Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Dream Flesh

Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Dream Flesh

Article excerpt

Carolee Schneemann's work in painting, photography, film, video and performance at last is receiving at least a portion of the attention it deserves. The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities has purchased her papers, no less prestigious a press than MIT published Imaging Her Erotics, a compendious collection of her writings up to 2002. Schneemann now is commonly acknowledged as one of the pioneers of performance art that focuses on the constitutive role one's body plays in one's apprehension of the world. Her now-renowned works strive to provoke primordial sensations and raise them to such a level of intensity that the spectator can experience the awakening of a more primal relation between the body and space.

Crucial to Schneemann's oeuvre is the connection between dream, flesh and a higher form of attention, a form of attention which becomes what Simone Weil called "decreation," which involves giving away the self to the other, so that the other might shine forth as revealed.1 That notion of attention introduced the idea of revelation into Schneemann's work. The writings of Norman O. Brown (1913-2002) were also extremely influential in the environment that fostered Schneemann's performance work. In the 1 960s Brown was widely known and his ideas commonly discussed, yet of all thinkers who helped establish the character of the decade and a half from 1960 to 1975, he is the one least commonly discussed today. It is not difficult to discern why this is so: our ironic stance, our unsentimental style, our corrosive cynicism, and our restrained and ungenerous view on what it requires for humans to live well together in social groups means that politics is no longer a forum for giving public expression to our moral predicaments and to our beliefs about the good that accrues through living together with others. The very thing that made Brown popular in his time - his optimistically apocalyptic view of a liberating, Dionysian revolution in Western culture - has ensured that he is now thoroughly out of fashion. But Schneemann does not share in the cynicism of our time either. And she is far from ironic. In Brown's work, we find a similar combination of interests in the unconscious, in a resurrection of the body and in the poetic as the ultimate form of revolt that we find in the work of Carolee Schneemann.

Schneemann's most Aktionist-inspired piece was Meat Joy (1964), a work for which she pressed into service her interest in improvisation, collage, performance, and Surrealist-inspired poetry. Despite the strong influence the Aktionists had on it, Meat Joy eschews the dark, abject side of those Viennese artists' performances and films, and opts instead for a Dionysian joy of the sort for which Brown advocated. In it, nearly naked performers (Schneemann wanted them naked but the authorities forbade that, so she dressed them in tiny, fur-lined bikini bathing suits) perform ritualistic, orgiastic gestures with paint, raw fish, chickens and sausages, "in an exuberant, sensory celebration of flesh": this work aimed, she said, to "dislocate, compound and engage our senses, expanding them into unknown and unpredictable relationships."2 The quest to dislocate the senses and interest in unpredictable ("marvelous") relations, of course, has Surrealist provenance - in this connection, it is notable that the work evolved from a series a "dream sensation images" the artist recorded between 1960 and the time she first presented the work. To achieve this end of dislocating and compounding the senses, she tells us, required "intense, concentrated group energy structured over weeks of rehearsals."3

Meat Joy is now widely regarded as one of the key works that established a type of art that celebrates the body and intense carnal experience (a strain whose major works are predominantly by women). Other performance works Schneemann composed around the same time (e.g., Interior Scroll of 1975) show Schneemann striving to contrive means for refusing to divest human sexuality in general, and feminine sexuality in particular, its mysterious, its seemingly archaic, indeed its fiercely eumenidic potency. …

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