Sex Scenes: In Honor of Carolee Schneemann and Making Out With Your Cat
"Infinity Kisses" captures a feline-human kiss that took place every morning.
Screenshot via YouTube.
In 2008 the late Carolee Schnemann, visionary multidisciplinary artist, produced a 9 minute video, a collection of images which show the artist open-mouth kissing her cat, an intimate and hypnotizing work entitled Infinity Kisses.
It was a ritual that took place every morning, when the cat would crawl into bed and “instigate” the kisses, which Schneeman recorded using a small Olympus automatic camera that she kept next to the bed between 1981 and 1987. Her only rule in taking the photos was to not rouse her partner— “my human partner”, she was quick to point out. She decided she would have no control over lighting or focus and what we see is Carolee lying on her bed with her eyes closed, face artificially bright from the flash, emerging from a dark background along with the cat’s in extreme close-up, as the beloved pet “instigated” the intense kisses.
In talks about Infinity Kisses, Schneemann would discuss the sensuous agency of a pet cat, and the taboo issues of physical contact, the hierarchal fractures between human and animal, and the “appropriate” aesthetics of erotic imagery.
The pet-human connection as rendered in art is often relegated to a cloying sentimentality, chalked up to lack of sophistication; images of women and cats in art or media were once synonymous with witchcraft, then only a certain kind of domesticity, a feminized loneliness. That cats are connected in the popular imagination to a female sexuality is also clear (just think of the ways people are described as “feline”.) In the era of cat Instagrams, cat viral videos, and endless accounts made simply for photos of feline companions, our relationship with them is seldom explored in depth.
The images in Infinity Kisses oscillate between the mortuary and the orgiastic, the cadaveric, and the sensually obscene. The infinity contained in the kisses marks their passion and intimacy in the moment, while also becoming a love-letter, a goodbye to a loved one. For Schneemann, the connection between sexuality and death was a thematic center of her work: to be intimate with someone means to open yourself up to the possibility of losing them, a reality that is ever more acute with our mammal companions whose lives are so infinitesimally shorter than ours.
Schneemann left us just last week with a legacy of a breadth of work, as truly a multidisciplinary artist. nemann’s work spaced from painting to video to performance art, often influencing even famously solitary and isolated geniuses like Stan Brakhage and her partner Anthony McCall. Schneemann put at the center of her art the sensuality and nakedness of her body, exploring the ways that the body is both present on the scene of art and cut through mechanisms of perspective and framing. But by the end of the 60s she found herself more and more feeling like she, as a woman artist, lacked agency and was being instrumentalized in the works of Morris and Oldenburg who saw her as a muse. Her solution was to turn again and again to her pet cats, as a way to abstract the gaze of the camera into a world that othered her both in form and content.
Infinity Kisses was not the first time Schneemann explored the erotic through the medium of a feline gaze. Fuses, an erotic film where Schneeman captured herself and her partner having sex in a collaged film strip, captures her cat Kitch in the background as a friendly and curious presence. The series itself was inspired by Kitch, who Schneemann noticed would stay in the room as she had sex, staying close by and purring. “If I opened my eyes to look at her, Kitch would look away as if to ensure our privacy, but she was always right there. She became a kind of camera person who gave me shameless permission to regard what she was regarding” Schneemannn explained.
Schneemann decided to shoot the footage “through the eyes of the cat”, imagining the cat’s gaze as the camera’s aperture. As B. Ruby Rich put it in a review of the work written in 1979, the cat becomes “the impassive observer whose view of human sexuality is free of voyeurism and ignorant of morality.”
Kitch was Schneemann's first famous cat and with Kitch, Schneemann would explore the spectre of death in her piece Kitch’s Last Meal. Schneemann started the film when Kitch was seventeen years old, having no idea the cat would live for three more years, documenting their life together with split-screen and superimposed images through two projectors, showing domestic scenes of life going on, as we are aware that these are Kitch’s final years.
Cluny was the name of Schneemann's next cat, the instigator of Infinity Kisses, who Schneemann describes as mystical, very affecting, and gentle. The kisses were obsessive, said Schneemann, “The act was so intense and so precise; it’s not something you can teach a cat. It felt to me as if there were some past life moving through this animal, as if he were a lost love returning.”
When Cluny died, Schneemann experienced a huge grief. Her partner had just left her and the cat died from biting a poisoned rat—an act Schneemann saw as the cat taking on a more protective role in her time of vulnerability. Cluny died the night of a snowstorm; the power was out, as was the heat, and Carolee lit candles and laid down as he slowly died laying on her chest.
She didn’t plan to get a new cat, but when her neighbor had kittens and Schneeman stopped by, one of the kittens sat alone from the rest in a chair facing the door. When she entered, the kitten immediately crawled into her lap and put his tiny tongue in her mouth. “I thought, this is incredible, you’re back” said Schneemann.
Schneemann would continue the kissing ritual and the series with the new cat, named Vesper, and just as she had done with Cluny, she showed Vesper the work, laying the printed images on the table. She recalls that Vesper once telepathically said of one of the particular images that it was her best work.
It’s been said of Schneemann’s work that the cat is her medium, and hearing this, Schneeman, whose background is in painting, agreed but corrected, “The cat is turpentine!” To find inspiration in a pet is to become intimately knowledgeable of communication without words, of a sort of psychic intuition, of care, of that private cross-species sensuality and of course of mortality.
In an unpublished text from 1975, Schneemann wrote: “And when your death interrupts our life together, it is not only the constant terrible spacelessness, loss of my own past as we carry it between us, but my present which shatters constantly into glittering splinters covering, cutting this moment into those past.”