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.

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‘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’.

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Tampon Chandelier

Signifying the feminine with its delicate construction, Joana Vasconcelos’s 600 x 350 x 350 centimetre chandelier installation A Novia (The Bride), (2001) has instant appeal.  Chandeliers are understood in Western society as large statements of glamour and sophistication.  Vasconcelos’ chandelier engages the viewer with its gargantuan scale and draws them in to reveal the detailed construction is comprised of 25,000 tampons.  Tampons en masse have changed the context about menstrual products in art practices.  In contrast to Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom, (1971) which includes the semiotics of blood.  Vasconcelos constructs something beautiful out of an object from material culture that is associated with the abject.  The repetition of tampons conceptualises the notions of consumerism and control of women’s bodies.  Through repetition Vasconcelos achieves abstraction of these ideas so that the message is implicit.

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Red Flag, (1971) – Judy Chicago

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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.