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Carolee Schneemann’s six-decade-long body of pioneering feminist performance art

With over two hundred works presented in the first major survey exhibition of the feminist painter and performance artist Carolee Schneemann in the UK, ‘Body Politics’ at the Barbican Centre presents an enormous range of the American artist’s production, through the latter half of the 20th century. The mediums on display range across painting, performance video, photo performance, multimedia installations, sculptural assemblages, and archival material, detailing a six-decade-long career. As the title of the exhibition suggests, Carolee Schneemann employs the body, primarily her own, as an active device, image, tool, ritual, material base and set of embodiments to explore themes around carnal joy, intimacy, sexuality and deviance, artmaking, woman as a muse of the male gaze, and so on.

In conversation, assistant curator of the exhibition Amber Li tells STIR, “Carolee Schneemann was really aware of the importance of documentation, which is why we have such extensive performance documentation from her (as preserved and lent out by the Carolee Schneemann Foundation). There’s rich material in the archive including printed matter like flyers, most of which she personally designed in her distinctive DIY, graphic collage style. She used collage a lot as a technique. Archival material also includes photo albums with documentation of the performances, with sketches and notes for the preparation and choreography. She was especially meticulous in how she used photographs to document the performance and the photographs are the main way through which we’re able to share what the performance might have been like with our viewers. The aim is not to re-create the performance but to let our viewers know how the performance was staged for them to imagine. She’s very aware of the legacy that these photographs represent.”

Schneemann passed away in 2019, leaving a legacy of feminist art that spoke to the modernist sensibility that was a charged cocktail of political, cultural and aesthetic movements in the 20th century. While she described herself throughout her life as a painter, the use of sculptural assemblages and later performance art for which she became largely known, was a move of defiance against the masculine ‘genius’ of the modernist painters of New York in the 1950s and 60s.

Schneemann’s performance art initially opened up a unique manifestation of painting that took place outside the flattened notion of the canvas. Her style of ‘kinetic painting’ as she termed it, incorporated both painting and performance art through the activation of her own swinging body strapped to a harness, moving in a 270-degree fashion to cover walls and surfaces with drawn lines.

In a conversation about the staged nature of the photographic documentation of her solo performances, Li explicates a complex relationship with the camera, “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera (1964), which is a solo performance, is very different from these other performances that she did, and I would argue that Interior Scroll (1975) is somewhat similar, because these solo performances have photographs taken for them which are almost staged, because you can see how her energy is emanated through the camera lens. And in particular, Eye Body had no audience, it was performed for the camera. So within the museum space as such, it is the images that are performing. And because her image was so central to all these performance works, it’s interesting how she used photographers and the lens of the camera. [...] The kind of question underpinning this work is actually asked, “Can I be an image and an image-maker?” She ends up taking on quite a mythic persona where she is posing with serpents on her, invoking ancient divine goddess iconography, and posing within her artworks, and so the photographic process itself is the performance.”

Schneemann was an artist who evolved with the times and continued enlivening her experimental practice through the adoption of film media and installation, incorporating media footage, and responding to significant cultural moments such as the Vietnam War, 9/11, and environmental degradation. The artist was dedicated to the idea of hybrid forms that ultimately emerges as a contemporary sensibility and concern, incorporating mediums of ‘kinetic theatre’ to multimedia installations. In Meat Joy (1964), a group performance that involved paint and different meats including chickens and fish being strewn across the bodies of semi-naked performers including Schneemann herself, who are moving against each other, accentuating the fleshiness of the human body.

Schneemann celebrates the fleshy, viscerality of the human body that is odorous, squishy, moist and material, exploring the body as multi-dimensional. The image materialises into the human cast.