How far is too far? For American multimedia artist Carolee Schneemann, who has consistently tested the limitations of what society is willing to accept, “too far” means going where no other artist has gone, and that has proven time and again to be a necessary journey. An exhibition of Schneemann’s work, on display through November 25th at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Harvard Square, examines that principle through an eclectic mix of videos, photographs, paintings, and sculptural pieces, highlighting the diversity of the artist’s oeuvre.
Schneemann’s career stretches back to the 1950s, but it was during the 1960s when she made her mark as a pioneer in video and performance art. Her work made significant contributions to feminism by opening discourse on the body and sexuality. Radical performance pieces such as Interior Scroll (1975), in which the artist read aloud from a scroll she pulled out of her vagina, and groundbreaking films like Fuses (1965), where Schneemann records herself and her boyfriend making love, defied the parameters of contemporary art-making, particularly for women. While her art has been consistently ill-received and dismissed as pornographic, narcissistic, and vulgar, it was, and still is, her willingness to explore taboo subjects, while appearing impervious to harsh criticism and a pitiless art market, that has ultimately made a valuable contribution to contemporary art.
Although her work has shifted from the corporeal to the political, her recent pieces are nonetheless controversial. Terminal Velocity, a grid of enlarged and cropped images from newspapers on 9/11, magnifies the bodies that leapt, or were thrown from, the World Trade Center towers. The images of the nine figures are increasingly enlarged from the top of the grid to the bottom, giving the sense that they are in an eternal plunge, never quite reaching their final destination.
Terminal Velocity is intended to be in memoriam of those nine people. However, it walks a delicate line between consecration and exploitation, and is often misconstrued for the latter. When this piece was first shown to the public, only months after 9/11, it was met with anger and rage, yet this is not the first time Schneemann has addressed a sensitive subject in an untimely manner. The Vietnam War was just getting underway when Viet-Flakes, a video from 1965 that preemptively marked the war in Southeast Asia as a grave mistake in American history, was released. She combined horrific images taken from American media sources of a rural land and its people ravaged by death and torture with a strange but suitable soundtrack by James Tenney composed of American pop music, Vietnamese chants, and orgasm sounds. Over the decades, Viet-Flakes has come to represent a widely accepted and respected perspective, but it may have been Schneemann’s premature release of this work that helped to establish it. Whether this will be the case for Terminal Velocity will be determined after the passage of time is able to “heal” or desensitize the public.
Like Viet-Flakes, Schneemann has resurrected these nine victims of September 11th in the way she resurrected the victims of the Vietnam War. She rescues them from the myriad of photographs that disappear into the archives of our history, only to be seen again in the context of the tragedy in which they perished. Instead, Terminal Velocity has personalized and eternalized what was once anonymous, objective, and political.
Schneemann’s work has been historically contrarian, and clearly it continues to be. In a world where originality is scarce, and shock has little value, it is refreshing to find art that can muster real emotions, whatever they may be. The quality of defiance that has carried through her work for decades is the mark of a distinctive and accomplished career. If breaking the rules and going too far is an art form, Carolee Schneemann has it mastered.