Last week, Chilean artist Carina Úbeda unveiled Cloths, an art exhibition comprised of five years’ worth of her own used menstrual cloths. The cloths are interspersed with dangling apples meant to symbolize Úbeda’s ovulation.
Unsurprisingly, the mainstream reaction on the internet has been mainly one of shock and disgust. A lot of people are criticizing the display as filthy and unhygienic; others are outraged that a woman’s menstrual blood could ever be considered a subject for art. Some are saying the exhibit is a crock of feminist nonsense and that the artist is just trying to get attention through shock value.
But before we analyze these reactions, let’s back up a second.
The use of menstrual blood in art is nothing new. Judy Chicago’s Red Flag (1971) depicts a woman’s hand removing a bloody tampon from her vagina, and Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom (1972) features a spotless, white bathroom strewn with used menstrual products. Menstrual art even has its own term now—Menstrala. Artist Vanessa Tiegs, who coined the term, has been creating paintings with her own menstrual blood for years.
But, despite the fact that menstrual blood has been used in art for decades, menstrual art is still considered repulsive and appalling by the mainstream. What’s interesting is that works of art that incorporate other bodily fluids haven’t produced anywhere near the visceral response that menstrual art has. Take Andy Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings (1978), in which Warhol’s friends urinated on canvases covered in metallic paint, or Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit (1961), in which Manzoni filled 90 tin cans with – you guessed it – his own feces. The exhibits produced a fair amount of shock, but the reactions to both died down pretty quickly. (Fun fact—Manzoni’s cans of shit are now worth €100,000 each).
So why is the response to menstrual art so negative and so strong?
Regarding Menstruation Bathroom, Judy Chicago said, “However we feel about our own menstruation is how we feel about seeing its image in front of us.”
Judging by the reaction of the general public, it would appear that most of us (females, anyway) are grossed out and uncomfortable with our own periods. And really, why wouldn’t we be? Our culture teaches us that menstruation is dirty, that it’s something to be embarrassed about. In no way is menstruation honored or celebrated as it was in ancient cultures that revered the fertility of the woman as much as the fertility of the land. Instead, we’re made to think that menstruation is an icky, unfortunate fact of life—one that females should acknowledge as little as possible, and one that males should pretend doesn’t exist.
But maybe that’s what menstrual art is all about: forcing us to acknowledge that menstruation does exist.
Maybe it’s supposed to help us remember that periods aren’t weird or embarrassing, but rather a natural process that’s part of being female. Maybe you could even say that menstrual art is a political statement—that it’s an affirmation of women’s bodies in a world that in many ways still regards those bodies as inferior.
Maybe. You can interpret it however you want. That’s what art is about, isn’t it?
Still, I found the following quote pretty poignant. A woman—who viewed Úbeda’s exhibit—commented:
“Male blood is celebrated for being brave, while ours is a shame. This won’t change until we release our body as the first stage of political struggle.”
What do you think?
Courtney Miller is a free-spirited adventurer who has decided to settle down in Boulder for a bit before setting off around the world again. She loves nature, QiGong and other wellness practices as much as she loves music festivals and never knowing what to expect from one day to the next, and she accepts that her life is usually full of contradictions. She’s all about women’s reproductive freedom, and is madly in love with the Fertility Awareness Method of natural birth control (learn about it at kindara.com)!
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Ed: Dejah Beauchamp/Kate Bartolotta