ART CRITICISM: Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics – Barbican, London

For Carolee Schneemann, the process of creating art was just as important as the finished product, a notion that connects more than 50 years of the artist’s work captured in the new Barbican retrospective Carolee Schneemann: The Politics of the Bodyuntil January 2023. From brushstrokes on his first canvases to paintings that actively attempt to escape their frames and the physical body of the artist becoming object and creator, Schneemann’s multimedia techniques unfold in an exhibition advocating his place as a pioneering experiment.

Arranged in roughly chronological order, and one of the few shows beginning on the Barbican Art Gallery’s floor, Body Policy allows the viewer to see Schneemann’s development as an artist and as a person throughout his long career. Travel to Europe – particularly to Paris, Venice and living in London – has notably shaped his work and broadened the creative influences that are integral to this exhibition as Schneemann’s output has evolved from singular wall hangings to objects of fully three-dimensional art and ultimately to physical expression through collaborating with theater and dance companies as well as recording Schneemann’s own artistic process using film and photography which add additional dimensions to this fascinating spectacle, themselves artistic captures of the process of an artist in train.

Eye Body 36 transformative actions for the camera

The image on the poster is from ‘Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera’, showing Schneemann’s image reflected and diffracted in jagged shards of glass, and it perfectly encapsulates what becomes a kaleidoscopic experience, which comments inadvertently distorted image of our own social media-dominated era. We see Schneemann’s art from multiple angles throughout this exhibition; there is the finished piece itself with detailed plans and drawings, catalogs and programs of its staging as well as the objects that captured the various states of development.

The first room on the lower floor, for example, has “To her limits and including”, a large white sheet with scribbled lines drawn by Schneemann while she was in an aerial harness which is also part of the room. work of art. But it is accompanied by photographs – nude and dressed – and a film of the designer at work on this piece. Again and again, the exhibition, curated by Lotte Johnson with Chris Bayley and Amber Li, shows us creation and creativity as a dynamic process filled with the same cycles of movement that define Schneemann’s work.

In the same way, the exhibition ends up arriving at its title where the body and the political mingle. Schneemann, we are told, has been criticized throughout her career for using her naked body as both a subject and a tool, and the controversy over a woman’s body and what she does with it is sure to be revived in the debates that this exhibition could, and perhaps should, create. Whether narcissistic or natural, Schneemann’s openness as an artist is explored, merging public and private in a truly radical way in this exhibition.

There are graphic images of Schneemann’s and other people’s bodies as well as films of sexual activity with his lovers that carry explicit content warnings. The most famous is ‘Interior Scroll’ which also receives documentary treatment in the exhibition, with display cases containing the scrolls covered in Schneemann’s script as well as images of the nude performance artist untangling the paper between her legs as well as some of the philosophical aspects and religious discussions that have influenced this work.

Politics also begins to emerge as Schneemann shifts focus from his later work from his individual body to the destruction of bodies in a larger sense with video installations referencing Vietnam, 9/11 and his own cancer. The remarkable dust paintings here echo Schneemann’s early works upstairs, but now their three-dimensional forms seem more mournful, a commemoration of life and death.

In a way, seeing Schneemann’s works together only partly feels like a celebration, as it also captures a lot of the artist’s own fears. Its beautiful charred metal and shattered glass box constructions take the romantic Victorian era and give it the same dystopian and destructive beauty found in the “Eye Body” series which displays fear, danger and anxiety alongside the power of the female body. A “creator of images and images”, Carolee Schneemann: The Politics of the Body is a show that is sure to make an impression.

Until January 8, 2023