I cannot imagine a more controversial show than Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics at the Barbican. Reactions to this lifetime survey of the pioneering American feminist ran all the way from fascination to affront, disaffection, awestruck reverence and slavering lust the day I was there. If you are thinking of visiting, take someone with you. Argument was always what she wanted.
Schneemann (1939-2019) started out as a painter in what she called the “Art Stud Club” of New York, but expanded the medium, you might say, to include her own body. All of her fiercely radical art – films, performances, installations, happenings – starts out as a response to macho American conservatism.
Up to and Including Her Limits is a direct hit at abstract expressionism, performed nine times in the early 70s. Suspended naked from the museum ceiling in a tree surgeon’s harness, Schneemann swings between walls and floor with a crayon, wildly making her mark. She is both the image and the image-maker all at once; one in the eye for the men.
In Fuses, she and her then partner, James Tenney, filmed themselves having sex over a span of three years (1964-67). The footage was shot from a low vantage point, so it is never voyeuristic, and what strikes is the sheer and abundantly equal pleasure the couple take in each other’s bodies. To a contemporary eye, the exposure of certain frames to acid and fire is a pointless period intervention, and I could wish for less of the lithe Schneemann playing to the camera on a beach like a nymph from some dirty old uncle’s magazine. But that is the whole point. It is her body and she can do what she wants with it.
The 1975 performance Interior Scroll involved the naked Schneemann addressing audiences in East Hampton, New York. “If you are a woman … they will almost never believe you really did it … they will patronise you, humour you, try to sleep with you.” Specific criticisms of her work were then read aloud from a scroll of paper slowly pulled from within her (the scroll is in this show, along with numerous photographs). The artist retaliates straight from the vulva.
This must have been staggering to behold, particularly at the Telluride film festival in Colorado under a programme titled, to her disgust, The Erotic Woman. It seems clear from the many documents in this show that Schneemann was intent on thwarting the very response she seemed to court.
Her most famous work is probably Meat Joy, first performed at the Festival of Free Expression in Paris in 1964. Four men and four women, dressed in feather and fur-trimmed underwear, tangle and writhe on the stage. Their instructions (Schneemann is very precise) were also to roll about on the floor, rubbing themselves with raw chickens and dead fish; all one flesh, as it were. Badly lit, poorly filmed, the recording you see at the Barbican is nonetheless an orgy of jubilant excitement. Schneemann, always her own greatest champion, telegrammed Tenney: “Beautiful frenzy wild meat joy triumph our love covers Paris.”
Paris was less impressed than she hoped. Schneemann later describes it as a moral little city, unlike London, which “healed” her like a hospital. Her vivid writings are among the many posters, flyers, photos and other ephemera documenting these long-ago events. You will be almost as familiar with Schneemann’s life as her body by the end, friendships and romances as freely displayed as her genitals.
Everything in this show is a sign of the times: then and also now. I cannot imagine any artist today displaying their menstrual blood like stigmata behind glass as a consciousness-raising exercise. But nor can I imagine any artist now repeating an event such as Meat Joy for the casual treatment of animals. Our taboos are ever-renewing.
It is possible to feel deep ambivalence about Schneemann’s three-dimensional works: the Rauschenbergian assemblages, the Joseph Cornell boxes fitted out with shards of glass. A mop swings up and down, thumping a telly. The paintings are bashed out for a while, a wearier festival of expression. A bowl lined with fur slowly revolves, Méret Oppenheim with added tin cans.
To me, Schneemann is always at her blazing best when most political, especially in the defiant poignancy of an installation devoted to the treatment of the breast cancer she endured. Oranges stuck with syringes, oranges flattened into juiced jellies on straw heaps on the floor. This is sculpture as piercing epigram.
Feminists have criticised Schneemann’s body-positive art as old-fashioned exploitation. Would she have appeared constantly naked if she hadn’t been so flawlessly beautiful? Is this self-portraiture or exhibitionism? It is her body, to be sure, but it is your mind to make up. Nakedness is her medium, and at times her metier; what she does with it is the essential question.
What shocks at the Barbican is never the joyous, proud or satirical nudity. It is, for me, the intercutting of footage of her open vulva with newsreel of atrocities in Vietnam and images of her injured pet cat. (Also seen in 140 photographs of nameless interactions with the artist; who is doing what to whom I do not know.) I found her isolated and enlarged figures falling from the twin towers in Terminal Velocity fundamentally offensive, and so is this work too; a kind of visual relativism – it’s all on the box, all of the time, look-don’t-look – that feels in the end morally repugnant.