Article by Ruth Green-Cole /
Enjoy Journal /
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Spatial heterotopias are immersive spaces that position the viewer inside of them, through phenomenological considerations of the body in relation to space. For example, gendered heterotopias are commonly associated with domestic spaces and places; the den, man-cave, and workshop, can be considered gendered heterotopias. This is because they are real spaces that exist in reality; however, they are places specifically reserved for the male gender. Although anachronistic, female gendered spaces were traditionally the home, in particular rooms such as the kitchen, the laundry and the bathroom. Many artworks (which I will come back to) are spatial and have transgressed against or have productively worked through heterotopias.
Whilst previous mentions of heterotopic space are located in the physical realm, there is another heterotopic framework that Foucault considers a deviation from material heterotopias due to their cyclic liminality. These spaces are different from other material or physical spaces in that they occur in relation to reproduction: specifically, menstruation, pregnancy and lactation. Foucault elaborates:
[t]here is a certain form of heterotopia that I would call crisis heterotopias, i.e., there are privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis; adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, the elderly, etc.13
Crisis heterotopias differ from public spaces insofar as female bodily spaces are corporeal and cerebral spaces that have historically devised women’s social function. This culturally constructed set of rules determines normative behaviour or that which is made to appear normal.14 Signs of menstrual blood in public are considered deviant, as menstruation is something that women are taught to conceal from an early age. Even though menstruation is a natural phenomenon, many women associate menstruation with inconvenience and embarrassing leaky moments, only looking forward to their period’s arrival when they are concerned about pregnancy, or quietly mourn its cessation at the onset of menopause. Tracey Emin refers to the end of menstruation as the moment when her womb will become a ‘dry redundant bag’. In response to these sedimented ideas, Emin’s installation History of Painting Part 1 (1999)—which consists of morning after pills, pregnancy tests, a piece of writing about what it means to menstruate, five blood soaked tampons and tissue displayed in vitrines—actually situates bloodied tampons in a public space, a deviation from normative behaviour and a defiling of reified public spaces. In doing this, History of Painting Part 1 transforms what have previously been understood as the transcendent masculine spaces of the art gallery—and art history itself—to create an equivocal and polysemous heterotopia for art. Foucault’s concept of heterotopia is useful as a way to avoid the dualities of public and private, clean and unclean places, real and imaginary spaces where gender essentialism can result, especially when women are associated more with the second term mentioned in these dualities. Not only are biological processes restricted, contained or quarantined to marginal places associated with unclean and negative values, these places have then become women’s places. Foucault’s heterotopia destabilises such strictly defined spaces by suggesting that a fluidity between spaces and categories is possible.
American artist Amy Jenkins uses sculpture and video installation to displace notions of space and object. In her video projection work Ebb (1996) a miniature three-dimensional bathtub takes centre stage in a darkened room.15 The video loop begins with a fount of bloody water, which is projected from above onto the bathtub’s 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.16 The soundtrack that accompanies the video projection creates an atmosphere of privacy in an imaginary or pre-constructed bathroom. We hear the water echo as it splashes against the side of the tub, a faint tap drips and the breathing and sighing of the woman is accompanied by the underlying regularity of her heartbeat. It is a process of purification in reverse. Jenkins, fortified by her transfusion, submerges herself before stepping out of the bath and disappearing, leaving the viewer temporarily alone in the dark void of the gallery space. Visiting Ebb in the gallery, one experiences the phenomenological aspects of the work; from the darkened room, to peering down into a the world of a miniature tub, gazing at a naked menstruating woman in a moving projection, listening to a fluidic soundtrack, all of which evoke a sense of trespassing. Ebb has interesting parallels with Mona Hatoum’s Corps étranger (1994) and Deep Throat (1996), in which the internal is made visible with endoscopic footage of the body, showing a larger concern of deconstructing emotional reactions such as desire and revulsion. Artists such as Jenkins create gendered spaces in galleries to make visible marginalised lived experiences, and to spatially and phenomenologically challenge the viewer.
In a different way, Vasconcelos’ A Noiva underlines the management or control of menstruation, which has become domesticated and misinterpreted by different cultures. She uses the pop art methodologies of elevating the banal into sequestered spaces; as well as appropriating or subverting the everyday object and it’s realities, particularly those that concern the position of women in terms of class distinction and cultural identity. The subversion is also phenomenological as Vasconcelos’ work is temporal as well as spatial. For example, viewers must walk through the affective space of the installation in all of these works; a woman must be conscious of self while taking the time to do so. Importantly, the matter out of place becomes the male visiting this installation space. This undermines gender essentialism assigned to spatial coordinates, as the male visitor breaks the taboo by entering a space that has historically stigmatised women, the stigma is transferred onto him. The man is made to feel disorientated or queer—in Young’s terms—which in turn creates a queering of the space, as the male’s presence changes its function as a strictly segregated menstruation space. Traditionally, men are not used to art addressing them in this manner. In works such as Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom, Emin’s My Bed, and Vasconcelos’ A Noiva, men literally transverse a divide. As they walk into the space of stigma and taboo associated with menstruation, they are forced to renegotiate their own socially constructed gender.
It is important to keep in mind that there is not one right or correct way to understand what menstruation, menstrual blood and taboo mean. Nevertheless, it is important that artists should be allowed to analyse and expose how traditional structures of power can make people feel vulnerable and ashamed. In diverse and personal ways, the artists I have discussed share this common aim. Some artists, such as Emin, are content to use their art to critique how menstrual blood is made into gendered blood and associated with the stereotype of women as the weaker and inferior sex. This biological determinism remains unchallenged if assigned to the margins of the non-visible. Thus, their art functions as a social critique of gender essentialism merged with biological essentialism. Some artists go further and celebrate menstruation in their art as a way to turn stigma and shame into transgressive and creative acts. This causes some conflict, the kind characterised by the different traditions of feminism indebted to Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray. While Butler vehemently opposed gender essentialism and saw gender as a social and cultural construct that assigns negative traits to women, Irigaray was content to accept some of these traits—the female imaginary—and celebrate them as a way of creating that exsisted away from transgressing against patriarchy. It could be argued that this tension continues to exist in the multiplicity of approaches to menstruation in art. Still, it is important that, whatever approach one favors, such discursivity be aired in public, made visible and divested of any historical or habitual residues of shame or deference that favors models of decorum and femininity.