Carolee Schneeman’s “Meat Joy,” performed at The Plagiarism Festival on February 6, 1988 @ Artist Television Access, San Francisco, CA.
Girl Germs: Nature as Abjection in Early Feminist Performance Art
Immediately after confessing her “ambivalence” about the politics implied in her re-staging of Carolee Schneemann’s classic 1975 performance “Interior Scroll” (in which Schneemann read aloud from an unrolling script contained in her vagina), Gretchen Holmes goes on to summarize her recent review of Tina Takemoto’s alternately ironic and therapeutic work at SFMOMA thusly: “Takemoto simultaneously engages feminism’s politics and its steaks, and this dual presence argues for the importance of both. “ A more fortuitous typo could not be imagined. Possibly Schneemann’s second most well-known work was the more lavish 1964 performance “Meat Joy,” in which several mostly nude performers cavorted with raw fish and chicken meat, as well as sausage, paint, clear plastic, scraps of paper, and various other items. Schneemann’s use of inert objects alongside exposed flesh in “happening”-style improvisations was established in the 1962 piece “Eye Body”, in which she covered herself in grease, chalk, and plastic, and performed in a “loft environment, built of large panels of interlocked, rhythmic color units, broken mirrors and glass, lights, motorized umbrellas.” This dynamically grotesque and erotic theatricality, typical of Schneemann’s assertion of gendered embodiment, was conceived of in direct confrontation to the uninhabited female bodies in high- middle- and lowbrow art, film, and publishing.
Pioneering “feminist body art” is widely recognized as Schneemann’s artistic legacy, which has now been handed down through the gruesome sculptures of Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman’s grotesque theatrical self-portraits, and Patty Chang’s identity-themed actions. But in a way different from these artists, Schneemann, as well as other early performance artists, seemed to take on language itself, not as a weapon but as a target. Much of Schneemnann’s contribution to art may seem to many viewers both now and in the past as simply some sort of empowering avant-garde appropriation of pornography—from her 1965 erotic mixed-media film “Fuses,” to her 1981-88 “Infinity Kisses” photo series, in which she makes out with her cat. The ritual aspects of what Schneemann repeatedly referred to as “shamanic” gestures have been largely smoothed over in the process of her institutional canonization. But despite the anti-essentialist language games of postmodernity, the connection between ecstasy, flesh, faith, and sickness is not hard to see. Indeed, Genesis offers the first female rebel, and a vision of punishment not for nakedness but for shame in nakedness. Connections between femininity, sacrifice, animals, and blood continue throughout the Bible, with the Gospels of Mark and Luke narrating the healing of a man possessed by a legion of demons, dispersed by Jesus into a herd of pigs, followed immediately by that of a woman who had bled ceaselessly for twelve years, and the resurrection from the dead of a young girl. While Schneemann’s attitude toward Christianity is hardly congenial, that hardly mitigates the importance, within a Western religious paradigm, of staking out a religious space within fine art in a way that few others have, in performance art or otherwise.
The influence of Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” runs throughout Schneemann’s work but also throughout the history of “edgy” performance, from Allan Kaprow’s Happenings to Joseph Beuy’s “social sculptures,” through the ecstatic bloody festivals of the Viennese Actionists, to G.G. Allin, the Survival Research Laboratory, and the good old Blue Man Group. But by unabashedly casting herself not only as a feminist but as a “shaman” (not of the crystal-healing variety, mind you), Schneemann marked as both spiritual and political a practice of staged self-destruction and resurrection that illuminated a particularly female psychic crisis that was no mere reflection of or supplement to the Oedipal scene. Ana Mendieta smearing blood on the wall or immolating her own excavated silhouette, Marina Abramovic enduring the experiences of staring into an industrial fan until passing out, carving a pentagram into her flesh, having a strung arrow pointed at her chest for twelve hours—these melodramatic but thoroughly sincere acts differed in important ways from the Duchampian hijinks of their male performance counterparts like Vito Acconci and Chris Burden (or today, William Pope L or Santiago Serra), the esoteric shrines of Beuys or of Paul Thek, or the brutal austerity of object makers like Richard Serra or Carl Andre (the latter acquitted of Mendieta’s 1985 murder).
The bluntness and savagery of Schneemann, Mendieta, and early Abramovic even distinguishes them from the more unambiguously positive performance gestures of Suzanne Lacy, Yoko Ono, or Annie Sprinkle, or the open-ended, research oriented, socially-engaged art of recent years, from artists like Paul Chan, Rikrit Taravanija, Trevor Paglen, and Walead Beshty, or groups like the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Futurefarmers, or Temporary Services.
Indeed, there has been quite a bit of utopian imagining since the millennium, both within and outside the art world, now that the memories of revolutionary massacre, even viewed from afar, are at least a generation removed for most young people. It’s a commendable project, since maybe the greatest thing the art world can offer, and the real world cannot, is a vista of endless possibility within grasp, a horizon brought near by the omnipotence of fantasy. Ideas can be brought forth and realized with few negative consequences– except for perhaps the debilitating psychic effects of narcissism and solipsism, as well as the general alienation and transgression fatigue engendered by the ceaseless breaching of propriety. Nonetheless, spreading blood on the wall or rolling in meat are probably incapable of losing their impact—they are as clear and democratic as a mystical gesture can be. The pre-linguistic vulgarity of early feminist performance is what, in some way, makes it some of the most successful work of the last 100 years.
Every phase of the last century has seemed to singularly exemplify one of the aspects that has made the modern period such a rich antiquity for contemporary art to plunder. The twenties had the technologically sublime and abject, the thirties had apocalyptic populist authenticity, the forties had spastic mystical authenticity. After the alleged end of modernity, the zeitgeists marched onward. The eighties had self-aware commerce, the nineties had identity pastiche, and the oughts had virtual communities. And In between the classical and the decadent, the seventies simply offered charismatic brutality. There was Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Jim Jones, Henry Kissinger—but, more to the point, there was the rise of pulp horror cinema, a vivid and vicious ethos crystallized in films like “I Spit on Your Grave, “The Last House on the Left,” “Lipstick,” and other films of the “rape revenge” genre, which made the castration of patriarchy explicitly public. Similarly, the theme of homicide was certainly a presence in religiously-inflected performance. In “Revolution in Poetic Language, “ Julia Kristeva says, “Opposite religion or alongside it, ‘art’ takes on murder and moves through it… Crossing that boundary is precisely what constitutes ‘art.’…(I)t is as if death becomes interiorized by the subject of such a practice(.)” The ideological weight of such aggressive feral gestures as those of Schneemann and the artists she influenced was momentous, and seems no less epic from here. Going forward, it is worth remembering how political art was temporarily not confined to the linguistic and cerebral, and eroticized pantheistic death-worship was for a moment neither ironic or gleeful, but deadly and political.