Menstrual Art

Enjoy Journal | Bloody Women Artists

via Enjoy Journal | Bloody Women Artists by Ruth Green-Cole.

While there are isolated cases of reverence for menstruation, in general, many societies impose a strict set of rules about the visualisation of menstrual blood in art and visual culture. The hegemonic and patriarchal codes controlling the discussion and visualisation of menstruation have been formed over long periods of time by various traditional communities, Orthodox religious authorities and the patriarchal medical gaze. Ultimately, these views have been internalised by millions of women worldwide as both negative and shameful. Over time, menstruation has developed a fraught and complicated semiotic,1 one further influenced by the role of the vagina as a sex organ; concerning reproduction, and the censorship involved in exposing body parts. This raises the question, if menstruation happened in another part of the body, one that is not associated with intercourse, would it have the same stigma? In the same way, the continuous concealment of the reproductive body from society (the practice of menstrual etiquette, a homebound pregnant women and the sexualised breast) has created the false assumption that a leaky body is unnatural, and that when it is concealed, the body is acting normally.2

Luce Irigaray has observed “[f]luids are implicitly associated with femininity, maternity, menstruation and the body. Fluids are subordinated to that which is concrete and solid.”3 Therefore, the body is something that should be controlled to enable a prescribed representation of self-identity. In particular, menstruation has been codified as an uncontrollable bodily function that needs to be organised, managed and contained. Hence the cyclic continuation of performative acts to create the appearance of a ‘natural’ state. Judith Butler explains, “gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender and without those acts there would be no gender at all. Gender is thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis.”4 To understand menstruation as gendered blood is to recognise the ritualisation of difference through cleansing practices, psychoanalytic classifying and other constructs that affect the position of women.

During the early sixties, some years before the growth of an organised feminist movement in the visual arts, Fluxus artists Shigeko Kubota and Carolee Schneemann positioned their bodies in, and as, their art. They employed the modernist language of abstract expressionism, but in contrast to its patriarchal expectations. These artists were “interested in debunking or overthrowing modernism because of its supposedly reactionary desire to ensure artist presence”5 and its dismissal of body art projects. The female artist’s body became a gesturing, expressive body, a mode of projecting non-conformity, suffering, activism and excess “as a way of laying claim to ‘being’ itself.”6 As Kubota said in her Video Poem(1968-76), “I, a woman, feel, ‘I Bleed, therefore I am’.”7

Follow the above link to read the full article…

Monstrous Geographies: Places and Spaces of Monstrosity – 4th Global Conference, Lisbon, Portugal – 22-24 March 2015

I am on my way to Lisbon, Portugal (via London) where I will be presenting a paper at the 4th Global Conference Monstrous Geographies: Places and Spaces of Monstrosity – 22 – 24th March 2015. See abstract below.  For more information please visit Interdisciplinary.net.


Gendered Heterotopias: Creating Space for Menstrual Blood in Contemporary Art

Many social and cultural attitudes towards menstruation are intricately linked to the affective recognition of blood, which then becomes gendered and socially excluded as menstruation. Numerous cultural traditions add further negative values to menstrual blood, associating it with pollution, abjection and inferiority.  This may be because menstruation is implicitly understood as destabilizing the boundaries between inside and outside of the body, private and public, natural and reviled. 

My research considers the work of Michel Foucault and his notion of heterotopias as imaginary spaces that exist in reality as ‘spaces of otherness’. Most importantly, his account of ‘heterotopia’ (a neologism that rejects the negative and positive values associated with utopia and dystopia creating an in-between space) places menstruation into a transient space that women inhabit through cyclical reproductive states of being.

This paper will examine the way a number artworks concerning menstruation utilize actual physical space.  The structuring of social space, and how it makes us see, act and ‘make natural’ in space, can be challenged by the spatial practices and visibility of artworks through directly immersing men and women into the ‘quarantined’ areas of menstrual huts and gendered space. These spatial heterotopias are immersive spaces that position the viewer inside of them, a phenomenological consideration of the body in relation to space.

Menstruation is a significant marker of sexual difference; it is ‘gendered blood’ that divides and distinguishes women, and that has made them in many cases by association, the ‘subjects’ of evil and taboo.  One of the main tools used to maintain this stigma is to erase the presence of the scene of menstruation in speech, image and representation.  The artworks I examine in this paper are instrumental in undermining this stigma. Additionally, this process of undermining also manages to bring about changes in what we assume to be the function and value of art.

Keywords: art, heterotopia, gender, menstrual blood, menstruation, performance, phenomenology, spatial practices, space, taboo.

Zanele Muholi – Isilumo siyaluma

Zanele Muholi is an award winning South African lesbian photographer and visual activist, making photographic images to challenge her community and their perceptions of female sexuality.[1]  Her ongoing investigation of the experience, vision, representation and politics of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community makes visible the multiplicities and different lived bodies. Muholi’s photographs and digital prints employ menstruation as a vehicle to question the predominant prejudices in South Africa towards lesbian women. Muholi has to contend with patriarchal dominance, that places females lower than males; a global situation of whites colonising blacks; and a society that on the surface accepts individual freedom to choose one’s own sexual orientation, but refuses to acknowledge rape as a hate crime.[2] In the society is which Muholi’s work is presented, sexual difference is not something that is openly tolerated.  Female same sex practices are often so unacceptable that it can often be families who are first to discriminate.  No sooner than being turned out of their home, young women are abused through acts of ‘curative rape’.  “It has always been in society since the onset of patriarchy and been used as a tool to control people’s sexuality”.[3]  Muholi’s digital prints push the boundaries of social and cultural tolerance and ensure that those whose voice has been historically ignored can begin to reclaim a visual culture that was previously denied to them. Through her art, Muholi allows the viewer to experience the ‘body’ imaginatively and from multiple perspectives, thus creating a space to value difference.

Zanele-Muholi-03

Muholi’s Isilumo siyaluma series depict the notion of ‘painful periods’ in a decorative pattern using her own menstrual blood.  As representations of flowers, these images symbolise a de-flowering of women, and a brutalisation of their sexual rights. This idea of de-flowering continues through as what Muholi refers to as South African men intending to ‘cure’ lesbian women by means of rape.  This notion of ‘curative rape’ is intended to be a form of punishment and a method of ‘correcting’ gender roles that conform to social normative behaviour.[4]. She explains, “there is nothing to correct, this is who we are.”[5]  Muholi collected and documented her blood to express her anger at these curative rapes; her Isilumo siyaluma series becomes like a suite of documents, incorporating a trace of the artist’s body, signing in blood but also refer to criminal investigation by the repetition of thumbprints.

References

[1] In April 2012 Muholi’s home was burgled.  The items stolen were a laptop, and more than twenty primary and back-up external hard drives containing five years of photographic archive, including, yet to be exhibited images and other unfinished projects, which ultimately resulted in Muholi cancelling an upcoming exhibition.  Nothing else was stolen, leading to suspicion that Muholi was targeted for her efforts in documenting the lives of black lesbian women. This kind of censorship is evidence of the discriminating actions Muholi and others have received.  “Muholi’s plight has been largely ignored by the media” in South Africa, despite being “described by the Open Society Initiative for South Africa as ‘one of the country’s foremost artists’” – Archived from the original at (http://archive.is/Vl2L) – Accessed January 30, 2014. http://news.pinkpaper.com/NewsStory/7399/15/5/2012/Media-ignore-theft-of-photographers-work-documenting-black-lesbian-lives-.aspx

[2] South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.  South Africa was the firth county in the world, and the first in Africa to legalise same-sex marriage.

[3] Nathalie Rosa Bucher, “South Africa: Law Failing Lesbians on ‘Corrective Rape’”, Inter Press Service News Agency, (August 31, 2009) Accessed October 10, 2013. http://www.ipsnews.net/2009/08/south-africa-law-failing-lesbians-on-corrective-rape/

[4]This act of violence has been established in countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Thailand and Ecuador and is often overlooked due to women’s unstable sexual and economic power in these countries. Whilst rape as a crime enforced; ‘corrective of curative’ rape is not demarcated as a hate crime or acknowledged as an attack on someone based on their sexual orientation.  The political system in South Africa provides protection for homosexuality; however, the police appear in many cases not to enforce this law.  Ibid.

[5] “Zanele Muholi explains to Toxic Lesbian her Project “Isilumo siyaluma””, (October 24, 2011) Accessed December 15, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHmdPIgO47g

Zanele Muholi. Ummeli, 2011. Digital print on cotton rag of a digital menstrual blood stains.

Zanele Muholi. Ummeli, 2011. Digital print on cotton rag of a digital menstrual blood stains.

Writing in Blood

For Irigaray, blood is simultaneously metaphorical and literal, a foundation of female sense and sexuality.  She writes, “[y]our blood is translated into their senses” (1)  which refers to a wordplay between sang (blood) and sens (sense/direction) which extends the parallel between sexuality and writing. Irigaray’s celebration of menstrual symbolism creates an inter-textual link with Helene Cixous and her notion of Écriture Féminine, which literally means ‘gendered women’s writing.’  Therefore, menstrual blood becomes a pigment that embodies the creative value of women.

Image

Spanish artist Isa Sanz’s photographic self-portrait, Alquimia (Alchemy) (2007) depicts the artist with blood between her fingers as she writes the word amor (love) on the wall. The blood ink comes from the fountain of menstrual blood that cascades down her legs.  This creative deed becomes an ‘alchemy labour’, a purifying act where the abject transforms into clean fluid, a natural feminine essence.  Using blood to inscribe the body parallels another artist, Cuban Ana Mendieta in her performative painting, Untitled (Blood Sign) (1974) she scripted in blood ‘She got love, there is a devil inside of me’.  Sanz creates homage to the Cuban artist because of their joint concerns of the cyclical nature of life birth, death and re-birth  and through the use of the body as a medium for expressing in blood.

Image

(1) Luce Irigaray, ‘This Sex which Is Not One’, in Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, eds., Kate Conboy, Nadia Medina and Sarah Stanbury, (New York, Colombia Press, 1997), 69.

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.

 

 

Ebb, 1996 – By Amy Jenkins

Originally trained as a photographer, United States artist Amy Jenkins began using video as a static element within her practice. Jenkins’ more recent works use sculpture and video installation to displace notions of space and object. In Ebb (1996) a miniature bathtub begins as a fount of bloody water, which is projected onto its porcelain surface. Jenkins creates a four-minute loop where a woman (the artist) climbs into the tub and the blood flow acts like a receding tide into her body, in effect reversing the menstrual flow. Ebb refers to receding menstruation, a soaking up of life force and an internal receiving.(1) It is a process of purification in reverse. The artist fortified by her transfusion, submerges herself, then steps out of the bath and disappears, leaving the viewer alone temporarily in the dark void of the gallery space.

(1) Ebb has a companion work Flow (2005), a nine-minute time-lapse over nine months of pregnancy, (one minute per month). Flow “is an allegory for the act of creating, or bringing forth form the self.” Amy Jenkins. “Flow, 2005.” Artist Website. Amy Jenkins.net. Accessed July 2, 2012. http://www.amyjenkins.net/video%20pages/flow.html.

Amy Jenkins, Ebb, (1996), Video projection on miniature ceramic tub and tiled pedestal, audio; sculpture dimensions: 14h x 20w x 26d”; original running time: 4 minutes

Amy Jenkins, Ebb, (1996), Video projection on miniature ceramic tub and tiled pedestal, audio; sculpture dimensions: 14h x 20w x 26d”; original running time: 4 minutes

 

Vagina Painting (1965) – Shigeko Kubota

Kubota’s Fluxus performance was performed at the Perpetual Fluxus festival in 1965. Upon dipping the paintbrush into a pale of red paint, meant to invoke menstrual blood, she crouched over large rolls of white paper spread out on the floor, and pushed down against the paper to make marks. Painting in a horizontal direction above the painting surface is a gesture to the eastern calligraphic tradition as the individual movements painted with the brush created red script-like marks on a crisp white background. Kristine Stiles asserts that Kubota’s performance “[r]edefined Action Painting according to the codes of female anatomy”1 insofar as Jackson Pollack can be considered to have ‘masturbated’ and ‘ejaculated’ paint upon horizontal un-stretched canvas. Vagina Painting makes a comment on the tradition of masculine Action Painting, by trespassing on patriarchal aesthetics.  Kubota’s spatial art practice is gestural and painterly and blurs the boundaries of masculinist approaches to artmaking. Vagina Painting is a cyclic expression of women’s difference that plays upon the semiotic between vagina as sexual organ and menstruation.

cropped-vagina_painting1965.jpg

‘Rachel Hides the Idols’

Tiepolo’s  fresco ‘Rachel Hides the Idols from her Father Laban’ (1726-1729) makes a direct reference to menstruation.  The painting depicts a passage from the Old Testament, “And she said to her father, Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise up before thee; for the custom of women is upon me. And he searched but found not the images,” Genesis 31: 35.

To make up for the fact that she has no dowry, Rachel takes her fathers statues before she sets off to Cannan with her husband Jacob.  Laban, her father, catches up with them and demands his precious statues back, but Jacob is unaware of stolen idols.  In Tiepolo’s fresco, Rachel is depicted sitting on the saddle with the statues demanding that she cannot get up insofar as she is menstruating.  The biblical story infers that Rachel uses menstruation as away to deceive her father, and also her husband (by not telling Jacob she took the idols), which enforces the attitudinal tendency to see women as living in ‘original sin’.

tiepolo, rachel-hiding-the-idols-1728

Red Flag, (1971) – Judy Chicago

Image

Judy Chicago’s representation of a used tampon in her photographic lithograph, Red Flag (1971) is characteristic of the American feminist objective. [1] She elaborates, “I wanted to validate overt female subject matter in the art community and chose to do so by making “Red Flag” as a handmade litho, which is a high art process, usually confined to much more neutralized subject matter. By using such overt content in the form, I was attempting to introduce a new level of permission for woman artists. It really worked.”[2] At the time, she exhibited this work, some members of the audience assumed that it was a ‘blooded penis’. In response, Chicago commented that such confusion was “a testament to the damage done to our perceptual powers by the absence of female reality”.[3] The practice of ‘menstrual denial’ was what Chicago was trying to abolish. In hindsight, the notion that the lithograph is something other than what it depicted, a blood soaked tampon, seems strange. However, given the widespread attitude towards menstruation as unspeakable and unshowable, it is logical to posit that this was one of the first images that depicted this routine action that women know intimately so well[4] yet is so visually absent in western culture.

[1] Chicago had arranged for Hamrol to take a picture of her pulling out a bloody Tampax and print a photograph from which the lithographers would make a working negative.

[2] Delaney, J., M. J. Lupton, and E. Toth. The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation. New York: EP Dutton and Co. Inc, 1976, p. 275. It may have worked well in the 70s however, in post-modern society, women need to be more creative with the ways in which they explore menstruation.

[3] Rosewarne, L. Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television. Lexington Books, 2012, p. 168.  See also, Bobel, Chris. New Blood Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2010, p. 47.

[4] Delaney, Lupton, & Toth, 1998, p. 275.