Forty years ago on August 29, 1975, the thirty-six-year-old artist Carolee Schneemann pulled a scroll from her vagina. The performance, titled “Interior Scroll,” is an essential moment in performance art history, and an important milestone in the artist’s provocative and influential oeuvre. For this important anniversary, I had the opportunity to speak with Schneemann, who lamented the way in which critical reception of “Interior Scroll” downplayed her earlier, yet intrinsically related works, stating: “I think it has to be subtracted from the awareness of all the work I have done since. It’s used against the work; it’s used against the complexity of my processes; it’s used to contain and stabilize a much richer and more complex body of work.”
Schneemann’s first major work, “Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions” (1963), posed a question that the artist would continue to explore throughout her career: “Could a nude woman artist be both image and image maker?” The work was an amalgamation of painting, performance, and photography in which Schneemann’s own body became a material, proving the answer to be yes. Following “Eye Body,” Schneemann presented her film, “Fuses” (1964–67), a visual exploration of sex starring the artist and her partner, James Tenney. For more than half an hour, Schneemann presents an egalitarian erotic experience in which neither lover is subject nor object; rather, unlike pornography, both figures retain agency as their bodies organically blend together in the collaged and painted film.
Schneemann’s need to explore female sexuality came as a direct response to an apparent disconnect between women’s experiences of their bodies and historical and cultural representations. Schneemann writes in 1991’s “The Obscene Body/Politic”: “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.”
The female form was idealized, fetishized, and contemplated, while the fundamental experiences of the body were considered to be unclean Pandora’s boxes. Such physical displays were inherently vulnerable, and deemed necessary in order to break taboos. By focusing on this site of supposed lack, female artists could expand the discourse about their bodies and confront social stigmas.
The first performance of “Interior Scroll” occurred on August 29, 1975, at an East Hampton, New York, art show titled Women Here and Now, honoring the United Nations’ International Women’s Year. Before an audience of mostly women artists, Schneemann entered the performance space fully clothed before undressing, wrapping herself in a white sheet, and climbing atop a long table. She informed the audience that she would be reading from her book, Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter, then dropped the sheet and, while, wearing an apron, applied dark paint onto her face and body. While reading from her book, she performed a variety of “action model poses” typical of figure drawing classes. Finally, Schneemann removed the apron and began pulling a small (folded) paper scroll from her vagina while reading it aloud. The text (as will be expounded upon soon) was taken from “Kitch’s Last Meal” (1973–76), the artist’s Super-8 film exploring an artist couple’s lives from the viewpoint of their cat.
Two years later, Schneemann was invited to the 1977 Telluride Film Festival by friend and experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage to introduce a series of erotic films by women. Upon learning that the program was titled The Erotic Woman, a description that she found limiting and counterproductive, Schneemann decided to once again perform Interior Scroll. In the context of a film festival, the scroll’s words — which recount a conversation between herself and an unnamed “structuralist filmmaker” who refused to watch her films — became all the more cutting. The filmmaker chided Schneemann for her ethereal — and therefore traditionally feminine — use of “the personal clutter / the persistence of feelings / the hand-touch sensibility / the diaristic indulgence / the painterly mess / the dense gestalt / the primitive techniques” instead of the masculine “system the grid / the numerical rational.” While it was assumed that the anonymous “man” was Schneemann’s then-partner Anthony McCall, in 1988 Schneemann revealed to film historian Scott MacDonald that the text was actually a hidden letter to film critic Annette Michelson.
As Schneemann explained in a recent conversation, the idea behind “Interior Scroll” was to “physicalize the invisible, marginalized, and deeply suppressed history of the vulva, the powerful source of orgasmic pleasure, of birth, of transformation, of menstruation, of maternity, to show that it is not a dead, invisible place.” The performance evolved from a dream in which “a small figure extracted a text from her vagina that simply said ‘the knowledge.’” As such, “Interior Scroll” asserts the vagina not only as a site of physical creation, but as a source of thought and creativity. By pulling a physical object from an otherwise hidden space, the interior becomes visible, and therefore, vocal.
Schneemann’s interest in vulvic space was deeply rooted not only in gender politics, but spirituality. She wrote, “I thought of the vagina in many ways — physically, conceptually, as a sculptural form, an architectural referent, the source of sacred knowledge, ecstasy, birth passage, transformation. I saw the vagina as a translucent chamber of which the serpent was an outward model, enlivened by its passage from the visible to the invisible: a spiraled coil ringed with the shape of desire and generative mysteries, with attributes of both female and male sexual powers.”
As mentioned before, while it is essential to discuss “Interior Scroll” in terms of Schneemann’s earlier work, it is also necessary to mention Schneemann’s intensive research of organic “sacred vulvas, carved, painted, and sculpted for hundreds and hundreds of years before christianity suppressed it,” those “marking waterways, sacred mounds, sacred mountains, sacred caves.” Prehistorians Desmond Collins and John Onians assert in 1978’s “The Origins of Art” that images of vulvas were more prevalent in paleolithic caves than images of animals or phalli. While it was originally presumed that these images, along with figures like “Venus of Willendorf,” were created by men as manifestations of their desire, it is now believed that they were actually made by women in their own image. Or, as art historian Leroy McDermott wrote in 1996’s “Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines”: “As self-portraits of women at different ages of life, these early figurines embodied obstetrical and gynecological information and probably signified an advance in women’s self-conscious control over the material conditions of their reproductive lives.”
Schneemann had been a proponent of this idea long before McDermott’s paper. Her belief in the complex power of the female body, and her expression of those thoughts in painting, performance, film, and sculpture, helped return women’s bodies back to themselves. “Interior Scroll” may just be one example of Schneemann’s powerful work, but it is a piece worth thorough examination. Hopefully, one action performed 40 years ago will continue to inspire women to claim their bodies and sexualities.