Carolee Schneemann Body Politics Barbican Art Gallery, London 8 September – 8 January
Carolee Schneemann died in 2019, and this rich survey oers a welcome opportunity to consider her now-canonical performances of the 1960s and 1970s in the frame of her six-decade career. Schneemann’s trajectory is marked by continuity, self-reflexivity and disjunction.
From the beginning, she is bodily; her agency-reclaiming nude self-portraits – similar to Untitled (Self-portrait with Kitch) (1957), featured here – were probably the reason she got temporarily expelled from Bard College in 1954.
Her paintings from this period display a corporality in excess of itself, the figures at once muscular and contourless, merging with her dancelike brushwork as they writhe in and out of abstraction. Now we can witness these works prefiguring the messy entanglements of her group performances with New York’s Judson Dance Theater, most famously Meat Joy (1964), in which the seminaked participants rough-and-tumbled together amidst raw meat, paper and paint; and of her early film Fuses (1964–67), a cut-up, burnt, overexposed and lyrically intimate montage of Schneemann and her boyfriend, James Tenney, having sex.
During the 1960s, pushing painting beyond its object-based parameters meant escaping the homosocial institution of Abstract Expressionism – the ‘Art Stud Club’, as she called it. Her key: an informed ritualism, which she harnessed to collapse aesthetic distance.
To the collage and painting of One Window Is Clear – Notes to Lou Andreas-salomé (1965) Schneemann a¨xed a tangle of magnetic tape with a recording of her reading aloud from the titular female psychoanalyst’s writings. As we can’t hear it, the paint-splattered tape acts as a fetish, animating the action of painting and assemblage in a ritual of communication.
Among the show’s highlights are the Joseph Cornell-inspired ‘box constructions’ from the 1960s, some of which Schneemann made by setting wooden boxes alight, closing and opening them to reveal glass-strewn, massacred theatre sets – like elaborate mockups for her first public performance, Glass Environment for Sound and Motion (1962). As metaphors for
the body (and body politic), the home and the studio, they ambiguously suggest an interior that is violent and magical, a room of one’s own that defies domesticity.
Such optimism ceases to be felt in the more geopolitically engaged works of the 1980s and after. Passage becomes impasse, the body mediated by readymade stand-ins. While in Up to and Including Her Limits (1973–76) she swung naked from a harness, More Wrong Things (2000) consists of televisions dangling within a spaghetti of wires.
The screens show recent (at the time) war footage constantly interrupted by static, with the occasional closeup from Schneemann’s earlier performance Interior Scroll (1975). The scroll itself, as she pulls it from her vagina, seems to become another cable, her once-revolutionary subjectivity strangled amidst global atrocity. In War Mop (1983) the motorised mop – an emblem of female labour – drums on a monitor showing a Palestinian woman in her destroyed home. The absurdist hammering grabs our attention as if with the certainty that, in the setting of the gallery, it won’t make a dierence. Already her protest film, Viet-flakes (1962–67), questioned the rhetoric of empathy by juxtaposing images of the Vietnam War with songs of peace and love. Yet there is still hope in this remove; whereas in the later works, such empathy has failed.
Made in response to the deaths of 15 close friends who had all died in the space of three years, Mortal Coils (1994–95) is a poignant and considered expression of personal grief and public mourning.
Charmed ropes twirl upright on the floor, each representing a deceased person whom Schneemann loved; overlapping slide projections of their faces evoke human contact. Metaphor and disembodiment preserve human dignity, as the mysticism of the work’s kinetic component challenges the sanitised presentation of the printed obituaries on the wall. In Known/unknown: Plague Column (1995–96), Schneemann reckons with her own mortality, having been diagnosed with non-hodgkin lymphoma and breast cancer in 1995. In the centre of the room is a witches’ sabbath of straw, cast-silicone breasts glowing like embers and four televisions emitting images of erotic, medical and animalistic carnality.
On the walls, set in (phallic) columnar frames, are scientific images of Schneemann’s cancer cells, accounts of wildly conflicting medical advice and photographs of a seventeenth-century sculpture – once believed to have healing powers – of an androgynous woman triumphing over a witch.
Again, ritual confronts the structures surrounding it, in this case the gendered history and categorical imperatives of science.
Whether the witch will rise again is uncertain, but in works like this, the fight goes on.