To celebrate the Barbican’s upcoming exhibition and film screenings, we take a look at some of the artist’s most shocking and haunting work
Pioneering multidisciplinary artist and feministic icon Carolee Schneemann continues to inspire generations of artists. Known for her potent artworks exploring female sexuality and subjectivity, human suffering, objectification and much more, Schneemann began in the 1950s primarily as a painter before turning to performance art and photography as a rejection of what she perceived as this poisonous macho heroism of contemporary painting.
Born in 1939, she came of age at the height of abstract expressionism – a movement described by art critic Marcia Brennan as the “metaphorical embodiments of masculine selfhood” and dominated by the likes of Henri Matisse, Willem de Kooning, and the manly splatters of Jackson Pollock.
Informed by feminist thinking of the 1960s, she often used her own body as a medium, transgressing taboos and bringing viewers into uncomfortable proximity with the precariousness and fragility of the human form.
Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics, an upcoming exhibition at the Barbican encompasses six decades of her artwork across her early paintings, sculptural assemblages and kinetic works, solo and group performances, immersive installations, and films. Focusing on her film work, an accompanying season at the Barbican Cinema will allow visitors the opportunity to view her four extraordinary short films alongside a selection of work touching on similar concerns by Schneemann’s contemporaries, and Breaking The Frame, a portrait of the artist.
Take a look at the gallery above for a glimpse of the work on display in in Body Politics and stills from the Carolee Schneemann films featured in the Barbican’s upcoming screenings. Below, we take a look at five of this radical artist‘s seminal works...
EYE BODY: 36 TRANSFORMATIVE ACTIONS FOR THE CAMERA (1963)
Perhaps one of her most reproduced works, Schneemann decorated her naked body and, at one point, adorned herself with a real-life snake to create this series of striking images, “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera” (1963).
In a statement on her website, she recalled: “Covered in paint, grease, chalk, ropes, plastic, I established my body as visual territory. Not only am I an image maker, but I explore the image values of flash material I choose to make work with. The body may remain erotic, sexual, desired, desiring, but it is as well votive: marked, written over in a text of stroke and gesture.”
At a time when so few artists were yet to start using their bodies in this way (Schneemann herself said, “The only artist I know of making body art before this time was Yoko Ono”), “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera” confronts the ambient misogynist surrounding the bodily presence of women in art. “The female nude is part of a revered tradition, although she is not to take authority over depictions of her nudity. She is just to be available,” she reflected. “In 1963, to use my body as an extension of my painting constructions was to challenge and threaten the psychic territorial power lines by which the women were admitted to the ‘Art Stud Club’, as long as they behaved like men, did work clearly in the traditions and pathways hacked out by the men.”
The short film Fuses depicts the artist having sex with her lover, James Tenney. Unconventionally, Schneemann privileges female pleasure and the female point of view, rather than framing the encounter unfolding from the perspective of a voyeur.
“Pornography is an anti-emotional medium, in content and intent, and its lack of emotion renders it wholly ineffective for women. This absence of sensuality is so contrary to female eroticism that pornography becomes, in fact, anti-sexual,” writes cultural critic B. Ruby Rich. “Schneemann’s film, by contrast, is devastatingly erotic, transcending the surfaces of sex to communicate its true spirit, its meaning as an activity for herself and, quite accurately, women in general.”
The erotic potential transcends beyond the sexual interaction glimpsed amid the montage of flesh captured on the painted, scorched, and scratched celluloid film. Schneemann incorporates footage of her home, seascapes, scenery, and her cat Kitch. Everything is rendered sensual.
Schneemann’s film Dyketactics, directed by Barbara Hammer, functions as a register of women’s sexual experiences. While it sometimes feels like a documentary in its use of non-actors, improvisation, and the suggestion that the shape of the film is being guided by real events rather than a pre-ordained plot, Schneemann often disrupts the conventions of documentary. With experimental techniques such as layers of imagery and lyrical transitions between narrators, she infuses the film with the kind of subjective poetic incursions that would normally be absent from documentaries.
MEAT JOY (1964)
Meat Joy documents the experimental piece in which Schneemann orchestrated eight semi-naked individuals – including herself – interacting with various materials including cooked and uncooked animal flesh, paint, rope, and fragments of paper. By using the human form as an artistic material in her work, Schneemann “exposed and confronted a social range of current cultural taboos and repressive conventions.” As naked bodies writhe on the floor in a series of improvised movements, cut to a pop soundtrack, the film is joyous and sensual.
“Meat Joy is an erotic rite – excessive, indulgent, a celebration of flesh as material… Its propulsion is towards the ecstatic – shifting and turning among tenderness, wildness, precision, abandon; qualities that could at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent,” writes Schneemann. “Physical equivalences are enacted as a psychic imagistic stream, in which the layered elements mesh and gain intensity by the energy complement of the audience. The original performances became notorious and introduced a vision of the ‘sacred erotic.’”
KITCH’S LAST MEAL (1973-76)
Shot on Super-8mm over a period of three years, Kitch’s Last Meal forms the haunting third part of Schneemann’s Autobiographical Trilogy [along with Fuses and Plumb Line]. The melancholy yet life-affirming short film is a meditation on letting go and the inevitability of loss, documenting the daily life and routines of Schneemann and her then-partner, artist Anthony McCall.
Viewed through the eyes of her ailing cat – for whom every meal may be the last – we see what feels like the last days of Schneemann’s romantic relationship with McCall as we also move inexorably towards the film’s deathly conclusion.
Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics opens at the Barbican on September 8 2022 until January 8 2023