Some of Carolee Schneemann’s most famous artworks involve naked bodies eating raw chickens (“Meat Joy,” 1964), a film of her and her boyfriend having sex from her cat’s vantage point (“Fuses,” 1965) and a performance where she unravels a poem stuffed up her vag (“Interior Scroll,” 1975). That is, she’s the type of exhibitionistic performance artist that your mother likely finds objectionable and that you probably find passé — though her work speaks, then and now, about the conflicting ideals that render womanhood passive and that make motherhood objectified.
The period of the late sixties and early seventies witnessed both a change in the art world, which fractured into myriad styles and movements, as well as widespread social transformations wrought by the sexual revolution and second wave feminism. Carolee Schneemann’s work occupies the intersection of these developments, enacting an explicit — and explicitly political — representation of women’s bodies through performance. In a suite of thirteen photographs that document her art event “Interior Scroll,” recently reprinted and now on display at the Johnson Museum, Schneemann attempts to countervail received masculine and misogynist depictions of the female body with images that “liberate” women from social and artistic conventions.
Reconstructing the performance (which took place in East Hampton in 1975 as part of the “Women Here and Now” festival and again in 1977 at the Telluride Film Festival) from photos and other evidence, it appears that Schneemann first climbed on a table and disrobed a cloth drapery she wore to reveal an apron underneath. The drapery hanging over the table’s edge echoes a classic still life. She then painted herself in mud, daubing and streaking her otherwise naked body. A slather of thick paint coats her crotch, an oval encircles her face, a mud-patch splotches an armpit, while other seemingly random smatterings recall the violent impasto of Abstract Expressionists canvases.
Indeed, the artist’s body could be likened to de Kooning’s famous series of women; however, whereas de Kooning’s slashes and scars of muddied color congeal into a protuberant, dripping grotesque, angry and hysterical, Schneemann’s slopped-up body seems lithe and joyous — a singular and specific woman rather than an abstracted receptacle of paternalistic rage. She participates in a kind of kinetic, Dionysian rite, mingled with the textures of nature as she dances and reads her own book of poetry, both sexualized and sacralized. Nonetheless, complicating this view of her performance, the poses that she exhibits resemble those of an artist’s model, imprisoning her as a muse even as she seeks to become the cultic earth-mother or creative genetrix. Does the apron, moreover, signal her enslavement to domesticity even as she attempts to abandon her “vested” interests in patriarchal gender roles?
For the next sequence in the performance, Schneemann slowly unfurled a crinkled, lace-like scroll from her vagina. In many of the photos she hunches over, almost as if constipated, crouching down to grab an ever-expanding paper trail produced as if disgorged from her genitalia. The image can be variously read as the poem being spoken directly by her vagina dentata, the feminist “giving birth” to her creation, the body as a temple in which the scroll is immured in an inner sanctum, writing as an elongated phallic substitute, or art falling out of the entrails like menstrual waste. The poem on the scroll satirizes a “structuralist filmmaker” who claims that his feminine interlocutor is “unable to appreciate/ the system the grid/ the numerical rational/ procedures,” oblivious to the fact of marking her with his own labels and categories. Nonetheless, the formal structure of the poem has been literally shaped by the contours of the female artist’s body, its length and line-breaks dictated by the space of her vaginal cavity, though the vagina itself may be as malleable, slippery and protean as the poem’s meaning. Unlike the fictional male filmmaker she mocks, her work controverts rationalized and structuralist readings. Blurring strict lineations and structured lineaments, Schneemann reads poetry from the interior scroll and from a manuscript of her poems, though these poems, too, presumably have issued from her lips and inner self; the mud-paint, on the other hand, is written on her body even as her body itself is “written” with the male gaze of the artistic viewer/voyeur. Inside and outside become fluid as the boundaries between text and body, art product and artistic process, cultural inscription and cultic script merge and meander.
One of the slightly disconcerting aspects of these photos, revealed in the last image in the series, is how the cameras that shoot the event are all held by apparently male photographers. Does this hand back the power of the artwork to the masculine gaze — making her body shot-through with the grid imposed by these male others — or is it a critique of the very framing practices that it participates in?
Much like her 1964 performance “Meat Joy,” which contemporary viewers feel squeamish about more because it involves eating raw meat than because of its uninhibited naked bodies, the reception of “Interior Scroll” has changed. It evokes a response from today’s feminists who might object that Schneemann has essentialized women and engaged in (rather than displaced) a heterosexist discourse, which inscribes women in the binary of leaky vessels and engendering wombs. Ironically, Schneemann’s oeuvre had often been dismissed as narcissistic and pornographic; it didn’t gain widespread critical traction until the ‘90s, when a new group of feminist artists looked back to find formative and performative precursors. Despite this generation gap, over three decades later we can view Schneemann’s work as attempting to unravel the cultural metaphors of female bodies’ gaps and gashes into a sex-positive, generative poetics.