Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019)
by: Bryony White , June 3, 2019
by: Bryony White , June 3, 2019
In March, I attended a conference at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Schneemann had been part of the original list of artists programmed to speak that day. Her absence, however, was palpable. Martha Rosler openly mourned her passing and reflected on how Schneemann had influenced her as an artist. We watched a short clip of Viet Flakes (1965), a film Schneemann made in response to the violence of the Vietnam war. While Schneemann’s work has been critiqued from a number of feminist perspectives, whether essentialist, playing to the male gaze, anti-porn, or too exploitative, it felt important to acknowledge an artist whose work is central to any history of feminist performance art in a Western context. In particular, her work has been indispensable to an understanding of my own body–with performances that gesture towards the abject, the uncomfortable, the permeable. Schneemann possessed a stunning acuity for getting at the feeling of a body and was always attentive to the body’s ‘injurability’, its shared boundary with the social.
Schneemann’s oeuvre was an exercise in trying to know the body, its physicalities and its vulnerabilities. It is no surprise then that Schneemann spent much of her early career working tirelessly against the grain of abstract expressionism’s masculinist assumptions; she negotiated the openness of the body in performance, its discomforts, its pleasures and its affective dissonances. Meat Joy (1964), as is quite common with Schneeman’s work, balances the pleasure of sex and intimacy with the chaotic and grotesque nature of abjection and violence, as naked performers roll around in a mixture of paint and animal carcasses. Violence subtended much of Schneemann’s work. In her performance Up and Including her Limits (1973-1976), Schneemann’s feet are suspended by a tree surgeon’s harness on a three-quarter-inch manila rope. Like a pendulum, she swings, using crayons to draw across the walls. Like a piece of meat, Schneemann hangs, tracing the wall, her body writhing, straining against the hold of the harness, her movement both sensual and uncomfortable.
For much of her career, many of Schneemann’s works occupied a relatively peripheral and marginal position in the art world. Over the last decade, however, these works, alongside now groundbreaking works, such as Interior Scroll, have certainly taken centre stage in the performance art canon. In 2017, Schneemann won the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, which married with a MoMA PS1 retrospective in 2018, marked an important turning point in her career. By her death earlier this year, Schneemann had begun to enjoy a certain success in the mainstream art world. In a letter written from Paris to the artist Joseph Cornell in 1964, Schneemann wrote: ‘I think not of services rendered but among possibilities in passage and certain fleeting presences we exchange, and for sustaining inspiration and energy here’. While Schneemann certainly rendered an important service to the world of feminist performance art, her prolific career has more than embodied fleeting presences, exchanges and experiences in what Schneemann herself called ‘my feeling feeling close present’.
 This is taken from a letter Schneemann wrote to Lucy Lippard in 1982. The letter is available at https://transcription.si.edu/project/8454 (last accessed 31 May 2019).
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