Bloody Women Artists

Article by Ruth Green-Cole /
Enjoy Journal /
2016 /
Click here to view original /

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
Kubota’s Vagina Painting (1965), Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975) and Ana Mendieta’s Body Tracks (1974) (as well as subsequent homages by Schneemann and Nancy Spero to the aforementioned Body Tracks) show a spatial and metaphorical use of paint as gendered blood through female expression. In a subjugation of Abstract Expressionism, artists like Kubota used an intermingling of painting and performance to demonstrate that women have a voice within art making and to demarcate a space for women as a (re)action against the dominant ideologies surrounding painting. Artworks such as Kubota’s Vagina Painting and Schneemann’s Meat Joy (1964) destabilised the conventions of art history and criticism, paving the way for widespread feminist art making.
Judy Chicago’s depictions of menstruation, Red Flag (1971) and Menstruation Bathroom (1971-2), have became some of the most documented art works visualising menstruation in popular culture, alongside Schneemann’s Interior Scroll—the canonical performance of vulvic space—which has now become the ultimate anti-classical sealed body presentation.8 There were however, other important blood prints from the seventies; Schneemann’s BLOODWORK DIARY (1972) and Judy Clark’s Menstruation (1973), as well as occasions of menstrual performance; Catherine Elwes’ Menstruation I andMenstruation II (1979), which were performances of horizontal, blood inscriptions created through processes of bleeding, drawing and writing.9 Through performance, bloodletting or painterly gestures incorporating a trace of the body, we also have Marina Abramović, Gina Pane, Ana Mendieta, and later Orlan. These artists all inscribed their blood as gendered, ultimately demarcating a space for contemporary visualisations of menstruation. In the seventies it was important to draw attention to (and be proud of) issues and topics, such as menstruation, that had been swept under the rug. Looking forward, has anything changed substantially? Do artists dealing with menstruation within contemporary art have something new to say, or are they still struggling to get patriarchal societies to own up to their prejudices surrounding menstruation? What contribution will visualising menstruation have to social change?Artworks that deal with menstruation in many different ways are important because they work against negative stereotypes and actively re-value gendered blood;10 showing it in a positive, defiant or ambiguous light. Contemporary three-dimensional works by Tracey Emin, Amy Jenkins, Joana Vasconcelos, Shilpa Gupta and Allyson Mitchell unpack and challenge dominant behavior and the expectations made of women concerning the visibility of menstruation. Contemporary art works made by these artists utilise menstruation to express ideas of gendered space, taboo, abjection, lived experience and social-cultural inequality. To discuss these works Foucault’s notion of heterotopias becomes a useful and productive framework.11 Most importantly, his account of heterotopia places menstruation into a kind of neutral, liminal space; a transitory space in which women are situated through cyclic reproductive states of being.Foucault defines his concept of heterotopias as, “[a] sort of simultaneously mythic and real contestation of the space in which we live.”12 Therefore, heterotopias, in contrast to fictional utopias, are actual spaces, which exist outside of or within the society that produced them, such as isolated or restricted areas, jails or hospitals. Cemeteries and ships, carnivals and circuses are ambivalent spaces whilst also being spaces of otherness and difference, where abjected and rejected bodies are made to reside. These physical heterotopias are spaces that create room for displaced bodies to act. Understood in this way, heterotopias are evolving spaces of positive transgression that can transform into constructive spaces, so that marginalised people can act inside them in order to rupture or recode these spaces.

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.

Ebb, the presentation of menstruation and a bathtub in a gallery, traces its linage from Womanhouse (1971), initiated by Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro with a group of students from CalArts’ Feminist art program. This project aimed to to make visible the segregation of social space in society. Within this larger installation in an abandoned mansion in a residential street in Hollywood, Chicago was responsible for creating Menstruation Bathroom, a room installed with an abundant variety of sealed, unsealed and used sanitary products. The rubbish bin inside this room was full of pads and tampons that threatened to overflow onto the floor in an excessive manner. The immersive artwork was designed to challenge both men’s and women’s assumptions about the female body. As menstruation is typically experienced in a bathroom, the very act of menstruation in bathrooms engenders the space itself. The bathroom then becomes a heterotopic site where abjected and rejected female bodies are confined to ‘deal’ with ‘dirty’ processes. Society enforces a menstrual etiquette centred around two main rules: concealment and cleanliness. Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroomdeviates from these two major rules. As Carol Ockman recollected after visiting Menstruation Bathroom at the Womanhouse project: “I was shocked and I loved it … the irony in this piece—pristine and messy—the fact the female body can’t be contained.”17 The central focus of this installation was the overflowing and “period-ed”18 rubbish bin of used sanitary products. Lauren Rosewarne, author of Periods in Pop Culture, reported that this work was likely to be the first time that used menstrual products left the private sphere of the bathroom to be seen in the public space of the art world.19 Menstruation Bathroom openly portrays what it means to enter the personal and heterotopic space of a gendered bathroom.In a similar way, Emin’s seminal work My Bed (1999) emulates her personal space into a sequestered construct, the art gallery. Positioning her private space in a public domain, Emin challenges society’s understanding of what it means to have a normal female body and society’s construction of humiliation towards woman’s bassesse (base materialism), a term used by Georges Bataille.20 In amongst the debris that littered Emin’s My Bed installation was blood stained sheets, underwear and condoms, which implied that menstrual sex had occurred. The work was not specifically about menstrual sex; it was about a lived-in bedroom in a broader sense, one where intra-menstrual intercourse may have taken place. Intercourse during menstruation is one of societies severest taboos as Julia Kristeva asserts, “[t]aboo is the concept that belongs to societies or social practices that make a strong distinction between sacred and profane. The notion of a taboo generates rules against crossing borders,”21 namely spatial segregation and isolation of periods during menstruation.There is also another transition, more specifically within the heterotopia of adolescence, between child and adult. For the female adolescent, in her transition to womanhood, the heterotopia evolves as a double bind. Menarche occurs during adolescence and continues from then on until menopause. The transition to womanhood ceases at the onset of menarche, which in early modern England marked a transition of status, making a young woman marriageable. “After menarche, the bleeding that was occasioned by beginning a sexual relationship formally marked a social transition from maid to wife, a change which was often recorded by woman themselves as a change in their ‘condition’, meaning both physically and socially. This was normally followed by a post-partum flow that marked the transition into motherhood.”22 Sara Read discusses these as ‘occasions of transitional bleeding’ that mark a female’s changing status in society.Read’s account of early modern English women’s marriageability after menarche and position as wife upon defloration is still significant in many traditional communities and societies. It is important for women in these communities to marry early for fear for becoming a burden on their family. Elaborate ceremonies take place, which are also statements of family wealth and status. Joana Vasconcelos’ 600x350x350cm chandelier installation A Noiva (The Bride) (2001-2005) takes the chandelier—a large statement of glamour and sophistication—and signifies the feminine with its delicate construction. Vasconcelos’ chandelier engages the viewer with its gargantuan scale and draws them in to reveal that its detailed construction is comprised of twenty-five thousand tampons. Using tampons en masse again changes the way menstrual products have been contextualised in art practices. In contrast to Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom, which includes the semiotics of blood, Vasconcelos constructs her chandelier out of an object from material culture that is associated with the abject. The repetition of tampons conceptualises notions of consumerism and control of women’s bodies.
Through repetition Vasconcelos achieves abstraction of these ideas to create an implicit message, stating that, “I somehow manage to translate lo-cult into hi-cult. By combining something banal, something quotidian and worthless with the concept of modern sculpture.”23 The tampon is a mass-produced product, but it does not exsist in the homes of women in many countries. The artist acknowledges in an interview that, although menstruation is universal, is not thought of the same way in every country.24 For example, a man Vasconcelos met in Istanbul made it clear to her that the tampon has an additional meaning: “In this man’s culture, the tampon is frowned upon, seen as something that causes infection and destroys a woman’s virginity.”25 Vasconcelos considers the tampon a banal object, however in Istanbul tampons are concealed from view, not talked about, and have to be purchased at the chemist inconspicuously for fear of embarrassment. In his book Symbols and Action, Ian Hodder discusses how material culture can act as a measure of an ideology of power, whereby the supremacy of older men is justified and supported. “Individual artifact types may be used to emphasise or deny, to maintain or disrupt, ethnic distinctions or networks of information flow.”26 In this case, the difficulty in purchasing menstrual products is indicative of disingenuous information control.The constructed chandelier also represents the union of a man and a virgin bride, a highly desirable social position. Vasconcelos has ironically emphasised this through the associations of unused tampons as clean and therefore supposedly virginal. The link between menstruation and femininity is further emphasised by the location in which A Noiva has been exhibited. The various large salons and gallerias that have hosted this work serve to further de-construct and re-construct notions of class, beauty and femininity. On the artists’ website, a documentary video layers slow moving cinematography accompanied by The Blue Danube waltz by Johann Stauss II.27 The phenomenological experience of being with this work, accompanied by refined music in a space of reverence, enhances a paradoxical message of cleanliness and uncleanliness, virgin bride and promiscuous women.Vasconcelos’ A Noiva may serve to glamorise menstruation by using the tampon a synecdoche for menstruation, referring to blood without actually depicting blood. Viewing menstruation as a dirty and unclean process has had extreme benefits for a capitalist consumerist culture. Multinational corporations that endorse the use of ‘sanitary’ products to make financial gains simultaneously make use of and underpin negative messages about menstruation. Generic advertisements for washing powder, amongst other sanitary related advertisements, employ slogans about the products ability to remove bloodstains. These are dominant messages within advertising and consumer culture imply that women need help to “liberate them from their enslavement to their bodily processes”28 and that they should contain and control any embarrassing leaky incidents.
Instead of encouraging women to sanitise or hide the process of menstruation, Indian artist Shilpa Gupta requested that her family and friends get more involved with their flow of menstrual blood. In her 2001 Untitled (Period) installation on menstruation, she gave packages to her family in Mumbai and colleagues in France, containing cloths, a pair of scissors and a plastic sachet.29 She requested that participants stain the cloths with their menstrual blood. After the cloths dried, she asked the contributors to cut along the edges of the stains, place them in the plastic sachet, and return them to the artist. Gupta exhibited the menstrual cloths, attaching them across a wall and table randomly to form a right angle. The menstrual fabric installation was accompanied by the project’s instructions in a vitrine, and two videos; the first displayed images of three white pajama pants hanging in the Indian sun, and the second showed footage of a hand carefully stitching menstrual stained cloths onto said white pajamas. The cutting and stitching catharsis and the seemingly ‘unhygienic’ nature of the work disappear as it becomes impossible to distinguish whose blood is whose. The artist talks about the idea that the cutting of the stains by each participant became meditative, allowing the women the change her relationship to the object and her treatment of her own menstrual blood.Gupta explained she was seeking to provoke a transgression for those who choose to become proactive and engage with the work.30 In using the term engagement Gupta is referring to more than just visiting the gallery, she references the active participants who helped develop the formal elements of the installation during which the boundary between the public and the artist disappeared. The process is fluid and interactive, as the viewer becomes at once active participant and voyeur. On another level, the sense of individualism disappears as different blood comes together and mixes, trespassing on patriarchal notions of contamination and the sharing of bodily fluids.Women in India are refused access to some religious temples and monuments if they are menstruating (depending on which Hindu or other religious traditions they follow). Gupta recalls a common practice where she was refused entry to a place of worship as a schoolgirl and consequently had to wait outside. Historically menstruating women were also banned from the kitchen, but as Gupta puts it, she “confronted these issues directly as she wondered how such mechanisms are used to perpetuate categorisations, which in turn justify a certain behavior.”31 Her menstrual installation is aimed at making people question the myths and discrimination around menstruating women, but also to challenge women’s own internal sedimentation about the way they think, feel and act about menstrual blood. Menstrual regulations in India are still prevalent, and exist largely around the societal taboos that make menstruation unspeakable, not to mention invisible, even amongst women.Historically and in some cultural traditions, during menstruation women were either divided by menstrual huts, or were allowed to move about freely but must conceal their blood. In modern society we mostly conform to the latter. As a remnant of a taboo status these “[d]ominant norms in advanced industrial societies affirm that women should have the same opportunities to do anything that men do, but at the same time force women to conceal their menstruation.”32 Conforming and hiding are what Young refers to as ‘living in the menstrual closet’. Certain rules must be obeyed to ‘protect’ society from the abject and leaky body. Young states “[w]omen as menstruators live through a split-subjectivity insofar as we claim the public face of normalcy and a fear of exposure of the private fluidity of our flesh.”33 This requires an act of concealment, as the default body is assumed to be a body that does not bleed unless it is injured. Young speaks about the paradox of enacting normalcy in the face of being deviant. The menstruating woman in society is forced to be dishonest, to ‘act normal’ and pretend she is not menstruating. As Young goes onto suggest, we can liken a menstruating woman to hiding in the closet. “It seems apt, then, in this normatively masculine, supposedly gender-egalitarian society, to say that the menstruating woman is queer.”34 Looking at menstruating women with a queer perspective highlights the multiplicity of ways in which people are made to feel ashamed or who are positioned as strange as a consequence of their being or actions. The problem lies with the idea of ‘normal.’35Menstrual huts and separation and seclusion rituals are, as Foucault suggests, crisis heterotopias; however, they are also gendered heterotopias that feminist artists have reclaimed to be creative spaces for making visible women’s marginalised bodies. Assistant Professor of Women Studies at York University Allyson Mitchell is a maximalist36 practitioner working in the fields of sculpture, installation, film and performance. Her practice focuses on feminism and pop culture, examining ideas about sexuality, queer theory and the body. Mitchell does this predominantly through reclaiming fibre and textile craft as materials that have been traditionally associated with female domestic labour. The craft tradition recalls the domestic labour of American and European women over the last two hundred years.37 Mitchell’s practice involves creating spaces for the marginalised, such as her 150 square feet Menstrual Hut Sweet Menstrual Hut (2010).38 This ostentatious textile-lined installation was created as a space for viewers to retreat to watch Mitchell’s films Afghanimation (2008) and My Life in Five Minutes (2000). The leisure activity of watching television, combined with the historical association of the menstrual hut, makes this installation a space of otherness; a heterotopic space inside a gallery.Simultaneously a place of banishment and cozy refuge, Mitchell’s menstrual hut is a space for the displaced to be seen in public. Her menstrual theatre screened films that investigate the way the female body has been treated by the self and patriarchal powers. My Life in Five Minutes is an autobiographical memoir concerning the body. Mitchell refers humorously and self-demoralisingly to the social pressures to conform to normative behaviour and standards of heterosexuality.Afghanimation is a film that critiques Canada’s involvement with Afghanistan and illustrates how the female body has been politicised. It does this by concentrating on a hand woven rug depicting an image of an Afghani women surrounded by tanks and grenades. Menstrual Hut Sweet Menstrual Hut was exhibited as part of a group exhibition of video and experimental film called FIERCE: Women’s Hot-Blooded Film/Video at the McMaster Museum of Art, McMaster University, Canada. The group show featured Mitchell and three other female artists, Maureen Bradley, Dana Claxton, and b. h. Yael, who are considered to be at the forefront of Canadian-based media production and video installation. Interestingly, Mitchell’s menstrual hut creates a space for menstruation without using the semiotic of blood. Whilst the exhibition title might imply women’s blood, it was only present in references to each artist as hot-blooded and feisty, and thematically acknowledged by Mitchell’s work, Menstrual Hut Sweet Menstrual Hut. It could be argued, then, that this work shows an element of self-censorship by withdrawing the visualisation of menstrual blood from the work.Spatial art practices such as Chicago, Emin and Mitchell’s actively transform personalised and marginalised bodily functions, making them centre stage in order to spatialise and sustaining the affective and immersive aspects of menstruation. Furthermore, the sequestered space is no longer the space it was before. If an object is put in the ‘wrong place’, two things occur; the element displaced is ‘matter out of place’ and the place left behind is altered.39 Consequently, a new space is created, a space that allows marginalisation to be made visible. Chicago, Emin and Mitchell have created a new visual discourse about menstruation, which critiques the way modern industrial societies manage menstrual taboos.

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.