Carolee Schneemann’s two-part survey at P.P.O.W. and Galerie Lelong is titled ‘Further Evidence’, hinting at the artist’s inclination for collecting suppressed materials and presenting them as a kind of testimony. Schneemann is a political eroticist, but her source material is her very singular self – it is in this fashion that her work, entailing a mythology of her own body, reveals the way the bodies of other ‘disobedient women’ are radically threatening to the patriarchy even today.
‘Exhibit A’ at P.P.O.W. opens with Fresh Blood – A Dream Morphology (1982–86), an installation centred around a 1983 performance of the same name, in which the artist brandishes an umbrella while describing it as a symbol for a vulva with flexible energy, capable of bleeding, having an orgasm and furling into a ‘cock/cunt’. Schneemann performs in the glare of her own hand-drawn slides, which are exhibited at the gallery in mandala-like arrangements, mirroring the artist’s conception of the vulva/vagina as a many-pointed star (or umbrella), formed by many connected ‘V’s – velocity, vector, vagina, veins. (‘Don’t forget, it all comes back,’ remarks a twinned interlocutor at one point.) At this moment in her life, Schneemann has a direct focus: she creates hallucinatory spaces that expose the power structures that subjugate women through bodily shame, while simultaneously proposing dream-like alternate scenarios.
The second major installation in ‘Exhibit A’, Known/Unknown-Plague Column (1996), combines images of a pestsäule (plague column) sculpture from 17th century Austria and militaristic cancer treatments. (The artist was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1990s.) The pestsäule figures the disease as a poison-breasted hag bursting with snakes; Schneemann’s multimedia installation orbits these loaded associations between the feminine and the toxic. Photographs of the sculpture and cancer cells appear beside correspondence and notes about the suffering and treatment of the artist and her friends. A pile of hay in the centre of the room is a bed for many yellow, cast-resin breast sculptures, woozily lit from beneath and scattered between four television monitors screening an ominous video collage: screeching birds, a cat with a bloody mouth, injections and a penis penetrating a vagina. Oranges stuck with syringes hang from the ceiling. It’s a pitch-dark work made in a dark time; but Schneemann’s constellations of power, gender, morality, witchcraft and sickness remain prescient two decades later.
In Galerie Lelong’s ‘Exhibit B’, a general atmosphere of dread characterizes two major video installations, Devour (2003–04) and Precarious (2009), in which edited video footage wheels around in space, creating circular prisons of imagery. Devour is a multichannel theatre of moving images on television screens and projections, in which glitchy white noise mixes with shots of soldiers on planes and bodies bleeding on streets. In contrast, a handful of scenes –Schneemann receiving morning kisses from her cat, solarized imagery of an infant suckling a nipple, a mouth slurping up noodles – are so astonishingly oral and sensuous that the body’s responsive signals become jammed in shock. Precarious (2009) focuses more tightly on imprisonment and performance. A meme of a cockatoo dancing accompanies footage of prison inmates rehearsing the routine from Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983) video; an enslaved bear dances in footage from Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925). It is we who feel trapped, however, standing in the midst of these projections of humans and animals in bondage. Like thinkers such as Donna Harraway and Rosi Braidotti, Schneemann increasingly insists on the presence of a fleshy, embodied subjectivity in humans and non-humans alike. With these images of the subjugated distributed through communication networks, Schneemann also suggests possible forms of future alliance between the oppressed, who appear here as a nightmarish digital subconscious. Because, don’t forget, it all comes back.