Carolee Schneemann’s body politics: sexuality, the female body and the symbol of woman

“Can I be both an image and an image maker?”

Rooted in this question, Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Body Politics’ is affronting, feverish and unapologetically erotic. Spanning six decades, the exhibition is both exhaustive and exhausting as viewers are propelled through twelve zones and two stories in the Barbican’s vast gallery space. As its title suggests, ‘Body Politics’ revolves around the female body – more specifically, Schneemann’s own naked body for much of the work.

From her privileged vantage point as a conventionally attractive American woman, Schneemann rebelled from the gender-prescribed role of passive wife, relentlessly pursuing her “deeper purpose” as an artist and advocating for the inextricable link between personal and political. Body Politics’ explores sexuality, nudity and a frenzied descent into choreomania, and the absolute absence of motherhood is both striking and profound. Swept up in the hedonistic chaos of the 1960s New York art scene, Schneemann’s work quickly began to erupt from the confines of the canvas.

For her, the body and canvas are extensions of each other, in the same way that mother and child are so intimately connected during pregnancy. Watching her friend give birth in a short film, Schneemann was troubled by the casting of women as passive muses, speaking of pregnancy as “life-sucking”. Many of her filmed performances seem a little life-sucking too, though Schneemann seems increasingly energised as she flings her naked body around in a state of paint-fuelled frenzy.

The seventh section, ‘Fuses’, confronts the viewer with Schneemann’s blazing desire to “touch tenderly, fuck fiercely” as three years of sex tapes play out on the big screen. Distorted with paint, acid and oven-baking (perhaps Schneemann was a domestic goddess after all), the film is blurred and hazy, presenting non-reproductive sex from a woman’s perspective as jubilant, erotic, spiritual.

Beginning her artistic journey before the rise of feminism and sexual liberation movements, Schneemann was often criticised for the narcissism and vulgarity of her work. One filmmaker dismissed her art as “diaristic indulgence”. Naturally, Schneemann responded to this with Interior Scroll: a performance where she stood naked, posed, and slowly unravelled a scroll from inside her vagina. Reading from the paper, she delivered a searing monologue condemning the misogyny (and internalised misogyny) of the art world, elevating the vagina as a source of knowledge and power. Always blurring the boundaries between interior and exterior, she described the vagina “as a translucent chamber of which the serpent was an outward model: enlivened by its passage from the visible to the invisible”. Snakes weave their way across the exhibition, draped over Schneemann’s naked body in striking black and white photographs that disgust, rather than delight, the male gaze.

“I do not ‘show’ my naked body! I am being my body”. Schneemann’s mind-body unity continues through to the end of the exhibition; in Vulva’s Morphia, colourful, abstract vulva paintings adorn the walls, reminiscent of flowers as Schneemann praised the connection between women and nature, the divine feminine and the cyclicality of life and death. Despite her overall rejection of motherhood, never understanding her own mother’s own devotion to the domestic, Schneemann’s art embraces the ancient, transcendental worship of a “Mother Earth Goddess”.

Despite its quirks – Infinity Kisses II shows 24 photos of Schneemann French kissing her cat each morning, while the kinetic theatre of Meat Joy features hot dogs raining down on naked bodies – Body Politics’ triumphs in its shattering of the synonymy between woman and mother. Many women today are delaying motherhood, or rejecting it altogether, so Schneemann’s work feels both empowering and timeless. Her artistic focus on the female reproductive system also holds huge relevance today, condemning the stigma and shame of modern rape culture in alignment with fourth wave feminism. Leaving the exhibition does feel a little like finishing a marathon (or so I can imagine), but Schneemann seemed to be in a real race against time the final works on display address war, cancer and terrorism as her personal and political worlds became increasingly turbulent prior to her death in 2019. At a time of impossible beauty standards and self-consciousness ingrained in the female psyche, Schneemann’s work feels refreshingly joyful, uplifting the body as a piece of art in itself as it jumps off the canvas, dancing and performing across the gallery.

By Emily Whitchurch

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