Recent Articles
News Of A Very Special Auction Happening Next Week
Investment Pieces
News Of A Very Special Auction Happening Next Week
10 Questions for LatchKey Gallery co-founders
10 x 10 x 10
10 Questions for LatchKey Gallery co-founders Natalie Kates and Amanda L. Uribe
INTERVIEW: Elmgreen & Dragset
Meet the Artist
INTERVIEW: Elmgreen & Dragset 'What We Need to do, As Cultural Workers Today, Is to Find a New Way of Getting Back Our Dignity as Citizens'
10 Questions for RESORT Gallery co-founders Seth Adelsberger and
10 x 10 x 10
10 Questions for RESORT Gallery co-founders Seth Adelsberger and Alex Ebstein
10 Questions for River Gallery Founder Carl E. Smith
10 x 10 x 10
10 Questions for River Gallery Founder Carl E. Smith
10 Questions for Davis Editions and Originals Founder Jeff Davis
10 x 10 x 10
10 Questions for Davis Editions and Originals Founder Jeff Davis
10 Questions for Baby Blue Gallery Founder Caleb Beck
10 x 10 x 10
10 Questions for Baby Blue Gallery Founder Caleb Beck
10 Questions for Carvalho Park's Jennifer Carvalho
10 x 10 x 10
10 Questions for Carvalho Park co-Founder Jennifer Carvalho
The Making of Love, Rihanna: Luxury Supreme
Close Look
'A Piece of Art That I am Really Proud Of' - Rihanna on Love, Rihanna: Luxury Supreme
INTERVIEW: Sterling Ruby
Meet the Artist
INTERVIEW: Sterling Ruby 'In America, often the response to negative aspects of the system is to retreat to platitudes about morals and family values. In this way nothing is achieved.'
INTERVIEW: Kerry James Marshall
Meet the Artist
INTERVIEW: Kerry James Marshall 'I never think of artworks as having a quality that’s intended to mobilize people to action. They don’t make people do things. But they do put questions in the mind of a viewer that they may not have entertained before...'
Come On Our Virtual Studio Visit With Maria Jimena Herrera
Meet the Artist
Come On Our Virtual Studio Visit With Maria Jimena Herrera
Jeff Koons on Big Ideas and Gazing Balls
Perspectives
Jeff Koons on Desire, Beauty, the Vastness of the Universe, and the Intimacy of Right Here, Right Now
Could Artist Collectives Transform A Post-Corona Art World?
On Trend
Could Artist Collectives Transform A Post-Corona Art World?
INTERVIEW: Sarah Sze on How all Art is Essentially Sculpture
Meet the Artist
INTERVIEW: Sarah Sze on the Changing Pace of Time and Space, the Ebb and Flow of Information, and How all Art is Essentially Sculpture

The Phaidon Folio

Carolee Schneemann on Embodying the "Movement from Interior Thought to External Signification"

By

Carolee Schneemann on Embodying the "Movement from Interior Thought to External Signification"
Carolee Schneemann, "Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for the Camera" (1963) Image courtesy of The New York Times

The human body has always been a central subject of artistic rendering, ranging from Ancient Greek kouros statues to paintings of sensual nudes and portraits of aristocratic families. However, in the 20th century, artists began to shift the way they thought about representing the human form. Influenced by the rise of scientific, psychological, philosophical, and anthropological research, artists turned to the body itself as a subject of interrogation in a way that it never had before: not as a passive subject to be represented, but as an active participant in the creation process.

Artist Carolee Schneeman is one of the preliminary artists who situated the body as an integral component in creating art, pioneering a movement that continues to pervade in contemporary art today. In an introduction to Phaidon's compendium The Artist's Body, UCLA professor Amelia Jones quotes Schneeman's 1991 performance, in which she states "go back to the body, which is where all the splits in Western Culture occur." Considering herself a painter more so than a performance artist, Schneeman was particularly interested in "vitaliz(ing) the whole body as gesture in dimensional space" in her work.  She sought to transform herself, as a female-identifying body, from objectivity to subjectivity; a bold move in her time. In her 1975 piece, Interior Scroll, Schneemann stood naked on a table and painted her body with mud. She then ritualistically extracted a scroll of paper from her vagina while reading an excerpt of "Kitsch's Last Meal" from it. 

In honor of the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist's work, Carolee Schneeman: Kinetic Painting, currently on view at MoMA PS1, we revisit Schneemann's writings on Interior Scroll, excerpted from The Artist's Body. In the excerpt, Schneemann discusses how she first became interested in the concept of "vulvic space," the symbolism of the serpentine form, and reinterpreting historical myths from a contemporary, embodied perspective.  

---

Image 0Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll, 1975, Image courtesy of Sartle

"I first wrote about 'vulvic space' in 1960 as a result of an art history assignment on symbolism. I chose to do research on the 'Transmigration of the Serpent', never suspecting that the transmutation of serpent symbolism in the wall paintings, carvings, inscriptions of ancient cultures—this traditionally 'phallic' symbolism would lead me to a concept of vulvic space and this in turn to the disappearance and mis-attribution of Goddess artifacts and imagery, to a total inversion and reinterpretation of myth and symbol. Once begun, my studies continued as a 'secret project,' for nothing at that time confirmed the inter-relations I saw and the fury and anguish they inspired (the relief of substantiation by Gould Davis, Gertrude Levy, H.R. Hays, Helen Diner, etc. ten or twelve years later was indescribable). Nevertheless it was usually the works of male scholars who first intensified my study—both by keys, links they established and by denials and obfuscations. In MacKenzie I read that: Cro-Magnon peopled believed in a Mother Earth Goddess; their cave paintings exaggerate the female sexual characteristics. Water and wind were of fundamental importance and were symbolized by natural spirals. The snake symbolized whirlpool, whirlwind, cosmic energy. Snakes originally symbolized the cosmic energy of the female womb which protected and nourished the embryo as they believed the ocean originally did of earth...(school notes from MacKenzie's The Migration of Symbols, 1926). 

Image 2Carolee Schneemann, Up to and Including Her Limits, (1976) 

From my identification with the symbology of the female body I made the further assumption that carvings and sculptures of the serpent form were attributes of the Goddess and would have been made by women worshippers (artists) as analogous to their own physical, sexual knowledge. I thought of my vagina in many ways—physically, conceptually: as a sculptural form, an architectural referent, the source of sacred knowledge, ecstasy, birth passage, transformation. I saw the vagina as a translucent chamber of which the serpent was an outward model: enlivened by its passage from the visible to the invisible, a spiraled coil ringed with the shape of desire and generative mysteries, attributes of both female and male sexual powers. This source of 'interior knowledge' would be symbolized as the primary index unifying spirit and flesh in Goddess worship. I related womb to vagina to 'primary knowledge'; with strokes and cuts on bone and rock by which I believed my ancestor measured her menstrual cycles, pregnancies, lunar observations, agricultural notations—the origins of time factoring, of mathematical equivalences, of abstract relations. I assumed the carved figurines and incised female shapes of Paleolithic, Mesolithic artifacts were carved by women—the visual-mythic transmutation of self-knowledge to its integral connection with a cosmic Mother—that the experience and complexity of her personal body was the source of conceptualizing, of interacting with materials, of imagining the world and composing its images. 

Meat JoyCarolee Schneemann, Meat Joy,  Performance 1964, Image Courtesy of MoMA

The message I read for Interior Scroll is from the feminist texts in Kitsch's Last Meal. The image occurred as a drawing; this image seemed to have to do with the power and possession of naming—the movement from interior thought to external signification, and the reference to an uncoiling serpent, to actual information (like a ticker tape, rainbow, torah in the ark, chalice, choir loft, plumbline, bell tower, and umbilicus and tongue). 

I think the action was also influenced by two films seen at the 'Women in Film and Video' conference. First, Sharon Hennessey's What I Want, in which she appears in a fixed frame shot for the duration it takes her to read from a paper endlessly unfolding like a scroll: the text is one simple statement after another of what a woman wants in her life--direct and full of rich contradiction. The other film was Anne Severson's Near The Big Chakra, in which a continual relay of thirty or more different vaginas are filmed in close focus. Like Fuses it becomes a film about nature and confronts, dismantles the convention of the genital  being 'obscene', that is, forbidden to be seen. Our three films presented an ethic about knowledge itself—received from and in the body. 

Interior Scroll was performed twice. Each 'reading' required a ritual preparation for the action, a gradual inhabitation of the space, increasing concentration. For 'Women Here and Now' I placed a long table under two dimmed spotlights, in a corner of the exhibition/performance hall of the old town meeting house. The audience was largely composed of other women artists who work during summers in East Hampton, and they assembled during the exhibit of paintings for a series of performance works. I approached the table dressed and carrying two sheets. I undressed, wrapped myself in one sheet, spread the other over the table and told the audience I would read to them from Cezanne, She Was a Great Painter. I dropped the covering sheet and, standing there, painted large strokes defining the contours of my body and face. The reading was done on top of the table, taking a series of life model 'action poses,' the book balanced in one hand. At the conclusion I dropped the book and stood upright on the table. The scroll was slowly extracted as I read from it, inch by inch."

RELATED ARTICLES:

Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met?" 13 Artworks (Spanning 50,000 Years) of the Female Nude

DISCOVER

a treasure trove of fine art from the world's most renowned artists, galleries, museums and cultural institutions. We offer exclusive works you can't find anywhere else.

LEARN

through exclusive content featuring art news, collecting guides, and interviews with artists, dealers, collectors, curators and influencers.

BUY

authentic artworks from across the globe. Collecting with us means you're helping to sustain creative culture and supporting organizations that are making the world a better place.

CONNECT

with our art advisors for buying advice or to help you find the art that's perfect for you. We have the resources to find works that suit your needs.

INSIDER ACCESS TO THE WORLD'S BEST ART

Artspace offers you authentic, exclusive works from world-renowned artists, galleries, museums and cultural institutions. Collecting with us helps support creative culture while bringing you art news, interviews and access to global art resources.

  • COLLECT FROM 300+ GALLERIES & MUSEUMS