There are moments in life when the world seems to speak back to us, offering up secret messages in tones so low that only the most receptive can hear. Carolee Schneemann suggests that such experiences connect us to ancient shamanistic traditions which have been all but obliterated by the subsequent juggernaut of scientific rationalism. “Our culture forbids us to have certain kinds of understandings,” she says. “It says that because I am not an aboriginal, I can’t say certain things.”
Having spent her career defying restrictions of any sort, Schneemann here recreates the sense of the interconnected energies that surrounded the life and death of her beloved cat Vesper. She evokes an animate universe full of unexpected confluences in which questions one does not realize one has asked are answered in surprising and unexpected ways.
Vesper’s Pool consists of two basic elements. The first is a wall of niches filled with objects, letters and documents drawn from the period just before and just after Vesper’s death from feline leukemia. Tidily arranged, one each to a niche, the objects are presented in a way that brings to mind both the careful preservation of relics in reliquaries and the dispassionate classification of scientific specimens.
Both of these readings are relevant to the installation. From one perspective, the wall is indeed a memorial to a being who had great significance in Schneemann’s life. From the other, it is a quasi-scientific presentation of phenomena which defy science.
This latter aspect becomes clear as one reads the diary-like texts which accompany the artifacts. Beginning with the bloodstained nightgown that Schneemann was wearing when Vesper first began to hemorrhage, the installation offers a series of overlapping and synchronic events which can be read as signs about and from Vesper. A phrase of poetry appears in a friend’s letter, eerily suggesting Vesper’s condition. Schneemann goes to teach in Portland and finds herself on Vesper Street. A feather appears, first in a dream, then in real life, a lone petunia blooms in the woods, later revealed in a Victorian text to be a symbol which means “Never Despair,” a dove dies in Schneemann’s hands. Each occurrence takes on heightened significance when contemplated in connection with the others.
The second part of the installation takes place on the other side of the wall. From the measured geometry of the niches, we are plunged into a darkened room filled with a subtle symphony of evocative sounds, among them bird whistles, bells and the chirp of crickets. Projections of slide and video images wash over the room, covering the walls, lapping over each other, even falling onto the pool of white sand in the middle of the room. The energy that seemed so static in the reliquary wall is unleashed here to create a sense of life and flux.
The images again relate to Vesper – presenting him at various stages of his life, showing the landscape in upstate New York where he spent much of his life, revealing his last weakened days and his eventual burial. One important sequence of recurring images shows Vesper literally kissing Schneemann, an activity which symbolizes the closeness of their relationship.
Throughout her long career, which began in the 1960s, Schneemann has been known for her taboo breaking work. Her performances from the 1960s and 1970s are legendary. Using her own body, she created explorations of sexuality and sensuality which were shocking in their frankness even in those supposedly liberated times. Her works tweaked the patriarchal structure of the art world, drew connections back to archaic rituals that preceded the Western mind/body split, revived sacred female rites and goddess imagery and celebrated an unfettered female sexuality.
One of her best known performance works is Meat Joy from 1964, in which naked bodies, raw fish, sausages, wet paint, rope plastic and paper scraps entwined and merged in an orgiastic light. InFuses from 1965, Schneemann and a longtime lover had sex. For Interior Scroll from 1976 a naked Schneemann unrolled a paper scroll from her vagina and read aloud a witty response to critics who dismissed her work while enjoying her company. A more recent work, Mortal Coils, from 1994, had an elegiac quality which connects it to Vesper’s Pool. In this earlier work, splintered projections of photographs of recently deceased friends flickered in a darkened room as coils of ropes twisted slowly in the light.
Vesper’s Pool continues Schneemann’s rejection of restrictive taboos. Here she takes on Western culture’s resistance to the idea of animal consciousness. Having placed mankind – and mankind’s rationality – at the pinnacle of evolution, we find it difficult to accord any kind of “real” knowledge or understanding to beings further down on the developmental chain. As a result, intimate connection with animals is seen as sentimentality or perversity. It is for this reason that images of Schneemann engaged in a deep kiss with a cat have a power to shock.
On a larger level, Vesper’s Pool is also a continuation of Schneemann’s ongoing interest in the dissolution of boundaries. Relying on dreams and signs, she moves easily between the conscious and unconscious worlds, melding realms that are more commonly kept apart. In this work she refuses to make distinctions between human and animal, reason and the irrational, even between death and life. In the process, she reminds us that our humanity expands when we admit that we are not the center of the universe.
Eleanor Heartney is a Contributing Editor of Art in America and author of Critical Condition: American Culture at the Crossroads.