Art

Invasion of the Body: Carolee Schneemann Turns Her Gaze to Human Anatomy

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Performer, film/video maker, painter, sculptor, and multimedia artist Carolee Schneemann might be described most precisely as one of the great practitioners of the art of self-possession. Beginning in the 1960s, she set about shaking off the impositions — political, social, cultural, and otherwise — foisted on the female body, using her own as the medium for her messages. An early performance
titled Meat Joy (1964) was a funny, frenzied meditation on the perils and pleasures of the flesh in which she and the other barely clad participants frolicked together, rubbing their bodies with meats and paint. In 1965, she screened her film Fuses, an explicit erotic-domestic record of life and lovemaking with her then-partner, composer James Tenney (1934–2006), as well as a feminist reclamation of the pornographic. For Interior Scroll (1975), perhaps her most notorious work, she pulled a long roll of paper from inside her vagina and read from it aloud.

Schneemann’s body has always been hers alone, whether she’s sharing herself with lovers or with audiences. She threw parties after having abortions. (“I just had to celebrate getting that thing out of me,” she told writer Maggie Nelson in 2016.) But over a lifetime, bodies change and are changed, and as they do, their function, their presence, their meaning, changes too. Co-presented at P.P.O.W. and Galerie Lelong is a moving and intelligent two-part exhibition of works by Schneemann from the 1980s, ’90s, and 2000s that illuminates the vital trajectories of her art and her body.

The rarely seen multimedia installation Plague Column: Known Unknown (1995–96), on view at P.P.O.W., is one of the exhibition’s most poignant works, and among its most potent, having been made in the wake of the artist’s diagnosis of and treatment for breast cancer. Schneemann did not elect to follow the prescribed Western medical protocol of mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, opting instead for the therapies offered by alternative medicine, including diet changes and vitamin therapies. Although neither option guaranteed her recovery, to cut, irradiate, and poison her body would have had deadening physical effects. Pleasure had always been her right — and part of her rites as an artist — and the choice to preserve her breast was also a stand against the dominant medical views of what determines the quality of a woman’s life. In an essay in the exhibition’s publication, art historian Soyoung Yoon recounts how Schneemann explained to her doctor: “My breast is an erotic organ — as your penis is — I’m keeping it with me.”

Plague Column is an exploded view of her intimate knowledge of cancer — a harrowing, affecting work that requires some time to “read” and unpack. Here, Schneemann blows up images of malignant cells, collaging them with lab reports so that their forms — looking like colorful alien flora — are made more legible. A video loops over four monitors arranged on the floor and encircled by straw; here the artist has also placed silicone breast forms, some lit from below like lanterns. The video is an accounting, of sorts, of her treatment, editing together footage of a syringe being plunged into her breast, of her breasts being examined by a doctor’s hands, of her cat licking its bloodstained chops after eating a rabbit it killed, of anatomy books being thrown into a pile. Close-ups of her lover’s hands caressing her breasts as well as his cock penetrating her make sure that we understand that Schneemann’s body, though under duress, is still to be pleasured and celebrated, not pitied.

The installation also features four columns of texts composed from shards of longer stories — her own as well as those of Tenney, the performer/musician Charlotte Moorman, and the artist Hannah Wilke, all of whom died of cancer. The voice is icy, delivering its bitter medicine in morbid snippets — “They couldn’t help but believe people got the cancer they deserved,” it begins — while in the next room hang three series of abstract painting-collages that are, for lack of a better word, more medicinal in nature. Schneemann made these works while receiving treatment in Mexico, her hand on the paper at times languid, loose, at others seeming more full of fury, but always appearing as though this daily practice was in some way intended to exorcise her sickness.

The video installations and collage paintings on view at Lelong, however, foreground bodies other than the artist’s own. Precarious (2009) is an agitated, multi-channel
meditation on the cruelty of captivity that Schneemann edited together from manipulated found footage of a caged bird stomping in place, red-suited prisoners dancing in sync, a performing bear with a shackle around its neck, and the artist herself dancing blindfolded, as well as other clips. The actions — blunted, stunted — repeat over and over, looped to underscore the anxious, unhappy, nervous state of the “performers.” By way of mirrors, the projections sweep across the walls of the space,
surrounding the viewer, who will likely feel awfully hemmed in by the awful spectacle of it all.

Far more assaultive is Devour (2003–04), a dual-channel found-footage video composed across six screens that puncture the pitch black of the room. It’s an ominous, visceral work in which images of violence, trauma, and death swarm alongside calmer, kinder
visions, though those somehow curdle in their turn, too. A demolition derby. Schneemann kissing her cat. A man dragging himself across a road. A bird in flight. A woman lying on the ground, the top of her head blown to smithereens and smeared across a sidewalk. A mouth chewing noodles in slow motion. A straight razor shaving a neck, until it stops uncomfortably close to the jugular. Are the images themselves sick, or do they just capture what ails us? Sitting there in the dark, taking it all in, one feels the answer just might be: Get these things out of me.

Carolee Schneemann: ‘Further Evidence — Exhibit A’

P.P.O.W.

535 West 22nd Street, 3rd floor

212-647-1044, ppowgallery.com

‘Further Evidence — Exhibit B’

Galerie Lelong

528 West 26th Street

212-315-0470, galerielelong.com

Both exhibitions on view through December 3

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