Casting Off My Womb is a 28 day performance piece first performed at the Darwin Visual Arts Association (DVAA) from October to November, 2013.
The performance consists of me sitting on a plain wooden chest in the gallery space and knitting from wool lodged in my vaginal tunnel, one skein of wool each day, to mark a full menstrual cycle. As the passage of knitting grows longer it is suspended from the ceiling on wire coat-hangers. As each day of knitting passes, a manual calendar is clicked over to mark the number of days remaining until the piece will be ‘cast off’.
It is a deliberately simple, pared back performance and was never intended to be accompanied by a directive or much commentary from me. This is because I believe that commonly held ideas about the vulva, menstruation and what a person with a body like mine should and shouldn’t create and desire, are themselves simple and base and I wanted to respond to those ideas rather that distract or deflect attention from their nature. Also I think words can sometimes restrict rather than illuminate, and that may be the case with this work. However, since a short video of the work was filmed and screened by television station SBS2 (with the title ‘Vaginal Knitting’), several people have contacted me asking for more information about my motivations behind the piece and my experience of it. So if adding text to artworks is your bag, I’m going to expand a little here, below the stills.
Casting Off My Womb was not intended as a video work, which is how most people who are reading this will have experienced it, however SBS2′s Vaginal Knitting documentation treated it with great care and consideration and captured its essence well.
The piece is designed to be one of subdued action, of quietude and even subtlety. Just writing the word ‘subtlety’ I can feel a spluttering tide rise up in response from many readers who will believe that the piece is the very opposite of that, but I’d say that their reaction comes from preconceived disturbed ideas about vulvae and menstruation, not because my work contains any moment of actual lurid drama.
Because it is such a slow-paced work the silences and space that run throughout it are just as important as the action. These silences give the audience room to inject their own visceral responses to the piece and the subject matter.
I’ll make note of a couple of those silent spaces here. For one thing, I’m not referencing anyone’s body but my own and at no point do I make an indelible connection between the vulva and the womb, and gender. In the video I refer to ‘parenthood’, a gender-neutral term, and there is no place in either the performance or the documentation that accompanies it that I state my own gender identity. I do not object to viewers making assumptions, our brains and language function on systems of categorisation, but they are their assumptions and definitions, not mine or my work’s. Women are all constructed differently and, for many, the vulva or a menstrual cycle are not present. For some trans*men and genderqueer people they are present. However, even if I don’t make a link between physical attributes and gender in my work, they’re links that the wider community do make; negative reactions towards the vulva and menstruation are hallmarks of misogyny and they are the reactions I want to address with this piece. Similarly, I do not define knitting as a gendered activity (actually I can’t think of any activity I’d define as intrinsically gendered), but the wider community in which I live does. Because this community is patriarchal and misogynistic the habitual association it has with knitting being ‘women’s work’ causes it to dismiss the technique as benign and unimportant.
In this piece I’m trying to draw the warped and misogynistic views about the vulva and menstruation into the open. I hope the dissonance between those views and the common warm or dismissive responses to knitting (also based on patriarchy-serving fallacies), will begin to break down both responses and the damaging ideas behind them, showing them to be absurd.
Another silent space in the piece is my queer identity. This was in fact noted on a plaque during the live performance but not included in the video by SBS2 and I’m now glad that it wasn’t because lordy lord! If the gay-bashers had gotten that into their arsenal on the chat-boards we might just have broken the internet. I’m glad it wasn’t included also because it wasn’t of primary significance to the work as others will perceive it, but it was of personal significance to me as I performed it. As I sat and knitted I was naturally considering how it came to be that the vagina is regarded so separately to all other body areas. The community is VERY concerned about what goes in and out of my vag! Check out the comments on Gawker! Personally though, I’m not that focussed on it. I consider my whole body to be a sexual organ (sometimes), treat all parts with the same sort of general care and consideration and don’t really have such a stringent hierarchy of bits. To me it seems the vaginal tunnel only really comes to take on great significance in a heteronormative context.
The work was a long and gentle process for me, during it I marked the rhythms of my body and made an assessment of what I intend to do with my body and my life, away from the hyperbole of public expectations and judgements.
I’m proud that a cis-man could not have done this work because I think it’s important for people to tell their own stories. Probably the most depicted body type in the history of ‘art’ is that of cis-women of, as they say, ‘child-bearing age’. Most of the artists behind those works certainly didn’t have the bodies they were depicting. But this work, about casting off others’ perceptions about my body and what I should do with it, could only have been done by me.
I own it.
Writer Luke Malone conducted an interview with me shortly after SBS2′s clip went viral. It it I expanded a little more on my thoughts behind the piece. You can read his article, published in Salon, here.
Or listen to an interview I had with Suzanne Donisthorpe of ABC Radio National’s Books & Arts Progam here.
Or read an extended interview with Chelsey Lang on Planet Ivy here.