Carolee Schneemann: Carnal Visionary

With a major new show at Summerhall, we meet Carolee Schneemann, the artist whose iconic performances shocked the art world with their depiction of female sexuality

Feature by Jac Mantle | 13 Aug 2012

To me, as to most who know her name, Carolee Schneemann is the artist who did Interior Scroll (1975), a naked performance in which she read aloud from a tiny paper scroll while extracting it from her vagina. Now prominent in academia, her nude action works were shocking at a time when the only depiction of female sexuality was the female nude rendered by the male artist, or pornography. Her film Fuses (1965), showing Schneemann and her lover having sex while watched by her cat, won a prize at Cannes Film Festival, yet was censored in Russia twenty years later.

But these seminal – or rather, ovular – works were made in the 60s and 70s, and meanwhile, Schneemann is still making new work. She’s now seventy-three, totally ‘over’ performance art, and probably pretty tired of talking about that stuff she did back then. So I approach our meeting uncertain of what to expect.

Despite having jet-lag, she launches into an amusing discussion about the works she will showing at Summerhall for Edinburgh Art Festival: three recent video installations, a collage created in situ, and a previously unseen photographic series from 1976 in which she ice-skated naked around London, holding her cat. Her beloved cats having long featured in her work, the series sounds gloriously oddball and typically Schneemann. Another work she will show, Infinity Kisses – The Movie (2008) compiles still images capturing the way her cat would greet her in bed each morning by putting its mouth on hers.

“It was such an unusual determination on the part of the cat. Cluny was a very delicate little kitten, and it was just like kissing. It wasn’t like it was licking my lips; its tongue was in my mouth, it was purring and its balls were on my chest. And I said to myself, well I know what it feels like – I wonder what it looks like. So I got a camera and started shooting.”

The resulting photos, raw-looking with uncontrolled light and focus, were acquired by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through a circumstance Schneemann describes as serendipitous. From start to finish, the work illustrates her inclination towards the element of chance.

A similar process dictated her selection of material for the video Devour (2003), which juxtaposes disaster footage of conflict in Lebanon with domestic harmonies, highlighting her experience of the conflict from a point of removal in her comfortable home. The harmonies are items that she chanced upon and snapped quickly, showing benign calm on the precipice of violence – the view into a barber’s shop of a man having his beard shaved while a sentimental rock song played  'One slip and I’ll slit your throat.'

Her attitude to making work sounds so playful that I make the mistake of asking whether she finds it just as easy as it ever was.

“No, it was never easy! It’s always difficult, there’s always self-doubt. Most of the art world have rejected this work over and over again. In terms of collections, my work is only in two in the United States. In Britain, maybe the Tate has a video or something. But what I consider the real work – no. It’s easy to buy a video. But that’s not the rigorous, intensive part of the work; a painting or an installation.”

This surprising revelation perhaps explains Schneemann’s humble attitude and the lack of self-importance you might expect from an artist of her stature. While her work may have been prematurely historicised, she is at the same time still living and working and her show at Summerhall is a rare chance to see a contradiction in terms – the work of a legend.

Summerhall, 2 Aug-27 Sep, FREE