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The Pleasures and Pain of Carolee Schneemann’s Body Politics

LONDON — For Carolee Schneemann, the personal was political. She saw the body — in particular, her own body — as inextricably entwined with its physical and sociopolitical environment, and therefore as a primary site for both understanding the world and taking a stance of resistance. In the first UK survey of her work, Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics at the Barbican Centre, the artist’s body politics are shown to be radical, wild, and challenging. 

Although she started her career in what she called the “Art Stud Club” of 1950s New York, an incubator of Abstract Expressionism, she quickly moved beyond the boundaries of the canvas to explore sculpture, kinetic elements, and performances utilizing her own body. It is interesting to learn from the exhibition’s opening displays that Schneemann fundamentally saw herself as a painter; many of her early abstract canvases feel dated today, but they help contextualize her later performative works involving mark making with mud, menstrual blood, or poured paint as continuations of this tradition. 

The exhibition demonstrates that the early 1960s were remarkably productive for Schneemann. In 1964 she created her iconic work “Meat Joy,” in which a group of performers clad in fur underwear writhe around together onstage, dripping paint on each other and caressing dead fish and plucked chickens. Captured on grainy film, the piece is both riotously erotic and repulsive. At the time it was considered illicit; a performance in London resulted in a police raid and the dancers being smuggled away under blankets on the floors of waiting cars. Today, “Meat Joy” has not lost its edge, though contemporary audiences might be more uncertain about the morality of using the bodies of animals than about the nudity and sexual overtones. 

Nakedness is a key trope throughout Schneemann’s oeuvre. She frequently 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 what she wants with her own body and to display it openly without shame or inhibition. Some feminist peers, however, argued that her work was narcissistic and problematically replicated standard Euro-American conventions of beauty under the masculine gaze by displaying her young, white, slim body. She responded that she was concerned with whether she could be “both an image and 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 do not ‘show’ my naked body! I AM BEING 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 that envisions an era when women are able to make art without discrimination. She then pulled a scroll from her vagina containing another text. Her actions laid bare the continuity between the female body, feminist writing, and sociopolitical acts of protest.

The majority of the exhibition is dedicated to Schneemann’s better-known feminist works of the 1960s and ’70s. The latter part, however, features a number of works exploring global politics. In “Viet-Flakes” and “More Wrong Things,” for instance, she sends a strong antiwar message indicting male-led violent interventions in foreign countries. The works incorporate documentary footage of war, its atrocities, and its aftermath. Schneemann draws attention to the ways that news about war is mediated, and also reminds British and American audiences of our privilege in being able to look away. 

These works are hard to watch. This is, of course, a deliberate choice by Schneemann, but the decision about whether and when to look away is complicated by moral questions about what we should and shouldn’t be watching — and what should and shouldn’t have been filmed or photographed in the first place. Particularly uncomfortable are Schneemann’s highly magnified reproductions of photographs showing people jumping or falling to their deaths from the World Trade Center towers during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A disturbing lack of consent is at play here, especially considering that the motivation of making visible the atrocities of Western military aggressors does not figure in this case. 

Schneemann’s 1995 work “Known/Unknown: Plague Column” is a more engaging integration of her trademark preoccupation with her own body and wider issues. The piece explores her experience of breast cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as well as confronting the gendered history of Western medicine and the hidden aesthetics of cancer treatment. The installation features enlarged images of her mutating cells along with videos of breast examinations, fruit being squeezed, and the artist having sex. Oranges are suspended alongside hypodermic needles, in reference to her experience of practicing injections on fruit before trying them on her own body. “Known/Unknown: Plague Column” also includes texts and images that call upon her research into how illness has traditionally been figured as feminine and “other,” with allusions to the persecution of witches and women with healing practices; the work demonstrates how society has attempted to control women and their bodies for generations. Schneemann battled cancer until her death in 2019.

Schneemann’s work proves over and over again the interrelation of the personal and the political. Stemming from her revolutionary use of her own body as both subject and object, she offers a theory of body politics that still feels bold today. Often challenging and sometimes problematic, this survey of her work unapologetically prompts debate and probes 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 was curated by Lotte Johnson, with Chris Bayley and Amber Li.