Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics | Barbican

I first heard about the Queen’s death just after seeing this exhibition, a full career retrospective of the US painter and performance artist Carolee Schneemann. On getting the notification on my phone, sat in a comfy chair on the ground floor of the Barbican Centre, I took off my headphones - maybe expecting that the large, crowded, concrete-clad room would fall into reverent monarchist silence, and that I should experience that momentous hush.

Not a bit of it. Instead, people continued to chat and laugh at the bar, ramble into and out of the shop: the comforting hubbub of humanity churned on. Life went on. Which isn’t to say I thought everyone should have snapped into silence, gone home and got into mourning rags. Or that I think the crowds around me were insensitive in keeping on with their dates, chats and shopping. I’m sure lots of them would have felt pretty much like I did on hearing the news: disoriented and sad, but not shocked. Shaken by a distant pervasive tremor, not an earthquake.

Carolee Schneemann - War Mop

I won’t labour to make any connections between Schneemann and the Queen - having briefly considered starting this post with “both long careers, both came to prominence in mid 20th century” and so on. There’s no comparison. The show was fine: Schneemann got her start doing AbEx-style paintings, moved into Rauschenberg-style found object collages, made lots of useful connections in Boomer nirvana Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, and put together a lot of really fun looking dance performances, clothed and unclothed.

Downstairs, there are some striking later works: I loved War Mop, in which a TV playing war footage is repeatedly bashed with a mop attached to a pulley mechanism; it’s a sly, feminine take on butch kinetic art, kind of like how Sylvie Fleury subverted the Minimalists with her glittery installations. It being the opening evening of the show, a gallerist was still adjusting the mop’s trajectory onto the CRT TV to give it the perfect floppy bash.

Then I left the show, got my phone out and saw the news. And forgot about everything I’d just seen, until I wrote about it just now.

Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics is at Barbican Art Gallery (London). 8 September 2022 - 8 January 2023. Image credit: Dazed Digital