Revisiting Carolee Schneemann

Last February I attended a lecture on the rise of feminist art at Video Pool as part of Oliver Botar’s contemporary art history class. Among the films shown was Carolee Schneemann’s 1964 performance Meat Joy.
What an event!

Set to Millie Small’s ska hit “My Boy Lollipop,” a group of young, underwear-clad artists roll around with each other ecstatically in a mess of raw fish, chicken, sausage and paint. Sexy, disturbing and spontaneous, this flesh fiesta celebrates our chaotic impulses in a sort of sensual anarchy. Above all else, we are animals. Meat Joy draws attention to this nicely, delivering a sense of deep liberation.

Schneemann is praised the world over as a pioneer of feminist and performance art. Born in Pennsylvania in 1939, Schneemann later moved to New York where she became an integral part of the art scene beginning in the turbulent ’60s. Brushing shoulders with such notable figures as Allan Kaprow, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Stan Brakhage, she soon abandoned her canvases and moved to performance art.

According to Schneemann, the power of a performance “is necessarily more aggressive and immediate in its effect.” Using her body as an explosive, Schneemann bombed male hierarchy in the art world in her 1975 performance Interior Scroll. Undressing to nothing but an apron, she then outlined her body with black paint. After reading passages from her book Cézanne, She was a Great Painter while making nude model poses, she proceeded to slowly pull a scroll out of her vagina, presenting selected texts to a shocked audience.

Aside from exploring her naked body as a conceptual work of art, she asserts her writings as a material extension of herself, giving birth to them. Vaginal and aggressive, Interior Scroll is a slap in the face to the machismo of the abstract expressionists who, I would argue, painted with their dicks, ejaculating wildly onto the canvas.

Another work of hers I experienced on that enlightening February evening was her 1967 film Fuses in which she filmed herself and her then-boyfriend James Tenney having sex. This film depicts sexuality within the context of a relationship. Besides sex, there are also shots of her cat Kitsch. Spliced in near the end, there seems to be footage of a road trip the couple took together adding nature to the whole experience.

Clearly, Schneemann is in control here. Instead of a greasy porn movie heavy on blowjobs and male-dominated positions, this silent movie shows only a flaccid penis and jumps rapidly from one moment to the next. This playfulness is also apparent in her treatment of the media. Burning, staining and drawing on the celluloid like Stan Brakhage in his structuralist films, the final effect is delightfully experimental.

Out of some stroke of luck, genius, divine intervention or all three, Carolee Schneemann has agreed to install a video of her famous 1976 performance Up to and Including Her Limits right here at the University of Manitoba. She will be in town for a talk and performance on Nov. 10 from 5-7 p.m. at Gallery One One One on the main floor of the Fitzgerald Building.

Whether you’re a former student, in an unrelated faculty or anyone else, crawl out from underneath your rock and come enjoy this historic occasion. Such an opportunity may never present itself again. Besides, how often do we get to see a post-modern art legend right here in our own backyard?