During the first year of my formal art studies I became aware of feminist art, and in particular feminist performance art. It was while researching land art that I discovered the powerful Silueta series (1973-1980) by Ana Mendieta (1948-1985). Although, as I have mentioned in a previous blog, it was quite natural for me to seek out feminine role models, having been raised in the company of women, I was fascinated by these warrior-women. In awe of their feminine power, I was inspired by their bravery and the multi-layered complexity and beauty of their performance pieces. Here I refer in particular to Ana Mendieta, Carolee Schneemann (1939- ), Mary Beth Edelson (1933- ), Hannah Wilke (1940-1993) and Marina Abramovi? (1946- ) whose work informed and underpinned my own right through to, and including, my third year performance of Gaze (2012). The following year, my honours year, I localised my research, focusing on South African performance artists for my dissertation paper, Counting teeth: in the presence of women and power-sensitive conversation; the feminist performance artist in South Africa as a study of post-structural ethnography (2013). The artists I studied were Bernie Searle (1964- ), Nandipha Mntambo (1982- ) and Leora Farber (1964- ). If you have never heard of these artists or looked at their work I highly recommend you take the time to acquaint yourself with them.
The reason I mention the above is to indicate that my main field of interest within my art studies and my own work is feminist performance art. This is of course an ongoing interest further fuelled by my Masters studies that I have undertaken. Through my studies I have encountered the performance piece, Casting Off My Womb (or as it is fondly known by the Australian press, Vaginal Knitting) by Melbourne based artist Casey Jenkins. Jenkins calls herself a “craftivist”, and founded Craft Cartel in 2007, an organization that seeks to combine crafting and political activism. Coined in 2003 by sociologist Betsy Greer, the term describes anyone using craft as a form of activism. They range from those using recycled materials as a way of reducing waste, to artists like Jenkins who challenge the traditional perception of crafts as women’s work and seek to use their art as a tool for political change. Jenkins claims that “craft imbues you with power because you’re forced to contemplate the issue you’re addressing. It’s very reflective in a sense of when you put that message out into the world, people know you must really care because you’ve devoted that much time to it,”. OK, my take on that? Alarm bells begin ringing immediately because I am aware that for centuries women artists have struggled to overcome that very label, “craft”, which was applied to their art. They were seen as embroiderers, crotchetiers, knitters and potters, their work not as art but as craft; pretty needlepoint made during their many hours of leisure at home to serve as decoration. So Jenkins wants to reclaim this? Well, as a woman it is her right, but it is my educated guess that many feminists will not too happy with her wanting to reclaim that for women.
In her performance piece she knits, pulling the wool from her vagina. The work obviously references Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975) as well as Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting (1962), where she daubed red paint with a brush between her legs in a repost to Pollock’s macho drippings with his phallic stick. At the centre of Schneemann’s piece was the extracting of a feminist discourse from her vagina and reading it to the audience standing naked on a table. In this way she not only commented on her treatment as an artist by males but also reclaimed the female body from the patriarchal gaze. Jenkins’ piece involves the artist spending 28 days (the average length of a menstrual cycle) knitting from a ball of wool that she has placed inside of her vagina each day. While she was menstruating, Jenkins says it became more difficult to knit because the wool was wet, and she had to tug on the thread a bit harder. Overall, though, she claims the process was slightly uncomfortable, but could also be arousing at times.
“The fact that [cunt’s] considered the most offensive word in the English language is a real marker of the time that we’re living and of the society’s attitude towards woman. There’s nothing possibly negative about it. It’s just a deep, warm and delightful part of the female anatomy,” Jenkins says.
“If you take a good hard look at a vulva, you realise it’s just a bit of a body,” she further declares, adding that “when I’m menstruating it makes knitting a hell of a lot harder because the wool is wet.” The wool itself is sometimes stained brownish red – a very visual and literal reminder of the reality of women’s bodies. And this is what many feminist performance artists do: self-objectify. Often it is this autonomy that threatens societies. These women use their own bodies to deconstruct the cultural, pornographic and misogynist objectification of the female body by men and the societies we exist within.
This is where Jenkins loses me though, when she goes on to say: ‘So by linking the vulva to something that people find warm and fuzzy and benign and even boring, such as knitting for a long period of time, I hope that people question their fears and the negative association with it.’ It is my opinion that the vagina/vulva as the source of creation should be revered and respected, so definitely no to identifying it with boring knitting and the mundane. I also think that she dilutes her concept by claiming that her performance refers to too many things, that it says more than it really does. “I think that there are misogynistic attitudes toward the vulva, and there’s widespread repulsion in my audacity to show it. And then there are also misogynistic attitudes toward knitting, as it’s associated with something that women do,” she explained. “There is a dissonance between the two. They’re both constructs, patriarchal constructs … and people don’t know what to do when they walk together.” She claims to draw inspiration not only from past feminist performances but “countless anonymous performers working in sex bars who are putting things in and out of their vulvas all the time. They’re not necessarily doing it to challenge the patriarchy but definitely as a conscious pragmatic way of exploiting the patriarchy, and so they’re just as much my colleagues or performers as anyone else.” See what I mean? I just want to shout out to her, “please stop talking about it, being defensive, allow your piece speak for itself.” Easier said than done, I certainly know and speak from experience. Passion, emotion and commitment are fantastic but they need to be backed-up by theoretical study and grounded in research. Otherwise you begin to grasp at anything in order to validate your work.
Look, Casey is by no means the first artist to utilise their genetalia or even menstruation in their work. Recently, Carina Ubeda, from Chile, a woman who spent five years collecting her menstrual blood on scraps of cloth turned the red-stained fabric into an art exhibition. She placed the fabric in embroidery hoops. In total there were 90 pieces of the soiled cloths hanging next to dangling apples which represent ovulation (and of course original sin in the Garden of Eden). Stitched below each of the stains were the words ‘Production’, ‘Discard’, and ‘Destroyed’.
For me if you are going to commit to conceptual art, the concept you present needs to be crystal, it needs to be a single, clear, lightning bolt to the psychosis/psyche of the viewer. Now by that I do not mean it needs to present itself as the culmination of art teleology (as the Modernist believed of Abstract Expressionism) or the final answer on the subject/contention you are addressing. I feel that art needs to engage the average person, to include them. It needs to stimulate dialogue, conversation with them. Otherwise it remains as elitist and othering as Western art almost always has been. Otherwise the only people the artist is speaking to are fellow artists or people educated in the arts. In saying all of the above I will give her props though. It is a helluva thing to put yourself out there in a performance art piece. It not just your art out there on display, not just your body, it is your soul out there. So do I think her piece relevant, absolutely. She has something to say and the courage say it and the vision to express it. The thing about performance art though is that it is always a work in progress, and it is this time after the performance where she is falling short, perhaps due to a lack of theoretical and conceptual underpinning. But nevertheless a courageous work of art in my opinion, in this my 100th post.