New York

Carolee Schneeman

Carolee Schneemann’s recent solo exhibition at P.P.O.W. coincided with Thomas Hirschhorn’s latest at Gladstone Gallery. Both, it scarcely needs pointing out, dealt with the politics of representation and the representation of politics, but a more interesting point of comparison might be semantic. While Schneemann—a pioneering figure in feminism and body art—has sometimes met with accusations of narcissism and shallowness, Hirschhorn today claims superficiality itself as a site de résistance. “The truth and logic of things,” he writes, “are reflected on their own surface. . . . Let’s keep things on the surface, let’s take the surface seriously!”

Whatever one thinks of Hirschhorn’s proposition and, moreover, of the specificities of his exhibition’s content, its terms demand that we consider the ways in which all ideological battles are played out over and within the materiality of the body. Such a truth has been, of course, the purview of numerous artists over the years, a great number of them pursuing specifically feminist practices. Thus, visiting “Corporeal,” a miniretrospective of Schneemann’s photographic works executed over the last forty years or so, one is reminded of just how recent—and how particular—such “superficial” considerations of the body really are. Indeed, the throughline of “Corporeal” (a title that surely signals an intention to take the surface seriously) issues from the artist’s conviction that matters sexual, social, and political are most immediately inscribed in the flesh.

Included here were photographic sequences documenting those works of Schneemann’s that, due to their sheer canonical status, sometimes verge on losing their original disruptive force. It is easy to forget the radicalness of Interior Scroll, 1975, for instance, in which a naked, mud-painted Schneemann pulled a text from her vagina and read its eloquent protest against a male-dominated art world. Easy, too (in our current oversexed though paradoxically conservative moment) to miss completely the ethical imperatives driving Schneemann’s eros-laden 1963 performance Eye Body, with its images of Schneemann as a ritualistically painted, serpent-strewn goddess.

Yet for those new to Schneemann’s practice (and even for those long acquainted), “Corporeal” offered a subtle contextual framework that disallowed easy or purely essentialized readings by explicitly linking (while never equating) gender-specific concerns to those one might label more humanist. The artist’s striking seven-minute film, Viet-Flakes, 1965, offered a montage of horrific—though never explicit— images culled from the Vietnam War, stitched schizophrenically together into a kind of anxious cinematic fabric. Accompanied by pop lyrics including “What the world needs now . . . ” and “We can work it out . . . ” Viet-Flakes, like Schneemann’s other work, posited bodies as the real site of political struggle. Also included in the show were very early works (a 1960 painting) as well as very recent photo based pieces addressing 9/11. One such work, Terminal Velocity, 2001–2005, featured now familiar repeating images of people jumping or falling from the Twin Towers. Perhaps because these appropriated images are already so ingrained in our heads or because of their overt symbolic status, this work lacked the enforced intimacy particular to most of Schneemann’s practice, and was the less powerful for it. Yet the overall effect of “Corporeal” provided a succinct argument that, in discussing politics, we are—and always have been—discussing the body: which is to say, surface as much as depth.

Johanna Burton