The Breath of Life

Fuses, 1964-66, film, approx. 30 minutes. Courtesy P.P.O.W. Gallery.


Many things were curious about Kitch. I found her in 1956 and she lived for 20 years. People often ask if I named all my cats Kitch because she was a presence in my life and work for so long. Whenever James Tenney and I were making love, the cat would always be close by, purring and looking at us. 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. This was important for my film Fuses (1965) in particular. When I made love, I was enveloped in the feeling and had no concept of what it would look like. The only images I had of intimate eroticism came from pornography or science, and those were antagonistic toward my sense of the experience. When I shot Fuses, which is an erotic film I made with Jim, I didn’t know what I would find. Having Kitch as an observer allowed me to explore, and I felt a link between the cat’s vision and the camera’s aperture.

Cluny, my next cat, was mystical. He was gentle and very affecting; he emanated a sense of spirit. He was also the first kissing cat. Infinity Kisses (1986) is similar to Fuses in that both are about phenomenal erotic activity instigated by a cat. Kisses were brought to me every morning, obsessively, by the cat. 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.

I had a tiny Olympus automatic camera that I kept in bed. Every morning when the cat would kiss me, I would take a picture, so long as my partner-my human partner-was not annoyed. I gave myself the following conditions for making the pictures: I would have no control over lighting or focus, and, as much as possible, I would attempt to get the camera to capture what the kisses felt like. I have hundreds of images from this series.

When Cluny died, I experienced an extremely upsetting, helpless, awful feeling of loss. He died from biting a rat, probably a poisoned rat. My partner had just left me, and I felt that Cluny went for the rat because he had assumed a more intensive male protective role. The night he died, there was an ice storm, so there was no power, no water, no light and no heat. I lit candles and repeated in my mind aspects of our affinity. He died on my chest, slowly. 

I didn’t want to get another cat at first, but a stray had just given birth in a little house behind mine. All the kittens were crawling around and playing, except for one that was sitting in a chair facing the door. As soon as I came in the house, the cat crawled up in my lap, purred, climbed onto my chest and put his tiny tongue in my mouth. And I thought, “This is incredible. You’re back.” Indeed, Vesper was also a kissing cat, but he had a very dominant, take-charge personality, very different from Cluny’s delicacy. I continued photographing kisses, and, as I had with Cluny, I gave Vesper the opportunity to look at the images that I printed and laid on the work table. I remember Vesper saying of one selection, “This is my best work.” (Sometimes the animals put their thoughts in your mind very clearly.)

At around the same time, someone I hardly knew stayed in my house and left a book about Egyptian imagery called The Breath of Life. It included a picture of a rock carving that depicts a young woman kissing a lion. They’re nose to nose, and the hieroglyphs around them translate to “The Breath of Life.” Just as I was building my archive of cat kisses, the book arrived and reinforced what I was doing, connecting my pictures to archaic history. I really felt my cat was coming from another time and space.

Cats became sacred in Egypt because they preserved all the grain by going after the mice and rats. This reverence could be very extreme. If visitors from other countries accidently killed a cat, they would be killed. Local people would readily sacrifice their lives for that of a cat. But by the time we’re in medieval Europe, the cat is an obscenity; it belongs to witchcraft and unknown powers. It has to be mutilated and killed just as women who had unknown, inexplicable powers were denounced as witches, mutilated and killed. One of the ways they killed both women considered witches and cats considered to be witches’ companions was to stuff the cat in the woman’s vagina; the cat would claw itself and the woman. 

The other side of this brutal history is a cloying sentimentality. It’s tricky for me to emphasize the power of the cat when what surrounds its hard-to-elucidate power today is sentimental indulgence. I think such ideas are ultimately transformative, however, because the acceptance of the tenderness and thoughtfulness of the cat relates directly to the acceptance of female sexuality: its subtlety, its complexity. In cultural history, the detestation of the domestic cat is always parallel to suppressed rage at difference in general and at all aspects of the female body and female orgasm in particular.

Vesper had a kind of disease that thins the veins, and he’d sometimes bleed from a vein in his neck. As he got more ill he would sleep on my stomach. One night he bled on my only good nightgown. When I took the nightgown to wash it, the voice that follows me around said, “Don’t wash it. Put it away. Save it.” I didn’t understand, but I put it away. The nightgown became the first artifact I preserved for what would become my installation Vesper’s Pool (1999).

Vesper died and was buried under a flagstone in the front of my house in New Paltz (where most of my major cats are). And then all these strange things began to happen. I was standing in the woods doing a kind of meditation on Vesper when I felt a fluttering over my head. A dove, my favorite bird, fell at my feet and said, “Save me!” And I replied, “I can’t save you. You’re going to die.” I picked the bird up between my hands and held it until it died. Later, I stuffed it crudely, preserving it through my own sort of taxidermy because I thought the bird was evidence of something that might be coming from Vesper. Once I was paying attention, other things started happening and more artifacts accumulated. I eventually put these on display in a series of niches, like a natural history museum display, though the work is obviously quite mystical. Vesper’s Pool presents mystery, starting with the blood on the nightgown and followed by the tale of the deer that drowned in my pond, the stuffed dove, a flower that grew next to where the cat is buried. There’s a whole lexicon of these curiosities, artifacts related to my dead cat.

My current cat is very down-to-earth: a practical, Victorian girl who lost her home and had a terrible injury. She had probably been hit by a car before I found her, and now she walks with a cute little limp. She’s a very nice cat, but she’s not a mystical cat. —As told to William S. Smith

CAROLEE SCHNEEMANN is a multidisiplinary artist based in Springtown, N.Y.