This is the story of how a woman pulling a scroll out of her vagina helped change our modern perceptions of female sexuality and agency.
We’ve seen several performance art that we could classify as strange and bizarre. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of this form of art, but I have to admit that when it all started, it really revolutionized art. They confronted people by making them uncomfortable, and I do believe that’s probably the only way to start opening people’s eyes and encouraging change. So, when talking about performance and how it works, we really have to go back to the seventies, the golden age of this art form. Today, we’re going to focus on one particular artist who really shaped our modern views on the vagina and female representation in general. This artist is Carolee Schneemann, and the particular work we’re going to focus on, and that caused a huge controversy, was called Interior Scroll.
This particular performance is considered a pillar or milestone in the history of performative art for the content and its way to start dialogue. So, what did the performance consist of? Schneemann, standing on a table facing her audience (which were mainly women), wearing nothing but a white sheet and an apron, announced she was going to read some fragments from her own book called Cezanne, She Was A Great Painter.
Not so long after she had started reading, she dropped the sheet and began rubbing dark muddish painting on her face and body. While doing so she would reenact some of the classic poses one would do when posing naked in drawing classes. Then she took off the apron showing her naked body and in a strange squatting position started pulling out a rolled scroll from her vagina and read it to the audience.
What she wanted to show with this particular work was how vulvas have been historically suppressed, banned, and marginalized. The artist felt this was something shameful since vulvas are, in Schneemann‘s words, “the powerful source of orgasmic pleasure, of birth, of transformation, of menstruation, of maternity.” Her main goal was to show people that vulvas aren’t still objects of pleasure nor invisible parts of the human body, but extremely important agents of creativity and thought. So, when she pulled out a physical object from a historically and culturally hidden or invisible space, it made vulvas visible and gave them the agency that conservative standards and values had taken away from them. It was all about breaking taboos and ending with outdated stigmas.
We have to understand her work under the context it was created. As we mentioned, this was the seventies, a time when many movements looking for freedom and rights confronted the conservatism that still prevailed in the general mind. One of the most important movements was definitely that of women rights, which is still echoing in today’s world. It was the time when modern feminism became stronger. Since Schneemann belonged to this group, her work became even more significant when conveying her message. She was only one of the many artists and writers who focused on portraying the sexual experience of women as an understatement of bodies being the source of all their creative force. So, instead of showing nudity and sensuality through the lenses of male normativity, she wanted to explore and convey the female experience in relation to their own agency, meaning their own intimacy, passions, and desires.
Basically all of Schneemann's work shows a different perspective on female sexuality. She shows the historical disconnect between the way women experience their own bodies and the historical and cultural representations of that, which is mostly centered on the male gaze and turns women into objects of desire. Interior Scroll was particularly demonized at the time and used, as she explains, “against the complexity of my processes.” In other words, it was used to judge all of her work, and it wasn’t until some time later that it was appreciated for the message and the conversation, instead of the shocking value it had.
In a text the artist published in 1991, "The Obscene Body/Politic," she goes back to Interior Scroll. She explains something quite logical but that people didn’t see or want to see, which is the reason why she came out with the idea and why she performed it. In her own words, “I didn’t want to pull a scroll out of my vagina and read it in public, but the culture’s terror of my making overt what it wished to suppress fueled the image; it was essential to demonstrate this lived action about ‘vulvic space’ against the abstraction of the female body and its loss of meaning.” This resonates a lot today, when we apparently have much more freedom as women to explore our bodies, and more importantly, to own them before society. There are still artists who see in society’s reluctance to understand our agency a reason to continue fighting through art. That’s why Carolee Schneemann’s work became a milestone, and it’s still an important piece in performance art history.
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