Viva la Vulva (possibly NSFW)

Hey, wanna get all ‘1970’s Germain Greer’ feminism and analyse female genital art together?

Oh, don’t be such a kill-joy, yes you do.

This is an interesting art piece. The sculptor, Jamie McCartney has created a piece called The Great Wall of Vagina, involving 400 casts of vulvas. McCartney says he was motivated in part by the world’s growing misogynist interest in labiaplasty, and the sense of shame and confusion women often have about their own vulvas and vaginas. McCartney wanted to prove that vulvas vary a great deal naturally. I love how abstract the resulting sculpture is…

A variety of women modelled for the art piece – including transgender women (and some trans men), before-and-after labiaplasty surgery, pre and post natal, identical twins, mothers and daughters, pierced women, women who’d experienced various vulvar diseases, women of different ages (including those in their seventies) and from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. But in an effort to decontextualise the vulvas McCartney elected to go with white casts – and while this has heightened the alien feel of the work, which I like, it has also made it difficult for me to imagine anyone but white models in the work. This is a problem for a sculpture that is questioning the narrow range of vulvas we get to ordinarily see in images.

It’s a great piece, and quite beautiful, but it somehow missed the feminist mark for me – something about a man as expert over women’s bodies, yet again, set my teeth on edge.

This isn’t just sensation, it is art with a social conscience and McCartney wants people to stop, look and listen. This is about grabbing the attention, using humour and spectacle, and then educating people about what normal women really look like. Described as “the Vagina Monologues of sculpture” this piece is intended to change the lives of women, forever.

“For many women their genital appearance is a source of anxiety and I was in a unique position to do something about that.”

Maybe I’d like this work more if the creation of it was as feminist as the end product – for instance, as warm and professional as the artist is the clips showing the preparation of the casts remind me a little of a visit to a male gynaecologist. And I guess, my response to this artist isn’t helped by the fact that his other work often seems to involve disembodied women’s parts and bodies from a very narrow beauty idealyoung, thin, white. Also, while I don’t think this kind of idea can be done enough, it wouldn’t be true to say that it hasn’t been done before.

Plus, it kind of bugged me that the sculpture is called The Great Wall of Vagina when these are actually vulvas. If we’re going to demystify and educate about women’s bodies let’s start with the correct names.

(Image credit here).

(Cross-posted at blue milk).

(Thanks Annabelle for the link).



Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism

Tags: ,

27 replies

  1. Plus, it kind of bugged me that the sculpture is called The Great Wall of Vagina when these are actually vulvas.

    Yes, that was the first thing I thought too. Maybe he thought that people wouldn’t know vulva but vagina would grab their attention?

  2. The Melbourne artist Greg Taylor did pretty much the exact same thing in 2008, in an exhibition called “Cunts” (though he sculpted, rather than cast, the pieces). I can’t find any shots of the actual exhibition, just one of the promo poster. There’s a bit of info here.

  3. bluemilk, that vagina for vulva mislabelling is absolutely one of my own pet peeves. The number of times I’ve heard/read about “shaven vaginas” when vaginas do not have hairs, just for a start, is teeth-grinding to think about.

  4. Vajazzle. Youch.

  5. I think it’ll be a truly triumphant piece when it is a woman celebrating the diversity of our bodies instead of a man. To someone not a woman, that might not make much sense, but I think it would be best described as women owning their own freedom, pride and owning their own bodies in the process. It’s kind of pointless if it’s a man doing the celebrating.
    I’d like to see a sculpture of a woman attached to these vulvas, looking you in the face and confronting you.

  6. Yeah, I think I prefer Betty Dodson’s take, even if there are fewer of them than here, and is thus, y’know, not depicting the enormous variety in vulvas. I know that fingertips in the context of genitalia have ambivalent meanings (apparently with pictures of vulvas taken for anatomy books, no nail polish may be worn lest these medical pictures be confused with teh pr0n) but in the case of Dodson’s pictures, it helps them feel less disembodied, somehow…
    Look, don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti- The Great Wall, exactly, I just think that there are better ways to do this stuff. And part of what renders parts of women’s bodies assessable, and found wanting – the stuff that this is apparently designed to tackle – is precisely the fragmentation of bodies. The number of times, when I teach about genital cosmetic surgery I hear young women say ‘OMG, I have to worry about how attractive *this* part of my body is as *well* now??’ (obvs, we discuss whether and how and why we worry like this, and the extent to which the availability of surgery feeds into these anxieties). But the point is really: we are taught to divide up our bodies, to work out which bits we like and which we don’t, which bits we leave alone and which we ‘do something about’… and I kind of think that some real concern with the experience of disembodiment through which lots of women analyse their own bodies would/should prompt an artist concerned with such issues to consider how fragmentation might play into that, and/or be countered through other artistic means (like the *obviously their own* fingers, in Dodson’s models).

  7. The more I look at this the more creepy and unsettleing I find it… A wall of sterile, cold, disembodied vaginas, cast and collected by a man – is that really empowering? The abstracted look of them takes away from the fact that they are, in real life, actually attached to a woman – It’s literal objectification, though because it’s artistic objectification as opposed to sexual objectification then it’s supposed to be ok (though at least in porn you usually see the woman’s face as well).
    In one of the videos on the site, he says something along the lines of how he realised when talking to women he was making vaginal casts of that they were anxious about how their vagina looked and comparing it to other casts in his studio, and that he could relate to this because he felt that men felt the same way about their own genitals… So the question is why did he decide to cast a wall of vulvas and not a wall of penises? Could it have possibily been because he’s a heterosexual man who wanted an excuse to look at and touch lots of women’s vaginas?
    I think that there is definately room for art that shows the variety of women’s genitals and that is truly empowering, but I fear that this isn’t it.

  8. @WP – one of the best segments I have heard on local radio was two male hosts talking about labiaplasty. They said “Don’t do it, we’re guys, we’re happy that you have just turned up. And sometimes you even take your clothes off! ” That was it. Beautiful.

  9. @Mindy – Hee. Yeah, but there’s a fair trade in ‘men don’t notice/are grateful for anything, so don’t do it for them’ stuff around surgery, so I don’t know how effective it’d be (for the straight women, even). But hell, I’ll try anything, really! 😉

  10. So the question is why did he decide to cast a wall of vulvas and not a wall of penises? Could it have possibily been because he’s a heterosexual man who wanted an excuse to look at and touch lots of women’s vaginas?

    Yes. I know him and that’s *exactly* what’s going on.

  11. Napalmnacey – yeah, I like that image, the woman looking at you.
    WP – really good point. Having a whole bunch of disembodied vulvas can actually encourage comparison and evaluation – which is my favourite, which do I wish mine was etc – rather than lead people to thinking that all vulvas are normal and gorgeous.
    Kris – I get what you’re saying, someone commenting on my site said the vulvas looked dead and flat. Interesting. I like the alien landscape of them, feel it kind of makes the shaming of genitals seem absurd.. but it does also make them look a little like trophies.

  12. Hello all, may I first just say I stumbled upon this blog a couple of days ago and am thoroughly enjoying reading it?
    Okay, on to the point, though I fear I’m only saying “Hear, hear!” to what’s already been posted – particularly Mindy’s, WildlyParenthetical (damn that’s a good name … sounds like my writing) and Kris. Looking at that wall had me thinking, “Pfft, another bloke obsessing over looking at vulvas …” and then I read Sarah’s comment – that answers that.
    I wish I could remember where I read it, but this display, and everyone’s comments, remind me of a description of “pornography’s relentless reduction of the body to parts” – I’m paraphrasing but that’s close to the actual wording. That’s pretty much how this wall strikes me.
    Oh, and the other problem, apart from the implications of it being white (which I confess hadn’t occurred to me) – they’re all hairless. So did all the women doing this have to have waxes just for it, or do they do so anyway, or what? Waxing one’s pubes gives me the heebeejeebies, not just for what must be godawful painful but for what I read into it. Rightly or wrongly it gives me the creeps. And that seems like just another element of showing less natural variation in women’s bodies, and more narrow, pornish definitions of how we should look. I LIKE my hair, thank you very much, it’s part of how I look as an adult.
    Well … except for the hobbit feet. That I could live without.

  13. *waves at french queen* welcome to Hoyden About Town

  14. Unsuprisingly the guy’s not so good at taking criticism, as I found out when I commented on the youtube documentary about the piece (here). My comment and his response are at the top of the “uploader’s comments” section. So rude!

  15. Don’t go getting us in a flame war, Kris.

  16. I wasn’t meaning to… I think it’s important that he hears the reasons why some people have a problem with it, I wasn’t attacking him or anything. I was just very suprised that he responded with such agro.

  17. The continued substitution of vagina when people actually mean vulva drives me right around the bend. But more to the point, what self-important blather this is, a wall full of disembodied genital plaster casts is supposed to create revelations? Initiate a massive wave of self-love? Break down the wall of “ideal body type” created by years of airbrushed/photoshopped porn perfection? I don’t think so. Especially not when the self-appointed saviorman can’t even properly name the body part in question. Twaddle. Bleh.

    A variety of women modelled for the art piece – including transgender men and women,

    This doesn’t quite parse, does it? If trans men are involved, perhaps best to not lump them in as a varietal of women, no?

  18. @Alleyne
    This blog is trans friendly, so yes it is quite all right for them to be there. sorry got mixed up {M}

  19. I think Alleyne means why are trans men listed under ‘women’ in my text, and you’re right, it was an oversight. I had trans women in there originally and then at last moment read some text where the artist referred to having trans men in there as well and I added that without thinking about the ramifications for the entire sentence. Will try and fix that now.

  20. Kris – it’s my favourite when a dude tells you that you’re being sexist to menz when you criticise their psudofeminism.

  21. @Kris again, I actually think a wall of penises would have been interesting (and yes, much more appropriate coming from a male artist supposedly wanting to make people feel better about their bodies). There is great stigma about penis size, and possibly just as much misconception out there about the variety of what normal penises look like (even if it’s not as culturally loaded a subject as the vulva).

  22. A picket fence, rather than a wall, of penises, surely.

  23. “A picket fence, rather than a wall, of penises, surely.”
    And he could make money out of it by selling copies as coat racks

  24. In all seriousness, I read a bit of a book a while back by comedian Richard Herring based on a show he did at the Edinborough fringe called Talking Cock which was all about men’s relationship to their penises. It was very interesting but I can’t find much info about it online (there is an article about it here)

  25. This sounds more and more like the gender version of Mighty Whitey (which I first encountered as “What these people need is a honky”). Only a noble fearless Man can save us poor women from social body norms! With, it appears, bonus sexualisation (is that the equivalent of wooing the Chief’s Daughter?)
    Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party is IMHO a much more interesting way of putting vulvas on display, it’s by a woman, and it’s over 30 years old. But apparently sincerely feminist male artists don’t need to know anything about the history of feminist art by women.

  26. *waves back at Mindy* Thank you, nice to be here!
    Kris – selling ‘em as coat racks – that image has made my day! (Well, a close second to seeing Paul Newman in The Sting last night, anyway.)

  27. For another perspective on all of this.. a comment from the reader who sent me the original link:
    I’d like to say first up that i agree with all of your criticisms. that being said however, i thought i’d put my own take in here too. I actually like this artwork. i saw it before it was on here (and passed it on) so i had time to process it a little without anyone else’s opinion.
    I guess part of the reason why i like it is that it’s timing in my own personal story is so fitting. Let me explain.
    I grew up in a christian family, we went to church etc, i still do. my parents never conveyed any sort of message that female genitals are bad, except to basically encourage me not to have sex before i was married, but somehow i developed this deep sense of shame about my genitals. I never masturbated, the closest i came was putting in a tampon- as you know- not really sexy, a little icky and not huge in getting to know what bits are what etc. After i got married i really struggled with letting my husband look at me down there- let alone GO down there if you know what i mean. We saw a counsellor once or twice and this sense of shame came out a little, i said that my genitals were a “swamp monster”- i guess meaning gross, dirty, perhaps a little scary. So fast forward to now, recently this all came back up again as a related topic came up in a class im in at uni. I was faced, this time with a little perspective, on how wrong that view was, how unfounded my shame was. then i came across “the great wall of vagina” and was so facinated by how different they all are and how just the very being in an artwork shares such a sense of pride i guess. it made me realise that i dont even know what i look like down there, and to be honest, im still a bit shy with my husband. i’ll admit, i was a little put back when i realised the artist was a guy, but all the same, it helped me grasp a little bit of ‘vulva-pride’, and i think i needed it.
    so i guess my take is pretty personal, maybe more about me than the artwork itself, but i felt like it deserved some respect for what it’s done for me.

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