Body Politics at the Barbican Gallery

AT THE TICKET desk of the Barbican Gallery we were hesitantly asked if we knew about the exhibition of Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019) because it contains some sexually explicit exhibits. We said we knew roughly what we were heading for.

The exhibition is laid out on two floors and visitors are given a suggested route that allows one to see the gradual development of Schneemann’s work from abstract and semi-abstract painting through to highly adventurous installations and happenings (to use a word that assumed a special meaning in the 1960s).

The artist’s earlier works are on the upper floor. Dissatisfied with the relative flatness of painting on canvas, she began adding a third dimension to her paintings. Soon she was producing collections of objects in boxes, rather like the kind of things produced by Joseph Cornell. Unlike Cornell, who filled his boxes and frames with intact objects, Schneemann filled hers with damaged objects, such as rusty musical boxes and fragments of broken glass.

Much of Schneemann’s work became involved with the human body and sexual experiences, as depicted from the female point of view. In many of her creations, she used her own body as a prop. For example, there is a film recording of a ‘happening’ during which she painted glue on her naked body and then applied scraps of paper to herself, creating a human collage. Many of her other works either defy description or if described might disturb the squeamish or prudish reader.

Later in her career, she moved from depicting the body and sexual matters to political comment and protest. Most of these often powerful works are in the form of videos and installations.

I much preferred the earlier works on the upper floor. They were created as timeless artworks that could be looked at whenever. The more adventurous and innovative works on the lower floor are mostly almost static records of events that would have been seen to full and maximum effect when they took place in real life so many years ago. That said, this exhibition was both exciting and interesting.

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