March 2, 2010

Does That Make Her Crazy?

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When I first learned Carolee Schneemann was coming to the Johnson Museum to lecture in conjunction with the exhibition of her most famous work, “Interior Scroll,” I knew I had to be there. When I found out I would be interviewing her, my excitement was only slightly stifled by my increasing nerves.  In her performance pieces, Carolee Schneemann introduced a feminist dimension, using her body — as she was most often nude — to challenge traditionally accepted gender roles and the definition of “art.”  Although she is most famous for her performance work, which includes “Interior Scroll” (1975) and “Meat Joy” (1964), she is NOT a performance artist, which she explicitly affirmed, “I am not a performance artist,” and casually confirmed during the interview, “you know that, right?”In speaking with her about her work and her reception as an artist, both then and now, Schneemann expressed a sense of bitterness and resentment.  This is understandable, considering she has never been fully recognized or praised for her work by her contemporaries, critics or even family, saying in her lecture that “Whatever an artist was, that was the last thing this family had in mind.”  Critics initially called Schneemann’s work “ridiculous, not the beginning of body art, it was considered narcissistic indulgence … ‘Meat Joy’ was taken as an erotic ritual” and wasn’t “vilified” until later feminist art historians provided the appropriate context. She is instantly recognizable from her early work and even age has not robbed her of her edgy grit.  In the beginning of the interview, conducted right before the lecture, a certain tension immediately became apparent.

Sun:  In the sense that artists are a reflection of society, what are you trying to communicate with your work and has your message changed since its creation?Carolee Schneemann:  I absolutely can’t do it [answer the question], I am so sorry, I’m thinking, thinking, thinking what I have to propose tonight … This is screwing with my mind … you know in order to do these lecture presentations its almost, you can write this down, Its almost a form of entrancement, I have to concentrate on the energies … their connection and relationship to a history of materials and elements and so in order to stay in that nexus of relevance I pretty much cut off from other discussions.

The hostility that I unintentionally triggered with my first question was instantaneously gone when I confessed like a star struck idiot that I had studied her in high school.  She seemed surprised, but pleased that her art was relevant and had been part of the curriculum. “I think I am all alone in the country, waiting for someone to notice what I care about … then I’m infamous!” I had written about Carolee Schneemann in high school only once, and it was in preparation for an exam.  The prompt was to identify and describe a work within or outside of the western tradition that is not in its originally intended location.  I used “Interior Scroll.”  Schneemann’s response, “You mean the body — the vagina was not the proper location?  Brilliant.”

Sun:  How do you translate a physical energy to transcend your body and occupy the art itself?Carolee Schneemann:  It’s not exactly a separation, it’s more like an area of activity that occupies the consciousness and the physicality of the self and … it also definitely relates to cultural history … for me it is definitely always relating to … for example the painting of Cezanne … so there are very specific cultural influences that are both conscious and unconscious and I don’t have to sort them out usually, you know it’s like a landscape, it’s all coherent, together in my own structure … They want things explained, even the realms that are beyond rationality, or which will be deformed by rationality, so that it’s very difficult to value what you can’t control — such as the imagination, or unconscious motive, or contradictory realms of influence.Sun:  Can you speak briefly about your art historical influences?C.S.:  I just did, they’re on the recorder.Johnson Staff:  Um … I don’t think so.C.S.: … I just recently did a lecture at Musée Pompidu in Paris and it turned out the main influences on my art are all French, and I didn’t quite realize it but it starts with Cezanne, Beauvoir politicizes my understanding of contemporary culture and what feminism has to do, Faucon is the philosophical art historical base of how I understand what art can be, who else has been there … Bachelard, a beautiful poetic aesthetic inquiry, it was very influential for me.  And then of course, when I first get to New York City, I’m immediately thrown in with the happening people, Oldenburg and Dine, Whitman are influences. Sun:  What kind of music inspired your works?C.S.:  Well lots of things, you’re gonna hear a lot of Gnarls Barkley — I love “Crazy” — and that’s gonna introduce the work … We were constantly dancing, you know the ’60s were a time when everybody danced a lot, and that was an energy that was coherent with aesthetics and politics and sexuality and creativity. It was in everything we did and that would be rock and roll, Presley, The Kinks, The Supremes, Ultimate Spinach, 13th Floor Elevators, The Beatles…Sun:  Do you feel a sense of relief after the completion of a work?C.S.:  It depends, sometimes I sit on a work for years because I’m not sure if it’s really realizing itself, I mean with the videotape “Body Collage,” I just never really thought it was good enough.  And then it was sort of discovered by other artists, and they said this is taking Pollock and collage to a fantastic realm … and then with my most recent work “Precarious,” I’m thrilled with it — so happy with it. It was quite complex, and it worked beautifully, and when I walked into the museum and the techies had it all going I just burst into tears and had to leave, I was so happy and moved, because it had its own life, it realized itself in every way that I could have hoped. And then there’s another important answer to your question which has to do with years and years of resistance to my work, where the culture thought that “Eye Body” was narcissistic exhibitionism, they thought “Fuses” was pornography, “Interior Scroll” had people extremely confused, and it took a feminist reanalysis of cultural history to give it a proper context.  So given all that resistance and confusion around the work, it’s taken me a long time to feel gratified. Sun: It must be nice now then to have a resurgence of feminine studies, gay and lesbian studies.C.S.: It’s fantastic, it’s just fantastic.  And every time there’s an audience with men in it who are paying attention to me I’m like wow how did this happen?  … There’s just a solid wall of male culture and any woman in it was an oddity, so I didn’t know what I was going to do but I didn’t want to be part of those oddities.  Yeah, it’s creepy … but throughout the 70s and 80s I felt like all these women artists were standing on my back — it was more what they were making. I would open an art magazine and say that’s weird, I think I already did that, and that too … and I’ve never had a major article in any of those art magazines…

I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind … I was out of touch, because I didn’t know enough I just knew too much. / Does that make me crazy?  The song was instantly recognizable (for those of you still struggling, it

Original Author: Katie Kremnitzer