"My work is always somehow contrasting brutality and pleasure," Carolee Schneemann tells me as we look at Devour, one of her installations at Galerie Lelong in New York. We are in a room with five screens, one giant one in the back wall, and four smaller televisions on the floor in front of it. The images flickering on all the screens are a combination of normal life juxtaposed with violence and destruction: a baby nursing, people eating at a fair, buildings exploding, people being shot. You know, just another day in America.
Carolee began her career as a painter in the 1950s, but it was her films and performances in the 1960s and 1970s that brought her into the spotlight and made her one of the seminal feminist artists of our time, even if commercial success largely eluded her. In one of her best-known works, Interior Scroll, Carolee stood on a table taking "action poses" like a nude figure model does, before extracting a scroll from her vagina and proceeding to read text from it, which mixed critical theory along with the artist's own thoughts on being female and the body. It's an incredibly powerful performance that deals head-on with the notion that the only place for women in the art world is as naked, silent muses.
Now 77 years old, Carolee is still working and engaging with the environment and events around her, like the Vietnam War and the terrorist attacks of September 11. After looking at her most recent work, we sat down to discuss being in a female body, narcissism, and how to deal with the fear of the unknown. After we were done we talked about cats, who have had a recurring role in her work throughout the years, and I found out her littlest kitten loves coffee. It was an evening that left me elated and made me feel the true power of art.
Laia Garcia: Your work has always been a conversation with current events — a response to things happening in the art world, and in the world at large. Usually we think of the artist as working alone in a room, waiting for a muse ... it's all very intangible.
Carolee Schneemann: Well, I'm alone in a room looking at a nightmare that's part of my culture, and I'm alone in a room with something beautiful and static in my life that could be my lover, my home, my cat, my garden, and within those contradictions is where my work centers itself.