusion of animals in art practice.

New points of departure like this only become clear, however, when discourse has moved away from the public construction and reduction of her pioneering and diverse approach as “shocking,” “bodily,” and “wild.” Her work was so multifaceted and apt for debate that to simply fetishize its provocative nature does a disservice both to her legacy and to us. Hopefully, in time, this rich and remarkably varied exhibition will be seen as the impetus for a renewed discussion about her career, one that considers her contemplative yet fallible grappling with so many pertinent issues. This is the only way art “istorians” will be able to recognize the full extent of her contributions.