Carolee Schneemann is an artist whose work refuses a tepid response: in a career that has addressed contentious topics such as American imperialism and the implications of living in a sex-phobic society, Schneemann has solidified her position as a pioneer in what is now known as multi-media/disciplinary art.
Schneemann began her career as a painter in the late 1950’s and later applied the medium’s physical properties to installation, performance, filmmaking, the written word, and assemblage. Interested in what an object or image can do and how this is transformed across media and space, Schneemann’s work is equally kinetic and expressive: “Everyone has a different constraint or fluidity, and I’m very fluid. I’m hot; I touch things and they’re charged. My problem is to organize or modify this charge…it has to be disciplined, focused.”
Schneemann began exploring the relationship between art and the social body at a time when neither feminism nor the art world were ready for her (she describes her early career as being the “Cunt Mascot in the Boys’ Club”): her work, dismissed at times as deterministic and superficial, was in fact anticipating a theoretical turn that would not happen until at least ten years later.
It can also be argued that this criticism had to do with the fact that Schneemann was pushing the gestalt of the Happening and Fluxus (she and Yoko Ono are mentioned in the Le Tigre song “Hot Topic”) into very literal directions: on a theoretical level, it was a time of mounting sexual freedom and expression; on a practical level, not every body was permitted access to the libertine sentiments that were gaining speed south of 14th Street. In her 1965 film Fuses, for example, Schneemann shot her and her then lover (the late composer James Tenney) having sex, and despite the fact that the camera’s gaze does not fetishize her form or privilege his climax as its apex, it was still dismissed by some as pornographic.
It would not be the last time that such charges were leveled at Schneemann, and this recurrent dismissal eventually lead to Interior Scroll (1975), which produced Schneemann’s most iconic image. In this performance, she pulls a script from her vagina, reading various retorts as she unravels. Here, one gets the feeling that Schneemann, while creating a very pointed commentary on the resistance to women in the art world (from male and female critics), is also poking fun at the reductive nature of her work’s reception.
Her latest installation, Breaking Borders, combines new and previous works, and is similarly poignant and playful. The installations, which Schneemann describes as “insistent relationships based on invisible grids,” take the eye on a tour through her concerns and methods. Particularly compelling is SNAFU (pictured to the right), a work she admits to having “no idea what it’s about.” Here, a series of motorized baptismal dresses, both lit and occluded by video, eerily retain the form of an inhabitant, while also displaying their innocence.
“I’m always making something I need to see,” says Schneemann, and her latest works continue to make these visions a lush, resplendent reality.
Breaking Borders runs at MOCCA until April 22 in conjunction with the Images Festival.
Images of Devour and SNAFU courtesy of MOCCA