Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics | Art & Object
Carolee Schneemann: The Politics of the Body is the first UK survey of the work of American artist Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019) and the first major exhibition since her death in 2019. Tracing Schneemann’s diverse, transgressive and interdisciplinary work over six decades, the show celebrates a radical and pioneering artistic vision that remains a feminist icon and a point of reference for many contemporary artists and thinkers.
Addressing pressing topics ranging from the sexual expression and objectification of women to human suffering and the violence of war, Schneemann’s work engages with the precarious lived experience of humans and animals. With over 300 objects, the exhibition draws from the Carolee Schneemann Foundation, as well as numerous private and public collections, covering the extraordinary range of Schneemann’s artistic output. Bringing together paintings, sculptural assemblages, performance photographs, films and large-scale multimedia installations, as well as rarely seen archival materials including sheet music, sketches, albums, programs and costumes, this exhibition positions Schneemann as one of the most relevant, provocative and inspiring. artists of the last century.
Jane Alison, Head of Barbican Visual Arts, said: “We are delighted to be curating this great exhibition of experimental artist Carolee Schneemann. The Barbican has a long history of exhibiting radical artists who push the boundaries, particularly those whose work continues to influence contemporary practitioners. This exhibition also follows a line of exciting Barbican shows focusing on performance pioneers, including Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer (2020), Trajal Harrell as Hoochie Koochie (2017), Ragnar Kjartansson (2016) and Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown and Gordon Matta Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, 1970s New York (2011).
The title of the exhibition reflects that for Schneemann, the personal was political. She was engaged in a sort of expansive politics of the body, setting out to challenge the restrictive idea that body and mind were divided. Schneemann took the sensory experience of her own body as a starting point – she understood that her body was inextricably linked to her environment and to others and recognized and challenged how history had defined women’s lives and bodies. However, Schneemann was not only concerned with the specifics of being a woman – in her writings of the 1970s she reflected on the merits of finding “neutral” terms instead of gendered ones and, additionally, her body politics engaged in the abuse of power across the world. Conflicts.
Schneemann was a pioneer, whose work defies easy categorization. Known primarily as a performance artist, she was adamant throughout her life that she was first and foremost a painter. The exhibition opens the exhibition on the artist’s rarely seen early gesture paintings, including Aria Duetto (Cantata n°78): The yellow ladies (1957) and pin wheel (1957), a kinetic painting activated by the potter’s wheel on which it is mounted.
In her early works on canvas, Schneemann grappled with the influence of American Abstract Expressionism as well as the sensory painting style of Paul Cézanne, but remained frustrated with the heroic, male-dominated canon of the the history of art. From the early 1960s, she sought to extend her works beyond the limits of the frame, incorporating found objects and fragments of everyday life to produce “painting-constructions” and “box-constructions”. For assembly Colorado House (1962), she slashed, tore and reconfigured what she considered failed paintings, while for the diorama The Pharaoh’s Daughter (1966), she fills a wooden box with glowing lights, slides of biblical scenes and mirrors.
The exhibition traces Schneemann’s radical work using her own body as a medium, often directly addressing the misogyny she experienced, the historical suppression of women, and taboos around women’s bodies. Key works include a series of photographs of Schneemann’s first solo performance Eye Body: 36 transformative actions for the camera (1963), in which she stages a series of gestures in the midst of a vast environment of materials.
Up to and including its limits (1976), she hung herself naked from a harness slung in the corner of a paper-lined stage set, creating gestural abstract marks with crayons as she rocked back and forth in a state of trance. The large-scale installation resulting from the 1974 performance at Anthology Film Archives in New York is presented with video footage and extensive photographic documentation. One of Schneemann’s most powerful performances, Inner Scroll (1975 & 1977) is highlighted in the exhibition, the artist’s rallying cry against the persistent devaluation of the female body and intellect in patriarchal society.
By the early 1960s, Schneemann was living in New York and embedded in the downtown scene. She became a founding member of Judson Dance Theatre, a pioneering group of interdisciplinary artists including Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, David Gordon and Steve Paxton, who took everyday gestures and materials as their impetus.
Schneemann has described his group performances as “kinetic theatre”, incorporating intricate movement scores, sets, lighting, sound, and technical innovations. Many performances are depicted through photographs, film, sheet music, sketches, notes and costumes, including one of Schneemann’s most iconic performances joy of meat (1964). This epic group performance was designed as a sensory celebration of the flesh. Conceived, like many of his works, from images of his dreams, joy of meat saw untrained performers (including a poet, a balloon seller and a teacher) dress and undress and perform mass body exercises – skidding, rolling, jumping and twisting – among paper, paint, raw fish and chicken.
Carolee Schneemann: The Politics of the Body presents Schneemann’s remarkable film work, in which she has forged a new experimental language, exploring sexual desire, challenging the male gaze and taking her daily life and relationships with humans and non-humans (especially cats) as source material. Historical film Fuses (1964–67) is shown in its entirety, a self-portrait of Schneemann and his partner James Tenney having sex, with the cat Kitch as witness and companion. This radical piece, produced over three years, celebrates heterosexual pleasure and sets out to question, expand and complicate representations of the female body and sexuality, offering a new way of expressing the erotic experience.
A focused section of the show highlights Schneemann’s formative time spent in London. The city served as the setting for several of his experimental performances, including round housee (staged at the Roundhouse in 1967, as part of a line-up that included poet Allen Ginsburg, antipsychiatrist RD Laing, and Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, among others), Naked action conference (performed at the ICA in 1968) and ICES STRIP/ISIS TRIP (performed on roller skates on a train from London to Edinburgh in 1972).
The final section of the exhibition includes a series of works that address the precarious nature of life and the politics of human suffering in the context of the Vietnam War, the civil war in Lebanon, the terrorist attacks in September 11 and the artist’s own fight. with cancer. Schneemann’s film Viet Flakes (1962-1967) and the associated performance Snows are among the earliest anti-Vietnam war works – they confront the violence of military intervention while probing the experience of viewing anonymized images of suffering.
Known/Unknown: Plague Column (1995-1996) reckon with Schneemann’s own diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and breast cancer while probing the misogynistic portrayal of women. Through these and other works, Schneemann confronts the deeply personal experience of navigating the political and reflects on how we are implicated in the entrenched power structures in society.