Dr Alison Green on Carolee Schneemann 18.4.13
Since writing the review of the film, ‘Fuses‘ below I went yesterday to a fascinating talk and discussion about Carolee Schneemann given by Dr Alison Green and arranged by SLWA. Alison’s focus was on Carolee’s London years (end of 1960’s/ early 70’s. During this four year period Carolee lived in London and made ‘Plumbline’, the film featuring her ex partner (filmed in the USA) and crafted together as a film in London. The talk focused on the nature of exile- an exile in many ways:- from the end of a relationship; exile from a male dominated artworld trying to pigeon hole her into a restrictive and subordinate role; and exile from a censorious USA which was clamping down on artists with a political bias. Carolee came to London which was full of experimental practices in art, psychology and politics. She created ‘Happenings’, worked at the London Film-maker’s Co-op . worked on the Dialectics of Liberation with the radical psychiatrist R D Laing, and unbeknownst to me was good friends with Dr Joseph Burke another experimental psychotherapist who also happened to be my supervisor in the early 1980’s! She connected with many significant movers and shakers of that period, but continued to feel on the outside. Her practice was groundbreaking in using her body in a diaristic way. I think much of the reason for the hateful criticism she received for such performances as ‘Interior Scroll’ was that in using her picture perfect body she invited in the male gaze only to challenge those same eyes with art that questioned what they saw. Reviewing this practice now in an all-woman audience was really energising and interesting. I made the point that when I was a radical feminist artist in the early 1980’s I was part of a community that criticised people like Carolee Schneeman for showing their naked and beautiful bodies. Although I was using my body in my artwork I was often transgressing the line of political correctness. Abject art or a cerebral approach to feminism was the more acceptable line. Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’ was criticised for reducing women into flowering vaginas, whilst at the same time Carol Churchill’s play ‘Top Girls’ proclaimed the importance of individual women throughout history. The 80’s heralded a very judgemental time and women were often their own fiercest critics.On reflection I think we were attacking our own femaleness in trying to adopt brutal and non-emotive ways of working. Mary Kelly’s ‘Post-partum Document’ was challenging, but it’s dry and desiccated presentation was divorced from maternal emotions and so managed to garner approval from the feminist lobby. At Alison’s talk we ( young and old women) chatted about our perceptions of feminism and how this effects our art practice now and in the past. My feeling is that it is now permissible to express our personal experience in our art even though this can be harshly criticised. What has changed is the number of sgnificant women operating in contemporary art as practitioners, tutors and to a far lesser extent, critics. This change has spawned an equal number of supporters as detractors. Feminism and feminist artists continue to work through their own right of passage, but hopefully in a slightly more a receptive environment.
Taking Matters into Our Own Hands: Rose English, Rose Finn-Kelcey, Alexis Hunter and Carolee Schneemann 23rd January – 8th March 2013
As part of a double venue exhibition at Richard Saltoun and Karsten Schubert I was able to see two of Carolee Schneemann’s films: Fuses and Plumbline in their original 16mm format.
The gallery says in its press release that ‘until very recently little attention had been paid to contemporary female artists practicing during this turbulent social and political period of history (the 1960’s and 70’s). Rose English, Rose Finn-Kelcey, Alexis Hunter, and Carolee Schneemann, all working in London at the time, focused on the body, specifically the female form and its performative ability.’ My work is greatly influenced by their work. Rose English and Jo Spence (who provided the title for this exhibition) were influential figures for me when I was practicing during the 1980’s. However the political mood had changed massively in the 1970’s and the new feminist line was that overt depiction of the naked female body was out of bounds unless it clearly denounced and challenged the male gaze. I came down to London and joined Brixton Artist’s Collective. I was a strident feminist, very judgemental and along with my ‘sisters’ in the women’s movement opposed to the likes of Carolee Schneemann who exposed their conventionally attractive naked bodies in sometimes sexually arousing poses.
It was from this historical perspective that I went to see these two films. ‘Fuses’ made in 1965 is a lingering collage of Carolee Schneemann and her boyfriend which superimposes details of their bodies having sex with abstract blobs, waves, her cat etc. It is hard not to see some of these as clichéd only because I have seen any number of ‘arty’ films in the years since ‘Fuses’ was made. The repeated shot of her running into the sea is reminiscent of a California glamour add and the picture-perfect heterosexual couple that in the past would have elicited my contempt now more readily evokes a hankering nostalgia for youth. In the past my disdain of sexually explicit imagery that was a mix of prudishness and political correctness has now given way to fatigue and acceptance. Carolee Schneemann describes the intention behind the film “I wanted to see if the experience of what I saw would have any correspondence to what I felt- the intimacy of the lovemaking…And I wanted to put into that materiality of film the energies of the body, so that the film itself dissolves and recombines and is transparent and dense- as one feels during lovemaking..It is different from any pornographic work that you’ve ever seen- that’s why people are still looking at it! And there’s no objectification or fetishization of the woman”.
From our 2013 perspective it seems almost quaint, although apparently the film is still banned in certain places. The shots of her giving head or his fingers fumbling towards her labia neither aroused nor shocked. I think that without either of these devices (to titillate or shock) there was still something alive and compelling enough to watch ‘Fuses’ for18 minutes without becoming bored or overly drawn in.
Carolee was breaking new ground, putting herself in the frame, making her own real-life the subject of a film. And I think she did manage to create something of personal significance without becoming sentimental. I didn’t experience it as intimate, but it was personal. Carolee’s camera cannot help but hold the male gaze, but it is her own gaze too. The flickering tick ticking of the 16mm film projector kept me engaged. Not surprisingly the audience at Richard Saltoun had a fair quota of men and people born before 1960 sporting soft-soled shoes and spectacles. There was a camaraderie amongst the audience- film-makers from the London Film-makers Co-op and a smattering of mature students discussing their completed PHD’s with semi-retired art lecturers. An educated crowd, who in some ways may themselves have felt stranded as the experimental period of the 1970’s gave way to a post-modernist, commercially branded art world. Watching the film almost fifty years after it was made felt comforting. This gentle tick-ticking of the film projector sounded like a baby’s cradle rocked back and forth soothing us, the audience whilst we watched a film that was cutting edge, shocking and exciting in it’s day. And ‘the hand that rocks the cradle’ rocks the future- Carolee Schneemann and other women artists of her generation were pioneers and provided a bedrock for artists such as Tracy Emin or myself to become the subjects of our own artworks. There is still much controversy, intellectual positing and debate as to female embodiment in art, but the sense I have today is that a more inclusive culture has created a less reductive analysis of how women artists should use their bodies in their art practice, which I experience as a good thing.