Sunday, March 21, 2010

Doing Away with Penis Envy

The Visible Vagina...reminds us of offensive tropes throughout art history...but it also reminds us of the victories...”

It may have been a poor choice to view the closing of The Visible Vagina, a joint exhibition in New York at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art and David Nolan Gallery, on the same day that I saw the new MoMA retrospective for Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present. Provocative though the works in the 75-artist show may be, it was difficult to see representations of genitalia as riveting in comparison with actual genital contact at the MoMA.

When I say ‘actual genital contact’, what I mean to say is ‘accidental genital contact.’ Google ‘Imponderabilia MoMA’ and you can read a variety of tales like the following. I decided to brave the narrow walkway between two nude actors facing one another in Imponderabilia, originally performed in 1977 by Abramović and her then lover and artistic collaborator, Ulay (for image and background, please see While I worked myself up to the challenge, I watched a number of gallery visitors go first, most of them employing strategies like averting their eyes or putting a handbag through first as if to confirm that it was safe. The most common strategy was to turn sideways, which made it easier to go through unimpeded. I felt it was important to avoid this last strategy. My reason was that I didn’t want one performer to be free of voyeurism at the expense of the other, especially because both sexes were represented. As a feminist, should I not aim for equal treatment? (That may seem ridiculous, but it is what was going through my mind at the time). I wonder what stance I would have taken had the actors both been female, which is another combination Abramović has used. Like most people who have written about the experience, I found the process of making it through to the other side thrilling and panic-inducing. I believe the exact words I whispered were, “My hip made contact [with the male actor’s penis]. There was definite bumpage.”

If we can’t get past this discomfort and shrill fascination with the human body in its raw state, do we have any hope of appreciating artwork that is one step removed from corporeality? Or is representing the body rather than using the body proper the way to go? In a general sense, it may not be a question worth asking because both already exist in the art world, and both have been well received. It’s apples and oranges, really. For me personally, though, it is more an issue of deciding to stick with a singular fruit regimen or broaden my diet. I still haven’t done the performance I blogged about planning last summer. At the time, I blamed the uncooperative weather, but the truth is, I’ve been stalling because I don’t relish the idea of putting my body on display for my art.

I decided to wait until the end of The Visible Vagina to write about it, in part because I wanted to see what the fall-out would be like. Reading online comments about the show early on, I was amazed by the fixation on the title. It seemed that every commentator was quick to point out that the vagina can’t technically be seen sans speculum and therefore The Visible Vulva would be a more logical choice. Did this virtual equivalent of wrist slapping occur because the organizers were male, or was it an unconscious means to gloss over the actual content of the show because of a collective discomfort with the human body?

It’s not just me imagining widespread discomfort with the human body, and specifically the female body. As television network resistance to the ad campaign released this past week for U by Kotex ( revealed, ‘vagina’ is unwelcome in our public lexicon. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the equivalent 98,000 inferences (i.e., 98 works x 1000 words) to a woman’s private parts in The Visible Vagina are powerful indeed.

My overall impression is that by all accounts, The Visible Vagina is comprehensive. It emphasizes the range of work featuring female genitalia in multiple media throughout art history (encompassing modern artists, Second Wave feminist artists, contemporary artists, and both male and female artists). It can’t be reduced to a peep show because the subjects are shown in states of indifference in addition to pleasure. It reminds us of offensive tropes throughout art history, like the truncated female nude, but it also reminds us of the victories, like Judy Chicago’s Red Flag (1971), a close-up photolithograph of a woman removing a used tampon (television networks, take note: the art world already paved the way for public acceptance of the pudenda some 40 years ago). It includes works that are diminutive/life-size and ones that compelled me to conclude that size does matter. A personal highlight was fibre artist Allyson Mitchell’s installation, Hungry Purse: The Vagina Dentata in Late Capitalism (2006-07). Evocative of a tented harem decorated in grandma’s crocheted blankets and other cozy throw-backs from the 70s, this mammoth rendition of the vagina was exquisite and walking into its mouth felt more delightful than unsettling. (For images, please see

For the faint of heart, the exhibition can be experienced through the catalogue, which includes Anna C. Chave’s valuable essay, “Is this Good for Vulva? Female Genitalia in Contemporary Art.”

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