Within and Beyond “Within and Beyond the Premises” – Unspoken Shamanism at the Henry Art Gallery’s Carolee Schneemann Symposium
Last month, I wrote a brief review of Within and Beyond the Premises, the Henry Art Gallery’s current retrospective of Carolee Schneemann’s work in which I claimed:
It is not a stretch to declare Schneemann a sacred artist whose work is some 2500 years out of phase with the Western practice of the religion of life-giving feminine eroticism […]
This past weekend, I attended “The Mysteries of the Iconographies,” a slide lecture of Schneemann’s work with the artist herself, and “Streaming in from the Moon,” a day-long symposium aimed at rectifying the dearth of institutional coverage and support devoted to Schneemann and her work that persists despite her enormous contributions to the histories of art and gender studies. The weekend was fascinating, surreal, and even disappointing on a few fronts. All in all, it was one of the most important art events I have experienced in the 8 years since I moved to Seattle to enroll in the University of Washington’s MFA program, and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate.
Friday night’s lecture was very well attended. A roomful of artists, intellectuals, and interested folks packed into the UW’s Kane Hall to watch the grande dame of body art give a slide lecture in which she presented a number of visual themes that have made their way into her drawings since childhood.
One of the most memorable points made by the artist was the recurring appearance in her work of a vertical line comprised of faceted planes. This line, which she relates to childhood drawings of staircases, has notably surfaced as a broken stick that dominates the right side of the composition of the 1960 painting construction Quarry Transposed, as well as the isolated form of the Interior Scroll, a relic from the infamous 1975 performance of the same name.
The repeat appearances of the vertical “staircase” form are not, according to the artist, something she has consciously encoded into her work. Rather it is a coincidence she has only brought into focus in retrospect, a symbol she reads as emblematic of the fracturing planes of infinite possibility (à la Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase). The mysterious appearance of this form, which may be understood as an axis mundi, or umbilicus/ladder connecting the “upper” and “lower” realms (or nested dimensions) begs for a contextualization of the work within the realm of shamanism, that oft-invoked, if seldom understood basis for so many religious and cultural systems worldwide (which even hides in the shadowy corners of Western Monotheism and its offshoots and successors if we know where to look for it.)
Shamanism first became a trendy word in Western intellectual circles following the 1951 publication of Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade, the Romanian-born scholar of religion best known for his theories involving the experiential schism between the categories of the Sacred and the Profane. Although the word “shaman” is Tungusic (Siberian) in origin, the word has long been applied by anthropologists to all sorts of indigenous sorcerers, medicine men and poets, many of whom are not considered shamans according to Eliade’s criteria. For Eliade, the shaman is, as implied by his study’s title, specifically one who engages in “techniques of ecstasy,” which in turn may be defined as a spiritually-induced altered state of consciousness characterized by dramatic shifts in perception and subjective experience. (It is almost a preternatural coincidence that Eliade’s study on shamanism arrived at almost precisely the same cultural moment as Aldous Huxley and R. Gordon Wasson‘s earliest accounts of their experiences with mescaline, psilocybin, and other naturally occurring psychedelic drugs that had, unbeknownst to Westerners, been the secret stock-in-trade of indigenous shamans for millenia.)
Thoughout his writings on shamanism, Eliade distinguishes between its “cool” outward manifestations—that which may be readily codified or communicated to those outside of the shamanic experience—and the “hot” subjective ecstasy at the heart of the experience itself, something that is notoriously difficult, if not impossible to grasp by anyone who has not personally had their sense of self utterly melted in the angelic bowels of the Infinite. Indeed, even if Carolee Schneemann’s oeuvre was not utterly teeming with obvious shamanic emblems and devices (stairways! ladders! snakes! mirrors!) her artistic practice, with its insistence on the artist’s own subjective experience of altered states and generative-erotic ecstasy, would be sufficient to suggest such a reading.
But the fact is that we know Carolee Schneemann thinks about her own artistic practice as a form of shamanism. In a 1983 letter to Art Forum, a response to an article on shamanic performance art by Thomas McEvillay,1 the artist contrasted her own form of artistic shamanism with that which was in vogue among her male contemporaries:
From a feminist perspective, a great deal of shamanistic male performance art has been centered on unravelling a repository of collectively unconscious guilt, and on desire for power or for contact with generally despised aspects of nature and body—the femaleness suppressed in our culture. McEvilley focuses on the critical neglect of these unconscious processes and on the sexual prohibitions which activated shamanistic performance art, but he fails to identify the denied ‘femaleness’ of ‘areas that were previously as unmapped and mysterious as the other side of the moon.’ What he notes as ‘behavior deliberately contrived as the most inappropriate and offensive’ (suggesting personal exorcism of social taboos and prohibitions) remains bound to the patriarchal psychosocial structures that it attempts to illuminate. […]
The shamanistic performances of women usually relate to a historic tradition that is pre-Greek, pre-Christian in its inspiration. […] Shamanistic mythology in women’s performance art must be acknowledged as what lies behind and is obscured by Greek mythology. Our performance of taboo acts is linked with an identification of our bodies with nature, with the celebration of the cosmic and the sacredness of the ordinary and the lived experience. […] Our use of the body in ritual inculcates not male mysteries but female or communal ones, aligned with intuitions of ancient Goddess presence and investigating those integrations of body and spirit which masculist culture and mythos have torn asunder.
Indeed, much of the content of Saturday’s symposium was aimed at the divide between “feminine” sensuous subjective experience and the “masculine” categorizing, legitimizing impulses of the intellect that Schneemann’s work seeks to bridge like a shaman’s ladder between worlds. An erudite presentation by Elise Archias, assistant professor of art history at California State University, Chico, anchored Schneemann’s early work within both art historical and popular representations of sexuality and the body relevant to a fuller understanding of the iconography. (The art historical references were great, but firmly rooted in the Western canon, a move which seems to me to overlook the unconsciously generated aspects of Schneemann’s work, which unite it with visual reference points far beyond the confines of the canon.)
The next presentation, given by Jeanette Angel, a current Ph.D. candidate in Creative Studies at University of British Colombia, seemed engineered to provide a counterbalance to the cool intellectualism of Archias’s offering. Angel began by breaking a bottle of perfume in the back of the room and passing out apples, transgressing the rules of what is allowed in the Henry’s auditorium, while engaging the senses of her audience. She then proceeded to paint black stripes onto her body and strike yogic asanas onstage during her speech in an illustrative parody of Schneemann’s own early “performance/lecture” style. Angel’s lecture culminated in a performative piece called “Walking the Scroll,” inspired by Schneemann’s strategy of “layering content and form.”
The climax of the afternoon occurred during the shared Q&A session between Archias and Angel. The difference of dress, body language and mannerisms of these two female academics—the former in a very high-necked blouse, judiciously toeing the Post-Structuralist line that everything, even mind, “arises from language,” while the latter sat Indian-style, smiling comfortably in a crop top and yoga pants, calmly asserting that it is the BODY which gives rise to both mind and language—rather uncannily resembled a live-action tableau of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love. From my perspective in the audience, it was as though a spontaneous, inadvertent work of art was being birthed through the circumstances of the symposium.
The Q&A with Archias and Angel was immediately followed by another Q&A, this one a forum that also included several members of the UW faculty. Despite the formidable minds represented on the panel (Dr. Patricia Failing, in whose graduate seminars I first delved deeper into Schneemann’s work, was a member of the panel, as were several other smart and interesting people) the discussion eventually became rather tedious to my mind, mired in institutional/art historical concerns of painting vs. performance relics, commodification and art, and the current controversy over Marina Abramovic’s human centerpieces for a Los Angeles MOCA gala, none of which seemed to touch at all on the ecstatically experiential/spiritual dimension that I find so engaging about Schneemann’s work. And so I asked a question about shamanism. Or rather, (perhaps taking a cue from the naughty cherub in the mental image of Titian’s painting I had yet to shake) made a statement in an attempt to reach into what I considered to be far deeper waters than the ones being currently navigated.
Right before I was called on, someone had just said something about the difference between paintings as and performance relics as art objects. So I said something like this:
Me: I don’t see a significant difference between a painting as an object and a performance relic as an object, as both objects may be considered castoffs or snapshots generated by (and relatively incidental to) the process of artistic practice “grounded in a way of being” [as Ms. Angel had just put it]. I think this is a really good definition of Schneemann’s process, and I also think we’re dancing around the subject of—and pardon me if this is a cliché to even bring up—SHAMANISM. I guess that’s really not a question as much as a comment that I think might be a fruitful avenue of inquiry. Does anyone want to comment on that?
Me: Carolee, do you have any thoughts?
Carolee [motioning to the faculty on stage, with maybe a hint of mischief(?)]: I think that’s a question for them.
The silence ended when a member of the faculty panel changed the subject back to Lady Gaga’s Schneemann-inspired meat dress.2
Given her documented statements on the subject of shamanism as a model/context for her artistic process, I can only guess as to why Carolee Schneemann didn’t respond to my query (except that it must be an unbelievably disorienting experience to sit back and listen to a roomful of academics dissect your motivations for your work). Even stranger, though, was the silence among the academics in the room, as though my comment was the most random, irrelevant statement that had been made all day.
But then, after the Q&A ended and people began dispersing into the hallway, something even stranger happened. One by one, audience members started coming up to me (including one of the symposium’s organizers) and asking who I was and why I had asked about shamanism. A couple of them thanked me for making that connection and wanted to talk more about it with me. But apparently no one had wanted to comment during the awkward silence because (aside from perhaps the artist and myself), no one else had a particularly salient opinion about it. One participant mentioned something about the problems with methodology when it comes to indigenous/non-Western cultural practices, as though the imperfections inherent in anthropological [indeed, all] research made the entire category of shamanic ecstasy singularly irrelevant. Another seemed fascinated but rather categorically bewildered, having apparently allowed an academic refutation of Madame Blavatsky that she had once read to curtail any curiosity she might have had about the entire notion of an experiential Sacred.
Still others, notably Joe Milutis of UW Bothell, saw where I was coming from and seemed both eager to engage in post-symposium conversation and poised to teach me a thing or two in my own areas of interest, a welcome combination. But by and large, it seemed to me that this symposium, gathered for the purpose of rectifying a perceived institutional neglect of Carolee Schneemann’s work, was simply uninterested in engaging with the spiritual dimension so crucial to the artist’s process.
Why the silence? Is it because I asked the question awkwardly, or didn’t phrase it correctly? Maybe so. (I’m admittedly much better at typing than talking.) But here’s something else that may have happened:
(1) There is a general, palpable distaste for the categories of religion and spirituality within academic circles.3 This distaste is largely a reaction against the undeniable philosophical flaws in Christianity/Western monotheism, which posits a separation between spirit and matter, or between the Creator and the creature (among many other offenses). But ironically, institutional secularism has inherited many aspects of this flawed dichotomy and, despite casting off the outward vestiges of Christian worship, has actually done precious little to dissolve its flawed binaries or break free from its underlying logic. Thus, whenever someone talks about the subjective experience of “the Sacred,” the academic art historical response is, all too often, to dismiss the experience as not-real, as it has deliberately chosen to believe in the “reality” of matter at the expense of [non-rational, experiential] spirit.
(2) Carolee Schneemann’s work, by addressing her own explicitly feminine subjective experience of a reality that is at once erotic, physical, and spiritual, reaches completely outside of the dualistic monotheistic/secular paradigm. For Schneemann, the experience of Sacred both arises from the experience of the body and gives rise to the body, because the Sacred Feminine is not an immaterial abstraction but a symbol for the very real erotic driving forces behind biology. The location of the axis mundi within the artist’s vagina in Interior Scroll is no accident. The shamanic artwork is forged in the same secret space where the body is forged: an experiential plane that transcends the separation of the mind and body, just as it transcends the separation of Sacred and Profane.
Which brings us back to Eliade’s distinction between the “cool,” outward manifestations of shamanism and the “hot” experience of the ecstatic infinite. To the uninitiated, the “hot,” inner core of the shamanic mysteries must seem impenetrably arcane. And yet it is not at all unusual for an artist to categorize his or her subjective experience of creation as “sacred,” “shamanic” or “spiritual.” However it is apparently quite unusual for an academic historian or critical theorist to personally cultivate or identify with—or even take an interest in—the spiritual category of subjective experience. (If they did, they might run the risk of becoming artists themselves!)
Carolee Schneemann and theorists concerned with her often lament a lack of institutional and critical support for the artist’s work. The reason typically given for this lack of support is sexism. While I do not dispute that Schneemann’s work is undervalued, and that sexism probably plays an important role in that devaluation (no doubt even more in the past than it does now), I think the institutional discomfort with earnest, sincere expressions of spirituality in art—especially the biologically profound notion of a Sacred Feminine—may be an even larger factor.
In conclusion, I believe wholeheartedly and without a trace of irony that Carolee Schneemann is a true artistic shaman, because of the cultivated ecstasy inherent to her process and also her ability to walk between worlds. She fits in seamlessly with the academic ideal of a contemporary artist with a practice rooted in rigorous theory and art historical referents, yet she is able to navigate the unseen worlds with remarkable grace. For that reason, I am sorry that I was unable to steer the conversation at Saturday’s symposium toward a serious conversation of the role of spirituality in the artist’s work. It’s a shame, because I think the mysteries of the unconscious mind-body as revealed in Schneeman’s work are the single greatest “Mystery of the Iconographies.” And so it is my hope in writing this post that my failure will spark future discussions of Schneemann’s work in a more spiritually literate direction.
 Reprinted in Richard Drain’s Twentieth-century Theatre: A Sourcebook (pp. 136-139)
 An ironic move, considering the oft-noted link between shamanism and rock/pop music performance. See Rogan P. Taylor’s The Death and Resurrection Show.
 See James Elkins, On the Strange Place Between Religion and Contemporary Art.
~ by emilypothast on November 20, 2011.
Posted in Art, Events, Inspiration, Spirituality
Tags: archaic, Art, axis mundi, Carolee Schneemann, erotic, feminism, generative, goddess, Henry Art Gallery, Jeanette Angel, Lady Gaga, Mircea Eliade, Mysteries of the Iconographies, performance art, sacred art, sacred feminine, Seattle, shamanism, Spirituality, Streaming in From the Moon, symposium, With and Beyond the Premises