The woman whose naked body was a canvas

Describing this event, this happening, this performance can never do justice to the power of the moment itself. We can gain an impression of what it was like, we can look at the scroll behind glass, we can see photographs of Schneemann reading it, crouched and naked before her audience. But we cannot really know how her audience at Telluride felt when they saw and heard it happening before them, or feel the rage pulsating through Schneemann as she recreated the work on stage. Reflecting on her 1963 work Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera, she once wrote that “I wanted my actual body to be combined with the work as an integral material.” How then can her performance art be displayed when the body itself is not present?

This is a question answered in a myriad of ways by Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics, the first major retrospective of Schneemann’s works in the UK at the Barbican in London. Schneemann died in 2019, and there is a specific challenge of bringing historical performance art to a retrospective exhibition. The show does this through a plethora of display techniques, combining projected films, still photography, archival writings such as performance instructions, and tactile objects including costumes and props. Curator Lotte Johnson tells BBC Culture that, “Schneemann herself was sensitively attuned to the condition of performance as an ephemeral, time-based form of expression.”

This is why Schneemann’s archive is full of hundreds of photographs, slides, negatives and contact sheets which together offer as close to a three-dimensional realisation of what took place in the moment of the performance itself as possible. Johnson further reflects, “These photographs and moving image documentations, which Schneemann often edited into her own incredible film collages, have been absolutely crucial to the challenge of bringing her work back to life through our exhibition.”

Schneemann’s art spans six decades from the late 1950s, refusing to fit into any clear categories of period or genre. She grew up in 1930s Pennsylvania before studying at Bard College in New York state, from which she was expelled in 1954 after two years for “moral turpitude”, due to painting her own nude body when Bard refused to provide her with life models. In doing so, Schneemann connected with herself artistically in a way that defined her work thereafter. She moved to New York, a city caught in the throes of Abstract Expressionism and an art world full of men, whom she dubbed the “Art Stud Club”. Where men took inspiration from women’s bodies, Schneemann had the self-possession to put her body into the work directly. She took herself off the canvas to create from the body itself, developing a mode of art alongside her peer Yoko Ono which inspired subsequent performance artists including Marina Abramović.

A gesture of liberation

The taboo of the female body as a sexual agent in and for itself lies at the core of Schneemann’s work. That is, that a woman is not simply an object of male desire in society and in the sex act itself, but rather a subject who can and should feel pleasure. The societal gaslighting performed by patriarchy, specifically of men convincing women that their own pleasure is the focus of intercourse, with the male orgasm as telos, had in Schneemann’s view forced women into submission. Johnson reflects that, “For Schneemann, working with and from the body was a gesture of liberation.”

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