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★★★★★ Carnal Femininity: Carolee Schneemann’s Body Politics - Run Riot Review

Out of all of the bodily functions one might associate with her, digestion is what I contemplate most as I stand before Carolee Schneemann’s work. Not the bubbling, caustic throb of organic matter (although plenty of the work on display here teeters this line), but a measured pulse that runs throughout her entire artistic career, transforming and evolving in style that reflects personal and political events in her life.

It is fitting then that the Barbican guides us through her work in what feels like a bodily journey in and of itself, with the upstairs portion displaying her artistically absorbative digestions. The guttural downstairs portion then runs as a more emotional series of named spaces, from ‘Devour’ to the central ‘vulvic space’ in which the semi-transparent walls close in, womb-like, around the viewer. Film cells are pulled from the body like umbilical cords, snakes writhe on the artist's naked body in a series of photographs, and ropes twist and turn like intestines in sand - we are passed gently through each room to emerge with a true understanding of Schneemann’s key principle: the body as integral material for art and politics. Through it all, the slow thump and mechanical whirr of War Mop keeps the beat of the exhibition like an even heartbeat (a constant noise wherever you are in the space).

With over 200 objects and rarely seen archival material, Body Politics is the first major survey of Carolee Schneemann’s work in the UK, tracing her diverse, transgressive and interdisciplinary expression over the six decades she was active. The exhibition starts with a look at some of the artist’s painterly works, something I found unexpectedly beautiful in contrast to some of the harsher radical works on display (Schneemann was adamant throughout her life that she was foremost a painter). We are then guided past a series of exploration pieces that helped to form the patchwork style seen in her later works - admittedly, I struggle with assemblage and felt myself walking rather quicker through some of these rooms to get to where Schneemann really shines, her filmic studies. Regardless of medium, what is perhaps most poignant is that the work feels as urgent in today’s landscape as it did then, the relevancy of feminist bodily politics an all too present conversation in 2022 as we continue to discuss the objectification of women and the abuse of their rights.

There is nothing passive however in Schneemann’s femininity, it is carnal, raw and unaltered. Here we are presented with a woman defying the struggles she encountered, of sexism, censorship and health. Indeed, I found the most moving rooms in the exhibition to be those that reflected these struggles in (often) hard to watch detail.

One such room, Fuses, comes with a graphic warning on the pornographic nature of the film inside (a self-shot portrait of Schneemann and her partner James Tenney having sex). Setting out to celebrate rather than censor heterosexual pleasure, and the role of the female body and sexuality, this piece is an erotic masterpiece. With the film reel burnt, cut and scratched, and the perspective of the piece being that of the artist’s cat, Kitch, this work jumps and flickers between barely visible appendages, curves of flesh and tender embraces between the couple in a film that stirs the mind as much as the loins. 

In stark contrast, another room (Known/Unknown: Plague Column) displays looped video of enlarged permutated cancer cells, juxtaposed with religious iconography in an exploration into the artist’s own struggle with breast cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The title refers to a 17th century Viennese representation of the bubonic plague as a witch; the savagery of the witch hunt mirroring the assault of cancer on the body.

Politically, Schneemann’s work is as volatile as a petrol bomb. She rallied against the male gaze of traditional art history, the doll-like subjugation of female desire, and the very real torments of global conflicts with the violent fist-pump of a frontline protester. There is a lot to unpack in this exhibition and I am not naive to my own perhaps more removed experiences as a male viewer, witnessing these struggles from a privileged perspective of my lived experience. Regardless, I encourage those of all genders and walks of life to visit this exhibition, a tour de force that positions Schneemann on her rightful pedestal as one of the most urgently provocative, and prolifically creative artists of her time and beyond.

Words by Ralph Barker.

Body Politics is on display from Thu 8 Sep 2022 - Sun 8 Jan 2023 at the Barbican. Tickets are free for Barbican Members and start from £5 for Young Barbican, £18 Standard. To find out more, head here.

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