Schneemann, he was a great painter.
Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics and Sin Wai Kin: The Story Cycle
The subtitle ‘Body Politics’ appended to the Barbican Art Gallery’s Carolee Schneemann exhibition connects with Carol Hanisch’s influential essay from 1969, “The Personal is Political.” The reference appears to anchor Schneemann’s practice in second-wave feminist debates. It would imply setting Schneemann’s art in the frameworks of women’s collective action, a specific moment in an impossibly long-drawn-out struggle. However, other curatorial decisions run counter to such a connection. Ultimately, the exhibition defaults to a survey model devised for the independent (male) genius, heroic and creative, without peer or precedent. It is the competitive business model of what an artist wants.
Schneeman was in the vanguard of the ongoing feminist effort to untangle mechanisms of oppression and control. Although meticulous in its documentation, the exhibition skirts this feminism, opting instead for the perspectives of queer theorist Jennifer Doyle that ‘vulvic is not a biology but a culture.’ The curators, led by Lotte Johnson, organised Schneemann’s works into phases defining these in deference to prominent male artists. The effect is to produce Schneemann as maverick and dissident, not as seminal as Alan Kaprow — not as committed to assemblage as Joseph Cornell or Robert Rauschenberg. She dips into experimental movies, performances, and installations, yet, her elemental connection to materials and gestures led her to describe herself as a painter. Continuum in her work is presented as inconsistency. Schneemann proposed the body, her body, as a core, works around it malleable and in flux. At the Barbican, this lifelong venture is upended. Aspects of loss, decay, undoing, and delimiting in her oeuvre are transmuted into traditions of artistic stability, perseverance, and containment. And in the exhibition’s topology, Schneemann’s body became not a reliable axis but a flailing expressive tool.
Because of the way the exhibition staged Schneemann’s feminist struggle, art critics, such as Laura Cumming, writing in the Observer, felt empowered to act as voyeurs and to judge. Cumming describes Schneemann patronisingly; Schneemann is lithe, flawlessly beautiful, like a nymph, naked, her own greatest champion, defiant, and body-positive. Later, when Schneemann doesn’t capitulate, Cumming finds her fundamentally offensive and morally repugnant. The problem lies with both critics, who should not be invested in Schneemann as only a performer before a lens, and with the exhibition’s professed neutrality. Schneemann’s efforts to foreground her points of view are up against critical obstinacy, the raised bar a woman artist must confront. Schneemann’s practice is not of the figure caught by the camera but of the hand that controls the viewpoint. She refers to it explicitly in describing Infinity Kisses (1981–98), her photographic diary of an interspecies embrace at dawn. ‘During each week — even half asleep — I reached for a hand-held Olympus camera to film our kissing.’ The hand is part of the body but outside the frame and the audience’s perception. When Schneemann describes this body as casually pleasurable, it challenges the voyeur’s gaze of casual pleasure.
To present Schneemann as an agent in women’s cultural history would have needed a shift in perspective. Schneemann’s enterprise could be understood differently and her practices as necessary if women contemporaries displaced some of the ingrained art historical referents. To mention a few, Gunvor Nelson, Joyce Wieland, Mary Kelly, Yoko Ono, Jo Spence, Susan Hiller, Nico, Catherine Ribeiro, and Meredith Monk. There is bathos in the concurrence of the exhibition’s public opening with the launch, on the same day, of Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art without Men. Hessel rewrites the enduringly popular art history survey by Ernst Gombrich from 1950, which was all male artists. Still, too late for Carolee Schneemann.
Without such a context, the bodies manifest in her early performance and actions seem confusing, leading to the informal rituals of her most mythologised staging, Meat Joy (1964). In Joy, Schneemann’s participation was secondary to her role as director and choreographer. The performance followed her detailed script, dictating improvised interactions. In the Barbican, a murky clip of the final part of the 45-minute performance was projected. It was easy to be led by this and the word Joy in the title to connect what is seen with pornographic representations of group sex. Word association was also possibly mediated through Alex Comfort’s best-selling sexual intimacy primer, published a few years later, in 1972, ‘The Joy of Sex’. Anyway, without consciousness of other allied feminists striving against objectification, attempting to build communities that could transcend gender opposition, why would any spectator not assume that titillation and sensation were the work’s purpose? Schneemann allowed her body to be a sounding board for sensual celebration, even if it threatened disintegration. The ecstatic collapse of personal identity was a risk worth taking for interconnectedness. The Barbican proposed a different narrative, particularly in the exhibition’s presentation of Schneemann’s conception of Vulvic Space.
In a part of the exhibition entitled Vulvic Space, the wall text stated that the reaction to Schneemann’s work from ‘some feminist peers (….) demonstrated feminism’s own process of coming to terms with what it means to inhabit a gendered and sexualised position.’ The word position, not body, chimed with the mollifying of feminist struggles and dilution of their urgency. The Barbican strategy resonated with how, in women’s protests at the Miss America Pageant of 1968, the meaning of a symbolic action was perverted. A group outside the Pageant tossed what they dubbed instruments of female torture, high heeld shoes, girdles, pornographic magazines, and bras into a ‘Freedom Bin’. The protestors intended to incinerate the items, although, to comply with local regulations, they did not set fire to this symbolic bonfire. Just the intended gesture was enough. It ignited a popular and widely disseminated myth: feminist concerns were not with untangling systems of patriarchal oppression in the family, workplace, and culture but with removing physical constraints. Subsequently, ‘Burn your bra’ became a spurious rallying call. It was the butt of disparaging humour, used to mock women libbers’ ‘strident’ attitudes. Of vulvic space, Schneemann wrote that the concept leads to ‘the disappearance and misattribution of Goddess artefacts and imagery, to a total inversion and reinterpretation of myth and symbol.’ Her words could describe the antipodean twist made in the Barbican’s ‘gendered position’ text.
Documentations and relics from Schneemann’s performances Interior Scroll (1975–77) were found in the exhibition’s Vulvic Space. The work concerns what can still be borne when a woman is stripped of everything. Beyond idealised beauty, beyond desire, beyond vulva and vagina, where is woman’s power? The answer, Schneemann tentatively draws forth, is interior, her womb, her potential for fertility and incubation. Of origin, she writes it, is ‘the source of sacred knowledge, ecstasy, birth passage, transformation.’ It is an interior where singular phallic power is forsaken for the sake of symbiosis. The performances’ Barbican iterations were embodied in a suite of dramatic black and white photos taken by the artist’s partner Anthony McCall. Two examples were repeated in an adjacent poster image, a Schneemann multiple. In the poster, the scroll’s text flanks the two images, one where her hand seeks the scroll to pull out. In the other, she holds it up and is speaking. This text differed in the two performances of the work, two years apart. The first text, Schneemann refers to it as Scroll 2, speaks to the artist. It is a didactic critique of her ambiguity. Scroll 1 is the artist’s warning, perhaps to her never born baby, ‘they will try to be part of your sexuality — they will deny your sexuality.’ How is this coming to terms with what it means to live as gendered and sexualised? Is it not closer to Carol Hanisch’s admonition, addressed to all Miss Americas, ‘ALL women are oppressed by beauty standards.’
For Schneeman, beauty standards originated in the worship of goddess votive bodies, formed in multiple ways and available to be endlessly overwritten. The goddess’s body, if discoverable through a creative female will, was not available to be eroticised or desired. Schneemann’s conceptualisation of this omnipotent female counters the habitual tendency to equate bold and forceful with masculinity. By extension, in a woman’s bearing, these same traits become surrogacy or proxy, or, to use the language of the exhibition, a gendered position. Schneemann’s sensuality is unapologetic but anxious. It plays directly to the voyeuristic gaze that holds women to corporal stereotypes. She refuses to counter it. She falls in beside Hanisch, who wrote in her Personal Is Political essay, ‘There is no “more liberated” way; there are only bad alternatives.’
The Barbican exhibition, and commentaries on it, set Schneemann’s art and attitudes in the past. For example, Phillipa Snow writes in Art Review of Blood Work Dairy (1972), Schneemann’s menstrual record, ‘some of the pieces now feel dated in their themes.’ As if there can be feminist art as is, but a female body experience as was. The notion that change has come was avowedly countered by a video commission, launched online on the same day Body Politics opened, Sin Wai Kin’s, The Story Cycle (2022).
In the movie, Sin Wai Kin, dressed in bridal attire, excessive drag-queen makeup, and under garish coloured lights, is seen entering London’s Somerset House. With a long frilly train, they move ponderously around the elegant interiors. They encounter a doppelganger and a further version of themselves, a sort of alien news reporter on a retro cathode monitor. The video, lacking the breathless exhilaration of a Schneemann presentation, is not open-ended but circular. It loops endlessly back to the start. The reporter provides a biting commentary. ‘I have told the story many times when you arrive into it so that you are unaware of your role. The story is repeated so much that it has become a system. You have never not heard the story. The story is repeated so much that it has become a system. You have never not heard the story, so you cannot hear the story end.’
Schneemann hoped that men and women could work together to move forward. Sin Wai Kin concludes it’s a trap, ‘You don’t know what to say, how to move, and you don’t even know the story.’
Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics was at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, 8 September 2022–8 January 2023
Sin Wai Kin: The Story Cycle was launched by Channel on 8 September 2022, available at https://channel.somersethouse.org.uk/artworks/all/the-story-cycle (accessed 13 September 2022)