Chinese Woman art

Chen Lingyang – Twelve Flower Months – 1999-2000

Chinese artist Chen Lingyang aims to test uncontrollable and visceral reactions towards menstrual blood by highlighting that menstruation is a naturally occurring phenomenon that instead of being considered unspeakable needs to be venerated for its cyclical connection to nature. [1]  Her large photographic series Twelve Flower Months (1999-2000) incorporates traditional cultural allegories of China and utilises them as conventions to invoke contemplation regarding the female body, menstruation, art, nature and the cycle of seasons. Twelve Flower Months, as the title implies, is a body of photographic work that spans twelve months, one year from November 1999 to December 2000. This images are part documentation part narrative, and photography as an art medium was chosen specifically as it ‘gives a feeling of truth’ and for its ability to record an ‘instant of time’.[2] Menstruation is temporal which makes photography a complementary medium, at least in the way that photography invites us to think about how time is delayed or brought back from the past in the moment of looking.


Historically, photography in China has played a role in state propaganda and personal expression through art and photography was restricted or controlled. Following the fall of the Cultural Revolution in April 1976 photography became a vehicle for documenting the historical events and contributed to remembering the April Fifth Movement also referred to as the ‘Tiananmen Incident’. While Chen Lingyang did not live through these historical events they have molded the milieu in which she grew up.[3] Post the incident at Tiananmen Square, art and photography regained freedom of expression. Twelve Flower Months is captured with an analogue camera because Chen Lingyang wanted to emphasise that there was no digital manipulation or ‘composing.’ Each of the twelve photographs feature a flower and a mirror depicting the artist’s genitalia during menstruation.


Chen Lingyang, August Sweet-scented Osmanthus, 1999-2000 From the series Twelve Flower Months  Colour photograph, dimensions unknown M+ Sigg Collection, M+, Museum for Visual Culture, Hong Kong

Chen Lingyang, August Sweet-scented Osmanthus, 1999-2000
From the series Twelve Flower Months
Colour photograph, dimensions unknown
M+ Sigg Collection, M+, Museum for Visual Culture, Hong Kong

The connection between flowers and menstruation has been disseminated in many cultures although with a less romanticised subtext than Chen Lingyang intends. The reading of menstruation as ‘the flowers’ was common amongst nineteenth century biblical scholars insofar as early versions of the Bible employed the word flowers in place of ‘monthlies’ or ‘monthly flow’.[4] “And if any man lie with her at all, and her flowers be upon him, he shall be unclean seven days,” (Lev. 15:24).[5] Whilst parallel social taboos surround menstruation in many cultures, these social ideologies are not always recognised or questioned in the same way. Chen Lingyang’s inclusion of flowers was dictated by the Chinese custom in which each month is symbolised by a particular blossom.[6] Incorporating a flower into the composition carries a symbolic load of beauty, perfection, germination and nature creating a parallel with the menstruating vagina, likewise a signification of femininity, fecundity, and reproduction. Lupton has indicated, “[t]he bleeding vagina generates its own elaborate system of metaphors” which is “a widespread emblem in mythology, [and] a symbol in dreams and poetry.”[7] Chen Lingyang’s cultivates a ‘language of flowers’[8] by incorporating the poetic Chinese concept of ‘twelve flower months’ therefore providing a metaphor for the female biological actuality of menstruation over the cycle of one year.


Chen Lingyang’s scenes are intentionally set-up with attributes portraying cultural metaphors. The symbolic relationship between the flower and the mirror signifies beauty making the construct of femininity overt.[9] Not all of the objects are inanimate; the mirror in each of these images reflects not the expected face of a woman, but female genitals with menstrual blood. The images are simultaneously intimate, yet the presentation renders them impersonal as the body parts are dismembered by the edges of the mirror. The effect of these isolated, part-objects is inter-repulsive, a deep self-disruption between repulsion and desire.  Chen Lingyang make use of the convention of still life to seduce the viewer, once engaged, she interrogates our visual sensibilities and pre-determined cultural views of menstruation.


Chen Lingyang’s Twelve Flower Months digresses from culturally inspired narratives to reveal a complex elaboration of spatial compartments. The first is the ‘real space’ of the photograph – the physical heterotopia that exists in reality, but one that is concealed for isolation. The second is the heterotopia of the mirror, the virtual space that exists in reality; and the third is the ‘crisis heterotopia’ the liminal space that women occupy when their bodies are in a cyclic state of menstruation. A woman’s body has become a contested site, a ‘placeless place’ (utopia) a paradoxical body of otherness (between the reflection and the mirror) that is both real (normal) and unreal (deviant) simultaneously.


Various architectural shapes inspired by traditional Chinese gardens, frame each image. This aesthetic device constructs each work as an intimate scene viewed through windows or doorways and features objects one would expect to see in a private boudoir. As exemplified by the photograph April Peony, the framing device is oval. Thus, the viewer is teleported to the first heterotopic space. Chen Lingyang’s images ignite a desiring sensation one that is injected with guilt. We see genitalia as we spy through the window. Like a peeping tom, the ‘scopic drive’[10] is activated as we direct our gaze into the ‘real space’[11] of the image. Looking through the ovoid opening into a darkened room, we see an antique chest, also black, perhaps containing family heirlooms. The edges are worn insofar as the lacquer has rubbed off and exposed the wood giving the impression the box is a relic passed down the maternal line for generations. To the right beside the chest, is a partially wilting cerise peony mirrored by the representation of the same bloom in the inlay paneling of the chest. Positioned above the case is a rectangular shaped mirror, tilting slightly to the viewer’s right. The likeness seen in the mirror is an image of the female genitalia, splayed open to reveal the labia, vaginal opening and anus.

Chen Lingyang, April Peony, 1999-2000  From the series Twelve Flower Months Colour photograph, dimensions unknown M+ Sigg Collection, M+, Museum for Visual Culture, Hong Kong

Chen Lingyang, April Peony, 1999-2000
From the series Twelve Flower Months
Colour photograph, dimensions unknown
M+ Sigg Collection, M+, Museum for Visual Culture, Hong Kong


These doorways and windows not only invite the viewer to peer into a material heterotopia but invite them to look further beyond the architectural space, into another heterotopic space, the in-between space of the mirror. In conceptualizing heterotopia, Foucault employs the mirror to explain his theory.

In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror. But it is also a heterotopia in so far as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy. From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am. The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.[12]


As Foucault suggests, the reflection associated with looking into the mirror is one of self-gazing. Chen Lingyang is gazing at her-self through multiple lenses: her eye, the mirror, the camera, the photograph and finally the reproduction of that photograph.[13] During the creation of these images Chen Lingyang encountered a particular “reversibility [as it] refers to the body’s simultaneous status as perceiving subject and object of perception.”[14] The artist is immediately subjective and objective during the act of looking and being looked at by the self.[15] Viewing January Narcissus, the title acknowledges reflection and consequently self-love. Facing away in the unpolished mirror is the lower half of the artist’s body. A long rivulet of menstrual blood runs down the back of her left thigh, exposing the uncontrollable and leaky manner of menstruation. Seeing that the artist is facing away from the mirror, perhaps her torso is twisting to face towards the mirror further emphasising an act of self-observation.

Chen Lingyang, January Narcissus, 1999-2000   From the series Twelve Flower Months  Colour photograph, dimensions unknown M+ Sigg Collection, M+, Museum for Visual Culture, Hong Kong

Chen Lingyang, January Narcissus, 1999-2000
From the series Twelve Flower Months
Colour photograph, dimensions unknown
M+ Sigg Collection, M+, Museum for Visual Culture, Hong Kong


Inserting the mirror activates a multiplicity of perspectives because the mirror as still life object, initially inanimate, appears to become animate. A network of gazes becomes active through the relationship between spectators watching her, watching herself. We are gazing at the menstruating body, gazing back at us through the space of the mirror. Nevertheless, we cannot see the artist’s body, only a duplicate. The echo only implies the actual body is present in the real space of the photograph as it is not physically seen. The menstruating body becomes an “imaginary body, which recollects itself, or persists through the doubling, like a glove that turns back on itself”.[16] Accept in this instance, the ‘other glove’ is not visible; nonetheless it exists in the ‘real space’ of the photograph.  As Craig Owens explains,

[a] complex web of internal reduplications deflects attention away from that which, despite the status of photographs as imprints of the real, remains external to the image: the reality it depicts. Psychological and sociological details are thus displaced by the network of internal relationships between subject, mirror, and other, which structures the image.[17]

Hence Chen Lingyang’s photographs depict the real, a menstruating body in liminality, or a crisis heterotopia that is marginalised and displaced physically and conceptually


As Owens discusses the looking glass that not only replicates the subject portrayed, but also the whole photograph itself. It tells the viewer “in a photograph what a photograph is—en abyme.”[18] He follows on aptly with, “The mirror functions not only to reflect the subject; it also quite consciously pictures the metaphor which defines photography as a mirror image. The mirror reads as an image en abyme.”[19] En abyme describes the reduplication of an image within an image. It functions as referent or analogue for photography itself; thus the tension in the image becomes structural and metaphorical. The mirror as a structural device activates a spatial incursion transforming the two-dimensional photograph into three-dimensions. This is not only a physical displacement but also a conceptual transgression of pictorial space. Thus, we have the real space, the mirror and the menstruating body all suspended in time.


Chen Lingyang’s heterotopic images challenge spatial and temporal relationships as well as attempting a deconstruction of notions of selfhood. Paradoxically, many women who experience menstruation understand that it is a natural and normal phenomenon but are still affected by it abjectness.   In the mirror, we seen the introspection of leakiness, photographed in such a way to make the subject appear vulnerable or exposed, much like Young’s description of hiding in the ‘menstrual closet’. The conflict within the mind is layered implicitly in January Narcissus firstly, by the reflected act of self-gazing or self-critique and secondly, through the title drawing our attention to the Greek myth of Narcissus. Moreover, the title represents the first month in the series, in parallel with menarche.


[1] Ai Weiwei, Chinese Artists, Texts and Interviews: Chinese Contemporary Art Awards (CCAA) 1998-2002. 1st ed, (Hong Kong: Timezone 8 Ltd, 2002), 30.

[2] Ibid, 31.

[3]Wu Hung, Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China, 1st ed.. (Chicago: Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago; New York, 2004), 12.

[4] Mary Jane Lupton, Menstruation and Psychoanalysis, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 61.

[5] The Holy Bible, Authorised (King James) Version (Philadelphia: National Bible Press n.d), Lev. 15:24, 114, cited in Lupton, Menstruation and Psychoanalysis, 61.

[6] The first month is represented by narcissus; the second, a magnolia; third, peach blossom; fourth, a peony; fifth, pomegranate blossom; sixth, a lotus; seventh, an orchid; eight, sweet-scented osmanthus; ninth, crysathmum; tenth, poinsettia; eleventh, a camellia; and twelfth, a plum blossom.

[7] William Reich quoted in, Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel and Bela Grunberger, Freud or Reich? Psychoanalysis and Illusion, trans., Claire Pajaaczkowska (London: Free Association Books, 1986), 141, cited in Lupton, Menstruation and Psychoanalysis, 61.

[8] Ibid.

[9] These signifiers are employed to connect specifically with Chinese audiences, however they are also acknowledged in the west.

[10] ‘Lacanian drives’ differ from biological needs because one can never be satiated. A drive becomes a repeating jouissance (intense pleasure).

[11] Craig Owens, “Photography ‘En Abyme’”, October 5 (1978), 73. The real space of the photograph is the initial image constructed by the artist, not the suspended image in the mirror.

[12] Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’ in The Affair of the Heterotopia: Die Affäre Der Heterotopie, edited by Bernd Knaller-Vlay and Roland Ritter, (Graz, Austria: Haus der Architektur 1998)28.

[13] For theories about reproduction and representation see, Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, ed. Hannah Arendt, Illuminations, (London: Fontana, 1968).

[14] Cathryn Vasseleu, Textures of light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty, (Routledge: London, New York, 1998), 29.

[15] Lingyang also does this in another way with her dual personae, Chen Lingyang No.1 and Chen Lingyang No. 2, which she created to mark the shift between her artist personae and the personality who she presents to her family.

[16] Vasseleu, Textures of Light, 29.

[17] Owens, Photography, 73.

[18] Ibid, 75.

[19] Ibid, 80.