For Carolee Schneemann, the process of creating art was just as important as the finished product, a notion that connects over 50 years of the artist’s work captured in the new Barbican retrospective Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics, running until January 2023. From the brush strokes on her early canvases to paintings that actively try to escape their frames and the physical body of the artist becoming object and creator, Schneemann’s multimedia techniques are unfolded in an exhibition advocating for her place as an experimental trailblazer.
Arranged in roughly chronological order, and one of the few shows beginning upstairs in the Barbican Art Gallery, Body Politics allows the viewer to see Schneemann’s development as an artist and as a person across her long career. Travel to Europe – particularly to Paris, Venice and living in London – notably shaped her work and expanded the creative influences that form a core part of this exhibition as Schneemann’s output moved from singular wall-mounted pieces to fully three-dimensional art objects and, eventually, to a physical expression through collaboration with theatre and dance companies as well as the recording of Schneemann’s own artistic process using film and photography that add further dimensions to this fascinating show, themselves artistic captures of an artists’ process in train.
The image on the poster is taken from ‘Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera’, showing Schneemann’s image reflected and diffracted in jagged shards of glass, and it neatly encapsulates what becomes a kaleidoscopic experience, one that inadvertently comments on the distorted image of our own social media-dominated times. We see Schneemann’s art from multiple perspectives throughout this exhibition; there is the finished piece itself along with detailed plans and designs, catalogues and programmes from its staging as well as the objects that captured the different states of development.
The first room on the lower floor, for example, has ‘Up To and Including Her Limits,’ a large white sheet with scribbled lines drawn by Schneemann while in an aerial harness which is also part of the artwork. But it is accompanied by photographs – nudes and clothed – and film of the creator at work on this piece. Again and again, the exhibition, curated by Lotte Johnson with Chris Bayley and Amber Li, shows us creation and creativity as a dynamic process filled with the same cycles of movement that define Schneemann’s work.
In the same way, the exhibition eventually arrives at its title where the body and politics combine. Schneemann, we are told, faced criticism throughout her career for using her naked body as both subject and tool, and the contention over a woman’s body and what she does with it will certainly be revived in the debates this exhibition may, and perhaps should, create. Whether narcissistic or natural, Schneemann’s openness as an artist is explored, merging public and private in ways that feel genuinely radical in this exhibition.
There are graphic images of Schneemann’s body and those of others plus films of sexual activity with her lovers which carry explicit content warnings. Most famous is ‘Interior Scroll’ which is also given a documentary treatment in the exhibition, featuring glass cases containing the scrolls covered in Schneemann’s script plus images of the naked artist in performance unravelling the paper from between her legs as well as some of the philosophical and religious discussions that influenced this work.
Politics, too, start to feature as Schneemann shifts focus in her later work from her individual body to the destruction of bodies in a wider sense with video installations referencing Vietnam, 9/11 and her own cancer. The notable dust paintings here echoing back to Schneemann’s earliest works upstairs, but now their three-dimensional shapes feel more mournful, a memorialisation of life and death.
Somehow, seeing Schneemann’s works together feels only partially like a celebration because it also captures so much of the artist’s own fears. Her beautiful box constructions of charred metal and broken glass take romantic Victoriana and gives it the same dystopian and destructive beauty seen in the ‘Eye Body’ series that display fear, danger and anxiety alongside the power of the female body. An ‘image and an image maker,’ Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics is a show that will certainly make a big impression.
Runs until 8 January 2023