Image: Carolee Schneemann, Fuses, 1965 (film still)
Alongside our current exhibition Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s: Works From the Verbund Collection, this essay considers the representation of the female body in Carolee Schneemann’s notable film work Fuses (1965).
In Fuses, Carolee Schneemann documents herself and her boyfriend of the time, James Tenney, sleeping together in a number of situations within the couple’s home, observed by their cat, Kitch. The Gaze is posited in the female eye. Fuses hence demonstrates an attempt to debunk traditional modes of representation regarding the framing of female sexuality on camera.
Schneemann’s textured and subtle filming methods run through her work. The artist originally trained in painting, and has continued to identify herself as a “painter” despite the interdisciplinary nature of her projects and their convergence with film and performance. In the opening sequence of Fuses – as the camera is directed across the body of Tenney under a hue of red light – Schneemann effectively draws the eye of the spectator across a richly textured painting. Her visuals are not explicit in this regard; rather, one must uncover, and feel their way through, the ambiguous physical forms exposed by the focus of her camera.
In the film Schneemann’s body becomes an instrument by which the artist, operating the camera, invites reflection upon the politics surrounding female sexuality. As discussed in her essay The Obscene Body/Politic, Schnemann uses the “battleground” of the female body to address the notion of female ownership with regard to the representation of bodies. Through the reclaiming of her own body in Fuses, Schneemann protests against the exclusion of female perspectives in film: her body – the object of contestation – becomes her chosen medium to interrogate this conflict.
In The Obscene Body/Politic, Schneemann imagines female performance as the physical enactment of the female nude stepping out of the canvas and forcefully removing the paintbrush from a suggested, male painter. For Schneemann therefore, using one’s own body becomes a form of protest against the conventions of representation: the body transfigures into the canvas, asserting autonomy and directing its own visuality.
In Feminist Avant-Garde, this notion of female performance is reiterated throughout the exhibition. It is made clear that this form of bodily protest was not exclusively utilised by Schneemann, but was embraced and adopted by a community of women artists making work at the same time. The show explicitly recalls a movement that sought to re-imagine the female body through the artist’s physical “reclaiming” of their own bodies. Like Schneemann in Fuses, Ana Mendieta, Cindy Sherman, and Hannah Wilke similarly frame their bodies as the object of subjection within their work. Through the utilisation of their physical selves, the artists within the exhibition bring focus back to the body through explicit images. This decision to use one’s own body does not identify as an act of vanity, but rather conveys a direct expression of the important struggle undertaken by women artists over the visual representation of their own bodies.
Schneemann’s work somberly harks back to the persisting conflict regarding the aesthetic of the female body and its relationship to female sexuality. Fuses still feels revolutionary in terms of current lived female sexual experience: it can be seen as a violent attack on a societal force that continues to censor female sexuality today.
In Schneemann’s work and the exhibition, the concept of authority over one’s own body is framed as an essential liberator with regards to female representation. The relevance of both Schneeman’s Fuses and Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s remains, suggesting that this “battleground” which Schneemann and her contemporaries visualise through their respective art practices, is in actuality, very much still being fought over.
Katrina Millar is an Art History postgraduate student, with a BA in Classics, both from UCL. Her line of research follows the relationship between sex and violence in American art post 1960. Recent research has led Katrina to interrogate the politics surrounding Yvonne Rainer’s performance artwork. After completing her MA, Katrina hopes to pursue further academic research and art criticism on the subject of the body politic in feminist art.