“Casting Off My Womb,” Casey Jenkins
Performance art has always been a bit out there as an art genre. But when the term Vaginal Knitting was coined recently, the world seemed to take notice. Knitting needles, wool and a vulva are not items regularly grouped together, at least not in public, so we could be forgiven for gawking. In fact, perhaps a statement like that is worth a good hard stare. Since so much performance art seems to involve getting your gear off, it’s intriguing to discover that it’s not really all about sex…
Nudity is nothing new, of course, and on that score, two dimensional art can be shocking too. The confrontational gaze of the prostitute in Manet’s Olympia caused a scandal when it was first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865. But the naked form in real time can be used to agitate and question our innermost beliefs and prejudices in a way that is different to a static naked body in a picture. Perhaps, because it can answer back, take action and manipulate other objects.
If you’re thinking that performance art sounds similar to activism you could be right. The Melbourne-based artist that inspired the Vaginal Knitting phrase to be coined, Casey Jenkins, calls herself a craftivist. The piece she performed in 2013 entitled, Casting Off My Womb, involved the artist sitting in an art gallery for 28 days and knitting a scarf from wool that she pulled from her vagina. She hoped that by producing something associated with cosiness and comfort, from a place that some people view either as source of arousal or disgust, the public might soften any preconceived notions and finally accept women’s bits as natural. Not to mention making a metaphor about female genitalia being a wholesome source of creativity for their owner rather than simply a source of sexual pleasure for others.
You would have thought that the ability to pop out a baby should be the ultimate proof of womanhood as creative. The Brooklyn based performance artist, Marni Kotak, even went so far as to give birth in a gallery in 2011 for her, ahem, labored work entitled, The Birth of Baby X, to prove the point. But the notion that we have a collective inability to unite all the functions of our nether regions and celebrate them whole, has been providing female performance artists with fodder for decades. Clearly, we’re still evolving, and slowly.
Back in 1975, the American performance artist Carolee Schneemann performed her work, Interior Scroll, where she pulled, you guessed it, a scroll from her vagina and read from it in an effort to demonstrate that lady parts are a site of knowledge, not a cause for exclusion. In doing so she started a conversation about women reclaiming their bodies from idealized notions of what it should be. And the chat hasn’t stopped since. Jenkins is simply one of the latest in a long line of artists who is talking about defying our ick factor and accepting that a woman can give birth, have sex, masturbate, and menstruate. In fact, Jenkins knitted right on through her time of the month just to make the point.
When it comes to the other ‘m’ word that just slipped in there, it’s still anything but acceptable to utter in polite society, much less admit to doing. Taking control of your own pleasure and eschewing shame about it was the idea behind Christine Cha’s 2013 Rub Out art mission. No, this did not involve a bunch of women masturbating together in public, but a public service announcement type of invitation to touch one of 1000 squares on a wall at Kraine Gallery in New York City. This probably seemed a more poignant method of getting the point across, because it would be easy to mistake a woman masturbating in public as pornographic rather than proving that women are entitled to have ownership over their own bodies. So, the performance art aspect of this piece seems to lay in the call to action activism and the audience participation, instead of getting naked and creating a spectacle.
In 2015, Mirabelle Jones did use herself as a spectacle when she made her passionate statement about catcalling in her piece, To Skin a Catcaller. The artist and activist got so fed up with the prevalence of this type of harassment on the streets of San Francisco, and the associated risk for women, that she stripped to her underwear and stalked in a display window for 8 hours while recorded yet real sexual heckles, played non-stop (“Nice tits honey”, “Stuck up bitch”, "I’m going to follow you home and f**k you in your sleep”). Nice. Despite drawing attention to the fact that it’s still common that a woman walking down a street minding her own business can be casually commented upon without invitation, apparently the point was still lost on some - one man stood and licked his lips at her for a full ten minutes.
“To Skin a Catcaller,” Mirabelle Jones
So, the conversation continues. Performance art is still addressing the theme of the objectification of women, because it’s still current. What was shocking about women’s bodies in the 70’s, still seems to be shocking today. When we get over it, performance artists might just put their clothes back on. Until then, why not just join the cause to naturalise our nudity.... In 2015, the National Gallery of Australia, in the nation’s capital of Canberra, offered visitors the opportunity to get their gear off and take a tour naked. Why? Because we all share the same humanity. It’s time to be the art!
Photograph: Christo Crocker. Source: National Gallery of Australia
Written by Skye Wellington