Carolee Schneemann’s second solo exhibition at the Hales Gallery is confined yet intensely thought-provoking. Not an exhibition for the faint-hearted, in More Wrong Things, Schneemann explores the brutality of conflict, grief, and the universality of suffering. Bringing together a central video installation, a selection of untitled paintings, and photography, Schneemann explores issues such as the desolation wrought by the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the collapse of the World Trade Centre in 2001, and other – both worldwide and personal – disasters. Rather than being a selection of works “of their time” they speak powerfully to the present climate on the collective complicity of humanity as we stand by to observe not only the pieces of art in this exhibition, but these frequent tragedies such as these as they occur in reality.
Schneemann’s career began in the late 1950s following her studies at the Bard College in New York and later in Illinois. She is considered one of the first generation feminist artists developing the wider feminist art movement globally. She also worked for a time as an experimental composer and presented numerous depictions throughout the 1970’s of her naked body in an attempt to reclaim the female form from being a cultural possession. The body is core part of Schneemann’s work and features widely in More Wrong Things as it is distorted, broken, and plundered.
The core element of the exhibition is the eponymous “More Wrong Things” (2000), a video installation featuring numerous old television sets dangling from wires attached to the ceiling. These blue, red, black, and white cables evoke arteries in an almost grotesque way as they pump life into the outdated television screens they support, allowing them to project their images of horror and discomfort. The eighteen monitors have a chaotic simplicity to their limp forms and the viewer is forced to wander and move around the installation in order to view the varied content that the screens display. The footage depicts personal as well as public tragedies with a mixture of archival footage with that from Schneemann’s personal work encouraging meditation on the nature and causes of suffering. Some montages are deeply disturbing with violence and sexually explicit scenes flickering away. Despite some of the horrific scenes of brutality against humans one of the most chilling pieces is a scene of a cat eating rotting flesh. This is a piece that not only forces us to question what makes us uncomfortable and the global nature emphasises the universality of suffering, but also gives its viewer a sense of the overwhelming amount of horror in the world and our seeming helplessness in the face of it. The title of the piece is both present and past tense: Schneemann is presenting some more wrong things that have happened, but her art evokes the inevitability of more wrong things happening in the future.
The selection of paintings “Untitled dust painting #11” (1984), “Untitled dust painting #8” (1984), “Untitled” (Black work I from Dust series, 1988), and “Untitled” (Black work II from Dust series, 1988) explore a multitude of textures in reactionary works to the increasing turmoil in the Middle East and the horrors of the Lebanese War. The influences Rauschenberg come through here and desolate post-apocalyptic landscapes of scorched earth are depicted through outdated technology, broken glass, and feathers sculpting alongside these bleak terrains. The use of a computer chips, which appear almost as artefacts from a bygone era partially covered in the desert, creates a feeling of decay seeping into our digitised society within these eerie paintings surrounded by layers of ash. Some utilise embedded images of Lebanon to create a stark contrast between past and future while others focus on the unrecognisable nature of this war torn land.
The final image against the back wall is “Terminal Velocity” (2001 – 2005), a photographic collage of people who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. The piece takes four images and gradually enlarges each of them, forming a large grid of images and giving the viewer a feeling of getting closer and more connected to these figures in their final suicidal act of desperation. These enlarged images are grimly familiar from newspaper stories about the tragedy and question the line between journalistic observation, art, and eulogy. The sense of order inflicted by the grid structure wildly juxtaposes the unsettling disorder of these people’s final moments. The black and white of the images acts almost as a filter to their despair amplifying the sorrow and helplessness experienced by viewer. The liminal images that lie somewhere between life and death force us to share in a moment of collective humanity and empathy. The identification and connection with these falling bodies makes for a powerful piece of work, and one that encourages people viewing suffering not to get desensitised and try to comprehend that the images with which we are bombarded are of human beings like ourselves.
More Wrong Things is an exhibition that does not shy away from the horror of the world, but it does not present these troubling images without purpose. Schneemann’s works compel their viewer to examine their own identification with suffering in both the public and private sphere. Rather than leaving the viewer with a sense of hopeless dread, this exhibition rather invites a change and emphasises the importance of bearing witness to tragedy and trying to connect with its victims, regardless of the medium through which we encounter them.
More Wrong Things continues at the Hales Gallery until the 24th June. More information can be found here.