Interview by Christian Schoen
Carolee Schneemann’s first body action was made in private for the expressed purpose of producing photographs, taken by her friend, the Icelandic artist Erró. The photographs are still generally accepted as among the first visual images that constitute the lexicon of an explicitly feminist avant-garde vocabulary. That was in the early 1960s. For the Experiment Marathon at the Reykjavík Arts Festival Carolee returned to Iceland. Christian Schoen talked to her on May 16.
You were in Iceland in the ’60s. What brought you here?
Carolee Schneemann: In 1964. Iceland completely changed my life through meeting Erró in New York in 1963. He became my collaborator for the sequence of body transformations I had wanted to do. And he was unusual as a male artist who was completely supportive; he had no misogynist aspect. None. He was never condescending; he was a good colleague, saying, “Yes, let’s do this.” He became, in a way, this powerful muse—I don’t think he would like that idea as such—but it was he who was completely encouraging. My partner at the time also, but Erró was part of the art world, and my partner was a musician, a composer. So this was really an unusual set of confirmations, and I went into my psyche as I possibly could with Eye Body, the sequence of merging my body with my collage materials that he photographed.
At the time, it seemed that something significant was happening with this insertion of the body by a woman, so that she was both object and object-maker. But it was considered ridiculous. I showed some important curators the sequences, and they all said, “This is shit.” They were all men in severe judgement, “If you want to paint, paint; if you run around naked, don’t be in the art world.”
At the same time, Erró was insistent, “Now you have to go to Paris and work with Jean-Jacques Lebel for his Festival of Free Expression.” Everybody was twenty-four years old; full of blind courage. Erró was saying this was really important. I was having visions and dreams of Paris as another level of erotic permission for my images of the body and materials. It was naïvely inspired. I had no money. Arman bought a very important construction of mine at the time for exactly—to the penny—the cost of an Icelandic airline ticket, round-trip. Not even five dollars more! So I got the ticket; Arman took this beautiful, rare work kinetic box, which was subsequently destroyed in his apartment in Paris.
I wrote to Jean-Jacques; I knew him, as I had already organized a poetry festival, out of a hat, for him at the Living Theatre. But he never thought I would really turn up. With the ticket and Erró’s encouragement, I arrived in Paris. I had no money; my father had given me some French money, but it was from Martinique, so it was useless, I was standing in the airport, weeping! It was late at night, and Jean-Jacques wanted to just concentrate on the festival, not on this crazy girl. But I turned up; it was very stressful; Erró was there and he smoothed the way, and subsequently all our plans flourished.
Icelandic friendship completely changed my life, because I was able to present my Kinetic Theatre work Meat Joy (1964). It was a scandal and a huge success! Suddenly all my dreamed principles were active, and in Paris, received ardently. The audience was incredible. Man Ray was still alive; Ionesco was there. Duchamp saw it and referred to it in a book as the messiest thing he had ever seen in France! Jean-Jacques made this extraordinary festival against all odds. And Erró was constantly there, promoting, provoking, saying, “Yes, this can happen!”
Was your first time Iceland for a long period of time?
No, it was just a few days staying over in 1964 on the way to Paris. And meeting Dieter Roth. Maybe it was a week; people took me around, I saw a lot of Reykjavík. Dieter still lived in the garage and was doing these remarkable dense, strange, words and materials. And of course it was a moment before any of us were going to be discovered as part of transformative culture, so it was very sweet and naïve, and you would be taken to meet each other constantly. In Paris I was taken to meet Jean-Claude and Christo—they lived a hotel room the size of a bathroom. I met Daniel Spoerri and he also lived in a tiny place. And everyone worked with garbage and trash—arte povera would become what they were doing. It was very fluid, bittersweet. Out on the edges.
And Iceland was utterly remarkable, with the hot springs, the bare landscape, the horses, the inclusion of the animals into the daily consciousness of where you were. That was wonderful. An impenetrable language. We ate lots of fish.
It’s quite amazing to be back, and daunting to see the modernization, this homogenization of building and structure. I don’t really recognize any of the places where in the past I walked—bookshops, little shops of handmade things, just the old town. I have to try to find it again.
I live in the woods in upstate New York, in a stone and wood house built in 1750. The rural mysticism is very deep, but private, because my art world considers it degraded. It’s too fragile for my culture. But it is what drives the work and gives it some strange imminence as viewers contact some aspect of the uncanny, of the paranormal, or my underlying research into archaic history. All the work evolves from this odd research into other cultures. But we have to beware of the trolls and the elves, because they distract us from the more rigorous problems, and how those have to be addressed. Not solved, but really thought about. Those are the basic issues of all the degradations surrounding anything fragile, imagined, intensive, humanistic. So it’s very hard to be here in Reykjavik and see this commodification or generalized sense of how space can be taken over. It seems progressive for people to destroy their finest historic traditions.
When I moved to Iceland, I realized that of course there is history here that leads back to the ninth century, but there’s no materialized history. There are no buildings, no churches you can go to or paintings you can look at and get a sense of the past. Any historic connection is all through word—oral history. Isn’t that pretty unique?
At the University of Illinois in graduate school, our best friends were an Icelandic composer, Þórkell Sigurbjörnsson, and his wife Barbara. He was teaching us his country’s traditions and reading us the sagas. I was an early proto-feminist, and Icelandic traditions of powerful women and Goddesses opened an important cultural link that I was trying to discover in history. That was a sense of Iceland as if it were able to integrate this powerful gender equity into its social structure, at least in the ’60s, from what Þórkell taught us. That it was a socialist country, that women were equally active, that young people would have a part of the family house given to them so they could have an independent life, that that was a tradition once they were seventeen or eighteen. It all seemed completely remarkable and sane.
But then you see this terribly irony about nature, as if nature has to be made part of not the sublime but the ironic. It’s this post-modern position where you have to divert real feeling; emotion can’t be trusted, it can only be overwhelmed or absorbed into materialism, a practical exploitation. So in quite a bit of the material here that’s part of this festival, there’s still that separation. “Don’t expect my work to continue the boring old traditions of conventionalizing nature.” Either there’s despising nature or conventionalizing it, and I’d like to know what’s happening in between with ecological determinates.
I was reading about the Harbour Cities conference and thinking about what a hard thing that was to do: so interesting to organize a conference of contradictions, and how to have it penetrate the social economy here. How absorbed it might have been—or not. I’m partly cynical too. I think our cultures use art either to launder money, or to make an illusion of some aesthetic vitality may have a core purpose and function beyond entertaining us—in the USA, a distraction from our obscured, political, criminal intent.
That was one of the key questions in this urban context: what role can art play these days? Because the market is so strong.
Are they playing with us to play the market? There really is a question, where would a visionary—well, I’m thinking about visionary architecture, and there’s Gehry and Holl, of whom I feel completely supportive. But when I think of more functional, less costly experiments, I’m not sure what to think about. And then so much of the propulsion in art and architecture are monstrous, aggrandizing, dominating, predictable investments taking over lived space and relevant history.
LIST Icelandic Art News. Page last updated 29 May 2008. Texts and images copyright © 2008 by the authors. For inquiries and contact information see about us.