Articles

Calm Down, Menstrual Blood Art Isn’t a Big Deal

by Hrag Vartanian on June 25, 2013

Art school grad Carina Úbeda Chacana unveiled her exhibition, Cloths, at the Center of Culture and Health in Quillota, Chile late last week and it was composed of a display of five years of her own menstrual fluid along with dangling apples meant to represent her ovulation. As part of the hanging display, Chacana stitched the words “Production,” “Discard,” and “Destroyed” below each of the stains.

While art world watchers are probably not surprised by the concept or the execution, the mainstream world still reacts with shock at the thought that anyone would consider menstrual blood or a woman’s menstrual cycle the subject or material for art.

Ingrid Berthon Moine's Red is the colour (2009) series invited women to pose in front of the camera without makeup and were solely presented with menstrual blood on their lips as if it were lipstick. (via ingridberthonmoine.com)

Ingrid Berthon Moine’s Red Is the Colour (2009) series invited women to pose in front of the camera without makeup and were solely presented with menstrual blood on their lips as if it were lipstick. (via ingridberthonmoine.com)

London’s Daily Mail published one of the first stories about the show in the English-speaking world and their commenters seem outraged, with one Floridian commenter with the handle redhigheels55 exclaiming: ”Not art! Just disgusting and scary to think that the public would go for something so nauseating.”

Gawker’s Neetzan Zimmerman went one step further than the Daily Mail article and titled his post, “Woman Puts Five Years of Menstrual Blood on Display at ‘Art Show’,” using scare quotes around the all important term ‘art show’ — it isn’t really art, he seems to suggest in his typical boorish style.

Others were even more repulsed, but on the internet, where people can comment under a perceived veil of anonymity, that’s not very surprising.

What many people may not realize is that there’s a long history of female artists, I have to admit that I don’t know a single male artist in this category, who use menstrual blood in their art. In fact, there’s even a name for it nowadays, Menstrala. The term was coined by artist Vanessa Tiegs and has been adopted by a few bloggers and Livejournal groups, though has yet to cross over into mainstream acceptance.

The topic has even been the subject of reviews, essays, discussions, and art history. Last month, writing in Guernica, EJ Dickson explained the expected responses to Menstrala:

If you look on the Internet at menstrual artists’ websites, the negative responses to their work generally fall into one of two camps: people either find it disgusting and unhygienic, or they think it is hippy-dippy feminist nonsense.

I asked Dickson why she thought many people continue to be repulsed by the notion of Menstrala:

I guess I understand why some people would be squeamish about menstrual art, just as they’d be squeamish about artists using other bodily fluids (urine, semen, etc.) in their work. What I don’t understand is why menstrual art produces such a uniquely visceral response, particularly in men. When I told my male friends I was reporting this piece [on Menstrala for Guernica], they all reacted with abject disgust, even though a lot of these dudes were art history nerds and were familiar with Andres Serrano, Damien Hirst, the Italian dude who canned his own shit whose name I forget, etc. This was in stark contrast to my female friends, who mostly responded with a mixture of curiosity and even awe (like “wow, I wish I was brave enough to do that”).

I think people continue to be repulsed by menstrual art because menstruation is one of the last taboos in our culture. For some reason (I’m betting on sexism), people are totally OK with having every other bodily function out in the open (I’m thinking of the dog semen-eating scene in Van Wilder specifically, but I’m sure I could find more culturally relevant examples, but the concept of women bleeding out of their vaginas assaults our delicate sensibilities. Nobody wants to hear about it, let alone see it. And women who do menstrual art are thrusting it in people’s faces and forcing them to see it. Which is not to say that I think all menstrual art is good, or even important. But you have to admit, it’s pretty ballsy.

So, here we are again, confronted with sexism that allows us to watch a 2002 film of a frat brother eat dog semen as comedy gold but menstrual fluid continues to gross people out. When Piero Manzoni packaged his feces into cans in the 1960s or when Warhol urinated on paintings in the 1970s or 80s, the shock eventually dissipated, but women using menstrual fluid continues to raise eyebrows even though it has been going on for decades.

Judy Chicago, "Menstruation Bathroom" (1972) (via periodtumblr.tumblr.com)

Judy Chicago, “Menstruation Bathroom” (1972) (via periodtumblr.tumblr.com)

In 1972, Judy Chicago’s “Menstruation Bathroom” installation featured a bin overflowing with bloodied menstrual products, it was part of a generation of works that probed feminist ideals of women’s art, women’s lives, and the blurring of the boundaries between private and public. Fastforward 40 years and simply being a woman and revealing the natural processes of the female body continues to be a revolutionary act in some circles. The fight for women to assert their bodies on their own terms as a central subject continues.

The evolution of art that uses menstruation fluid has not been a smooth road, Dickson explains the perception quite succinctly in her Guernica essay:

When Chicago’s piece was first exhibited, menstrual-themed art was considered subversive, an innovative way of bringing a social taboo to the forefront of cultural conversation. Yet it has since acquired a reputation as a pretentious gimmick, intended solely for shock value. The satirical Wikipedia website Encyclopedia Dramatica, for instance, has an entry on menstrual painting, calling it “the practice where women paint shitty, terrible pictures … and get asspats for being liberated.” Menstrual art’s reputation as an amateurish gimmick was cemented with the 2001 cult film Ghost World, in which a dippy art teacher (Ileana Douglas) praises a dimwitted student’s final piece, a tampon in a teacup. “It’s a response to a woman’s right to choose, which is something I feel super-strongly about,” the student cheerily says.

South African artist Zanele Muholi's "Ummeli" (2011) us a digital print on cotton rag of a digital collage of Menstrual blood stains. (via blankprojects.com)

Artist Zanele Muholi’s “Ummeli” (2011) is a digital print on cotton rag of a digital collage of menstrual blood stains. (via blankprojects.com)

People’s discomfort with menstrual blood is well documented, and it may have even been the cause of Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s divorce to his wife Effie Gray, and Pliny the Elder’s reference to it in his Natural History: A Selection makes you wonder if he ever even saw any:

“Contact with [menstrual blood] turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.”

In Lauren Rosewarne’s book Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television she outlines that there’s a “general cultural imperative to keep menstruation hidden, there is an even more specific demand to keep it hidden from men” (italics hers). She also explains, early in her book, that psychologists acknowledge that the experience is shrouded in secrecy for women but some are quick to point out that the concealment is a reinforcement of the stigmatization of menstruation. Hence, many pop cultural references — and even art works like Chicago’s, I might add — that deal with the topic of menstruation relegate the bodily function to the bathroom, which is a space that is often gendered and segregated. More recent work, at least in the art world, often removes the connotation of a bathroom into a more neutral space like the gallery’s white box — is this part of the coming out of Menstrala into a more public space?

While in pop culture menstruation is often mentioned, usually in a negative light, it is noticeable that menstrual blood is seldom present. The presence of blood can even be perceived as dangerous, as this Russian Tampax commercial suggests:

In contrast to its absence in pop culture, in the art world, menstrual blood tends to be front and center in discussions of menstruation. Perhaps it is our culture’s fascination with making the hidden processes of the world transparent or our need to examine what others choose to ignore. As artist Vanessa Teigs explained in an interview, “Menstrala simply reminds us that menstrual blood is not invisible, not to women. Menstrual blood is the only blood that is non-violent.” She goes on in another interview to explain that some research suggests our reactions to menstruation are more deep seeded than we might realize and that the words ritual and taboo both derive from the bodily function (“ritual come from r’tu, meaning menstruation in Sanskrit and the word taboo comes from tapua, meaning sacred in Polynesian.”).

Maybe these Menstrala artists know that there is power in revealing something that is considered mysterious, and only when the shock is gone will people simply get over it.

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  • gerryvisco

    Hurray for menstruation!!!

  • harpoandray

    as an artist and feminist, menstrual blood caught on a cloth and showing it is overdone — I would survive never seeing a bloody tampon that wasn’t mine ever again. But the example of painting menstrual blood on lips and photographing is pretty ingenious and is something else entirely. It’s a provocative medium and it should be used wisely.

    as for the rest of the developed world, after all of us and our children die, people will continue having a problem with menstrual blood…

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      No one is saying you can’t dislike seeing it, the issue is the irrational response to it and where that comes from.

      • JudithBraun

        the response doesn’t seem so irrational or different from how people respond to snot, or vomit, or mucous, or feces. There are natural reasons to be put off by these excremental bodily substances, including that they sometimes smell badly or are unhealthy to ingest or touch. I realize that some fears and repugnances are cultural, and obviously that women have been treated differently(duh!)….but I don’t see presenting menstrual blood in an art context as enlightening or progressive on these subjects.

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          Bring it up and you’ll see. A friend mentioned to me last night that at a recent poetry reading when the topic of menstrual fluid came up people freaked and didn’t know what to do with the poem, even though the previous poem was about vomit and people seemed completely open to it.

          And I think it’s unfair to generalize about the “smell” aspect. None of the projects I discuss or depict have a “smell” … those are usually projects done by amateurs who do it badly, which may be part of the problem of the perception of menstrual blood-related works.

          Unhealthy to touch? Based on what? That doesn’t sound like science.

          • JudithBraun

            Granted….responses to menstrual fluid may freak people out more than vomit, (personally, I don’t feel like hearing poetry about either!) and we do know the cultural history of menstruation is darker, so that’s not a big revelation. I’m just examining my own reaction to it, and looking for other rationale. Menstruation is unique to a group and maybe there’s an instinctive privacy response(?) Vomit is something everyone relates to directly. Even semen is very closely shared with both men and women. Menstruation reminds me of more insider conversation that is ok within a group but not for everyone. Like Jews, Blacks, Gays, for example, have insider discourse. I feel a kind of protectiveness about women and our bodies. Art, of course, is free realm to put this stuff out there, but most of it seems pretty heavy handed, to me. Re: smell and unhealthy to touch, I’m just speculating based on how nature warn us to stay away from some things. I certainly don’t mean to support the old stigma about women during menstruation!

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            I think Zanele Muholi’s series, illustrated above, pushes beyond that insidery conversation, though I don’t think the Chilean students work does — though again, I haven’t seen it.

          • JudithBraun

            I agree… I think because you can look at the work visually without getting hit over the head with a message. Overly political work often defeats its supposed purposes that way.

      • harpoandray

        Yes, I got that from reading the article — I just thought it was worthy to remark that some ” Menstrala” art is better executed by using menstrual blood in inventive ways. The article definitely wan’t telling me “what to like.”

        AAAAND unless you get a period — see it every month, feel the diarrhea-like cramps, get nearly suicidal during PMS, overfill a tampon, see a blood clot the size of your iPhone, throw countless nice panties to a burn pile, and see relationships affected all because of a period, then I need to argue that you’re not experiencing the whole picture. The “irrational” repulsion (which you comment come mostly from women) probably has more to do with the associations to the physical and mental stages of shedding something from one’s organs. That’s where the “irrational” responses “comes from” as you asked. Women dislike (putting it lightly) their periods. Name one woman who likes getting it. Relief, maybe. Another woman mentioning she’s on her period and you can expect to get a commiserating sigh…

        I think you’re trying to argue (with out stating overtly) that this repulsion comes from plain old sexism, but don’t discount that, blankly, menstruation fucking sucks. and you use the term “mysterious?” Is it because you don’t get a period, just curious? I don’t think it’s mysterious. It feels like a murderous nuisance, but it’s a biological necessity . . . and I can handle it. I can embrace it for deeper meanings in an art exhibitions, but please, make me see it differently!

        • Anna Wilson

          As a fellow female, I disagree. I think menstruation is sacred and beautiful and it has a cosmic significance in my life. Think of how the earth works in cycles all around us! It’s so gorgeous to realize that my body is in tune with the earth because just like the full and new moon,my menstrual tides wax and wane through the month. My period has spiritual significance to me, it is the time that my body renews itself and re-forms my womb, re-creating the very possibility of life! Yes, I get menstrual cramps and other pains, and yes, I do bleed a somewhat heavy amount (think 6-7 days), but you cannot speak for all women when you say that periods suck, unfortunately, because I think menstrual blood art reflects a uniquely female experience and make it a bit more universal.

          • harpoandray

            I agree. My language got hyperbolic. It’s refreshing to hear this perspective.

          • Anna Wilson

            No worries sis! You do your thing :)

  • Lisa Derrick

    Ron Athey, who is very much a man, used menstrual blood in an installation related to his 1994 performance Hallelujah. The blood was collected form his lady friends.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Fantastic, thank you! I didn’t know that.

    • Kim Matthews

      Oh, right–he was one of the poster children along with Mapplethorpe for the anti-NEA crusade. This kind of feminist art makes me yawn. Our predecessors did it for us so we don’t have to.

  • electricshepherd15

    as a man who has been with a lot of women, this is not shocking at all. I’ve been married, removed tampons, gone down on lots of women during their periods, emptied lots of bathroom trashcans soaked with it. These are beautiful art works and derive directly from the lives of women. This comes from the (now older) theoretical obsession with the body that so many feminist artists were doing about 20+ yrs ago. If art reflects all aspects in the lives of humans, then it’s valid. It’s another question entirely whether it’s meaningful to people at large. The artists are trying to make strong statements and, being young, think they are breaking new ground. Women, the subject-matter of painting? – here’s a new way to do that.

    “Even the Venus of Urbino menstruated, as women know, and men forget.”
    (- Lisa Tickner)

    This art is being factual about that.

  • Yuri

    yes, it´s provocative but was it the main goal that the artist was following with this project? I can´t get it..

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I don’t many art school projects aim to be provocative in general, but this project seems to have a message. I don’t know if it any good (I have not seen it in person) but I think the reaction to it is more intriguing than the project anyway IMO.

      • Yuri

        to draw attention with disgusting and ugly themes is not too difficult, but to draw attention with the beauty is extremely complicated…. of course it finds response in the society, because many are shocked both negatively and positively.

  • Lady Ann

    I don’t think it’s a male/female thing, like Dickson says, though that may be her personal experience. Spilled blood provokes a human instinctual visceral response. It’s involuntary and necessary for survival. If you see blood on a sidewalk, you should be shocked…and maybe run like hell. For my personal taste, all bodily fluids are not my go-to artistic mediums. But, to each their own and I’d certainly defend anyone’s right to do so.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I agree with you that I don’t think it’s gender-based, because some of the strongest reactions seem to come from women, but others disagree. I do think we’re programmed to have a strong reaction to it though that is disproportionate to the reality. I don’t think people react the same way to blood, for instance.

      • Lady Ann

        Yeah, tabu voodoo stuff. It’s been ever thus.

  • Stephanie Leitch

    Slight mis-quote in the Ghost World reference. The work the student refers to as “a response to a woman’s right to choose” is a bent wire hanger. The tampon in a teacup piece is later in the film and is praised by the art teacher as being a “shocking image of repressed femininity”.

  • M.G.

    MARLBORO PAD, 7.5″x2.75″x.75″, sanitary pad, gouache, 1997.

  • Apelles1

    I’m really taken with the photograph by Ingrid Moine- Red is the colour. It is beautiful, eerie and poignant, it is one of the few times perhaps only,I have been drawn to a work that uses menstrual blood as a material or subject. Even though it may be emotionally loaded, menstrual blood as an art material is rather uninspired , as it oxidizes quickly and what remains is a dingy dull dark brown /red that is somewhat like rust but even more drab. I would even go as far to say that much menses based art is so in name only for emotional impact, as this blood as a material is both very difficult to use and does not last.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I think you’re right about most menstrual blood-related art but that’s true about art in general, right? Most is awful, but when an artist breaks through to provide an original understanding, isn’t it great? I like both projects by Ingrid Berthon Moine and Zanele Muholi. I think they’re both strong and it is interesting that neither exhibit real blood rather than representations of the menstrual blood.

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