Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics at the Barbican Centre, London, is an inquisitive survey of one of the 20th century’s most intriguing feminist artists.
And I honestly mean ‘feminist’ in the truest sense of the term, because she really does attempt to evenly balance the scales of male and female representation and power, while exploring the contributions of women throughout ‘art istory’ (removing the ‘h’ is her gender neutralisation). In one early work, Sir Henry Francis Taylor (1961), she both retains and flips the male gaze on its head.
There’s a lot to unpack, and it doesn’t get easier as you progress through this rather large exhibition. This is because a significant portion of the show consists of archival material, specifically scores and scripts from the various performances (‘Happenings’) she directed and participated in. To call her a performance artist is just part of the equation; she’s more of a creative visionary, and a really good one at that!
I highly recommend not skipping reading these performance scores – yes, your brain will hate you in the short term – because they offer exceptional insights into Schneemann’s interrogation of gender and societal norms. In one note from March 1963 on What is a Dancer, she writes that ‘I want a dancer where dancers can fall, can crash into a wall…where dancers can fart…’ Her approach was radical and liberating across multiple disciplines.
Schneemann, in my opinion, is a better version of Marina Abramović, and it’s really hard to concisely summarise her practice effectively. Her Happenings saw spaces and one’s own body and specific body parts as material and requiring activation through expression. Everything anywhere was technically possible, and she did exactly that with her nude, sometimes explicit performances, in some cases involving huge groups of participants like in Meat Orgy (1964).
This is a show that demands a certain level of patience and vigour from the visitor, but is ultimately a very strong overview touching on themes of body politics and cultural memory in a male-dominated system.
Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics runs until 8 January 2023 at the Barbican Centre, London, https://www.barbican.org.uk/