Bryson Edward Howe
Carolee Schneemann: Don’t Shoot the Messenger
Following her new retrospective at the Barbican in London, we look at the art of pleasure in Carolee Schneemann's 'body' of work.
"The body is in the eye; sensations received visually take hold in the total organism. Perception moves the total personality to excitation." – Carolee Schneemann
What can art make you do – bodily? Can it make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? Can it bring you to tears, grip you with anxiety, make you fall in love? Can art be an ecstasy machine? Can it send you into a frenzy? Can it devour you? Has a painting ever made you recoil, reduced you to involuntary spasms, made you desire it? Has a painting ever made you cum? If pleasure is a feeling of being taken past our limits, of being overwhelmed – by another person, by an experience – then visually each of these excesses could be said to share in the uncontrollable tremor of the body ‘beside itself’, crying with sexual pleasure, a scream of fear, or sobs of insuppressible anguish.
As lights dimmed and soft feet pattered across the dark stage, dancing toes knocked on the earth, awakening a muscular mycorrhizal network that runs like a subterranean city map connecting my feet to yours. Using the body as an integral material, (or even as a medium itself) instead of a subject to see how far below the soil the body’s roots sink, Carolee Schneemann flew to Paris in 1964 with some key performers from the Judson Dance Theatre for the Festival de la Libre Expression. Schneemann taped the sounds of the streets below her Parisian hotel room to soundtrack the performance, splinters of ephemeral experience, eavesdropped conversations, and shards of secrets like a wet tongue burying itself in your ear, hot breath electrifying your cingulate cortex; a discontinuous silvery dialogue beautiful, eerie, dreadfully human: sound forced out of the incandescent cerebrospinal brine of your voyeuristic appetite.
Watching the footage of “Meat Joy” (1964) now is like being trypophobic at an orgy. The gestalt ‘whole’ slips between tenderness, banality, wildness, precision, and abandon as body and mind are caught in festering hallucinogenic lunacy. Taking glee in the unhinged libido that comes along with being a being made of meat, Schneemann appears as a naked, bloodthirsty Gaia; she moves her thin dancer’s body sylphlike across the floor, sensual but not in the praxis of a striptease (or even a performance in any form you'd recognise). There will be no pleasure for the audience. Instead, Schneemann and her co-conspirators fall into bacchanalia, writhing in ichor-like paint, gizzards, and fish carcasses, slimy and fluid, all one flesh. As in most hetero-porn, it is the female body in the grips of an out-of-control ecstasy that offers the most sensational sight, yet this was so far detached from viewer pleasure that one member of the audience attempted to strangle Schneemann halfway through the performance. There was a terrible, joyous depravity, and these wreathed bodies gyrating became something full of motion and colour and magic: art became lethal.
A lot of Schneemann’s ‘kinetic theatre’ is deeply psychosexual, and surgically acute; vascular art, where to have living, breathing, bleeding bodies actually in front of you, face-to-face, body-to-body, it becomes hard to bring into focus what is real and what is the ‘performance’. In another of Schneemann’s actions, “Noise Bodies” (1965), Schneemann and then-partner musician James Tenney stage an erotic dance, their suits lined with metal pieces that clink and chime, making music that I found to be very soft and sensual, at first, which then grew louder and much more violent (romantic and rather sinister), like a child’s music box tuned to the frequency of its parents arguing; love as a biting satire of itself. In another, “The Queen’s Dog” (1965), Schneemann had one of her male company playing a dog where he would lick foam off the otherwise all-female ensemble’s bodies as they rolled and twisted over each other, a masochistic ritual that seems to have accidentally transcended itself beyond the bloated corpse of feminist art of the time, breaking the frame of a phlegm-perfumed fantasy: tes volontés, tes voluptés: “your decisions, your delights… your urges, your orgies.”
I think I know why the core of these performances left me stranded amongst my own emotions: for this to be so erotic and still a ‘performance’ unravelled within me the same feeling of having a woman fake an orgasm while I’m inside of her. I understand that my partner’s sexual pleasure should not be a trophy for my own fractious ego (which gets just as good of a stroking as anything else during good sex), but still, I know in the past I’ve seen a woman’s orgasm as a victory or confirmation of my own masculinity: it is unhealthy, yes, but no less real a consequence of sex as the potential orgasm is itself. So much of life is performative: at work, I am a different person than who I am with my girlfriend, who is a different person to who I am with my housemates, who is a different person to who I am with my mum, and so on. It is this confrontation of my own hypocrisy as a man with a shatter-glass ego that, I imagine, is what sent the audience member in Paris hurtling at Schneemann’s writhing body in maddened-red fever, wanting to devour.
It’s an art of the then and there, removing all ability to intellectualise, defying thought: because when you see a naked woman writhing around in a blizzard of raw meat your primal, carnal hardwiring overtakes any sort of academic software that has been downloaded: it’s a hard, forced reboot. Caught in the electric present, there is a depth of desperation to see how a body clashes against another; desire is bound tightly with mortal coils, as the “excrement philosopher” George Bataille wrote: “Poetry leads to the same place as all forms of eroticism—to the blending and fusion of separate objects. It leads us to eternity, it leads us to death, and through death to continuity,” inducing that orgasmic space where you are out beyond wherever you really are; the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it.
This is the interior of sex, the languorousness of desire that dances quietly across Schneemann’s body of work, but it is her acid-spit film Fuses (1967) that shows what it is to “touch tenderly, fuck fiercely.” In it, Schneemann films herself and Tenney in collaged fragments of making love: their bodies entwined, Tenney’s cock hardening into a slick cerise, ivory teeth tearing at skin then clenched as the lovers wrestle control, then abandon themselves: slipping between giving and giving oneself over to the other. Whether performing smeared in a vulvic space or spread like a fleshy Sheela na gig, Schneemann’s barbed body has always resisted an oppressive stillness (to be frozen by desire) and instead thrashes in hot, turpentine motion; Fuses is sex distilled to pure gesture and movement, Schneemann saying: “I wanted to put into that materiality of film the energies of the body, so that the film itself dissolves and recombines and is transparent and dense—as one feels during lovemaking.”
Schneemann insists, however, that she is performing the “threshold for the pleasures of physical contact that were not explicitly about sex but related to something more ancient—the worship of nature, worship of the body, a pleasure in sensuousness.” Women’s bodies have been commodified and objectified for hundreds and hundreds of years, and it is troubling to clock on to the sense of ownership that I feel sometimes when women I know talk about sex or their bodies as vehicles for their own pleasure. Schneemann seems to gnaw at this, knowingly, the “look-don’t-look” air to so much of her work thins that already balding line between exhibitionism and self-portraiture even further, using her body as material, as a container of dreams, a structure, a limit, and a tool to do exactly what men have been doing to women throughout the entire history of art: here is something to gaze at, to exploit, to pervert, and whether it’s violence or sex, it’s her body and she can do what she wants with it. Because she’s not showing her body, or displaying her body, she’s simply being her body. And the body can be carnal, or it can be sensual, or angry, joyous and orgasmic, heartbroken, sick, or depressed. It moves through the spectrum of human emotion, blissfully and sometimes brutally, always alive.