Two recent exhibitions of performance and mixed-media artist Carolee Schneemann bring to the fore both the problematic (dis)placement of her oeuvre within art history, as well as implicit alliances between the works themselves and the construction of historical narratives.
“Up To And Including Her Limits,” The New Museum retrospective of Schneemann’s work spanning almost forty years, displays a chronological progression of works separable into three sections: early material including painting, collage and constructions; documents of past performances/films in the form of photographs, notes and drawings; and, recent works including installations and photocopy montages.
The reconfigured mixed-media installation Up To And Including Her Limits acts as a temporal link between the documentation of her past works and those more recent ones on display. In a 1973 performance of the same name Schneemann made large-scale drawings while suspended in a harness. The piece, as constructed for The New Museum, contains the empty harness she used surrounded by the drawings, but a film projection and two columns of video monitors playing back documentation of the original event have been added. The documents demonstrate Schneemann’s corporeal presence in the work, while “the residue of performance survives as a sculptural piece.” (Carolee Schneemann Up To And Including Her Limits, The New Museum, 1996, p. 29.)
Schneemann’s Montreal exhibition is, similarly, a combination of past and present work. Therein, large-format photographs of her major performance pieces are convened along with newer works incorporating colour photocopies and text, and others that combine organic forms (oranges, rubber casts of breasts) with technological media (video) or medical paraphernalia (syringes, pill bottles, bandages and gauze).
Schneemann is perhaps best known for her 1975 performance piece, Interior Scroll, during which she painted her naked body and then read from a scroll pulled out of her vagina. This performance is represented in both exhibitions: in Montreal by an infamous photograph, and in New York the same image is flanked by the scroll and a printed copy of the text that Schneemann read.
For this work and others Schneemann has been both applauded by feminists for trangressing the normative boundaries of the female body within art, as well as berated for making essentialist and theoryless work. At the same time she has been dismissed by the mainstream as a radical feminist or an “angry woman.” Schneemann has long been walking the tightrope of marginalization from both camps, the result of which is two-fold. First, much of her past work has been elided from histories of art dealing with the sixties and seventies. Second, the far-reaching influence of her early works felt up to this day on those fields of performance, installation and multi-media, has been denied by many who feel that a focus on what Kristine Stiles has called the “apple” is more important than a look at the “stem.”
According to Stiles, Schneemann’s theoretical concerns are “with the transmogrification of the formal languages of art (painting and sculpture) into human action.” (p. 17) Schneemann’s approach to action is rooted in painting and she has always related to her work as painting insofar as she stresses her physical connection to the work she produces. Taking cues from early modernist painters such as Paul Cezanne, Schneemann creates with the idea of collaging smaller parts into a whole; however, unlike her predecessors, she inserts herself into her creations through a literal physical presence (as in Eye Body (Thirty-Six Transformative Actions), 1963 or Meat Joy, 1964) or through a self-representation, such as a slide projection of her body. By inserting her body (the “subject”) into the picture plane (either 2- or 3-dimensional), she creates an expansive narrative that unfolds not only to describe her own life, but also the cultural, social and political contexts in which her work has evolved.
The idea of historical narrative is not only a function of the exhibition formats described here. As one moves through the gallery space, one also moves through a history of art, while at the same time one is presented with works whose underlying theme is the construction of histories themselves.
For example, Black Pathology (1996) and Plague Column (1996) – both collages of laser copies, acetates and printed texts which were on display at Galerie Samuel Lallouz – build up histories through a montage of written words accompanied by illustrations. The former deals with the disintegration of the human body as a result of cancerous disease as well as the methods used to treat it, while the latter focuses on the mythology of a sculpture from a church in Germany. What makes these works interesting is their layered narratives. In Plague Column the text intertwines stories of Schneemann’s own reactions to the German sculpture with replies to her inquiries regarding it to an art historian, a friend and a feminist historian. The circumstances of the sculpture’s production here is also related to the artist’s own investigations into the physical and spiritual ramifications of cancer and Western medicine’s attempt to treat it.
A major theme in Schneemann’s work from the sixties and seventies was corporeal presence and the relation of the body to artistic production. Oftentimes, her “breach of artistic and social decorum” as Kristine Stiles has called it, and her flagrant revolt against the boundaries of the human body have been noticed for their shock-value and heralded for their feminist content. As the development of her work into investigations of how histories are produced and how they are undeniably grounded in lived experience reveals, her concerns go beyond feminist “transgressions” and obscene gestures.
In the past, Schneemann explored some of the ways that historical events have affected people. For example, the 1965 film Viet Flakes examined the destruction caused by war in a particular society. In much the same way, Schneemann’s newer works continue an investigation of the effects of time and its ravages on the human body. Dan Cameron has noted that “creating art about temporality and creating art about the body are ultimately the same thing” (p. 14). Schneemann’s recent pieces underscore the role of individual bodies in the writing of history. And, ultimately, the limits of the human body are transcended through Schneemann’s historical reconstructions.