‘I may as well just f**king take up knitting’ my pinot grigio-d friend wailed across the restaurant in reference to her less than active sex life. Knitting is, after all, usually synonymous with sexless spinsters, making work for idle thumbs; the antithesis to vaginal activity. However, our Crazy Artist of the Month, Casey Jenkins, has married the two to create a commotion both in the art world and that dystopian realm of the Internet comments section.
The Melbourne-based artist’s most famous work, ‘Casting Off My Womb’, consisted of her shoving balls of yarn up her vagina and then pulling them out and knitting them live in front of an art gallery audience. The 28 day performance, back in 2013, saw her use a fresh ball of wool each day, and menstruation certainly didn’t hold her back. Jenkins stated “the performance wouldn’t be the performance if I were to cut out my menstrual cycle from it. For starters, when I’m menstruating it makes knitting a hell of a lot harder because the wool is wet so you kind of have to yank at it. It’s sort of slightly uncomfortable sometimes, arousing sometimes.” For Jenkins the work represented a ‘a long, slow meditation on the intimate understanding we have of our own bodies and creative potential and how it's impacted by societal stereotypes and expectations.’
However, we live in a world where some males react to the sight of a packaged tampon in the same way they might an unpinned grenade. The female period is still, illogically, shocking and so naturally the keyboard warriors charged out in force. The video of the work has been viewed over 7 million times and the comments generally reflect disgust and outrage. Some even went as far as to threaten the artist with violence and many wrote personal jibes at her appearance and scathing sexist remarks. Repetitive phrases such as ‘WTF’, ‘gross’ and ‘eww’ feature heavily, and many of the comments appeared to be from women. Jenkins was labeled an ‘attention whore’ to which she has refuted “as an artist, I do seek attention for my work – I want to express and communicate ideas, and I refuse to feel compunction for that. What I am not seeking through this work is external validation of myself – in fact, the work is primarily about casting off the need for validation from external sources.”
Whether you agree with the backlash from her art online or not, the scale of it was not expected by Jenkins. "The response to 'Casting Off My Womb' was overwhelming, it floored me really," she said. "I know that the community has very negative responses to anything to do with menstruation and it's a big taboo, but it took me, everyone, by surprise, how much of a stir it caused."
Nonetheless, she has adamantly harnessed the online abuse to create her most recent work ‘Programmed to Reproduce’ which she performed at the Festival of Live Art in North Melbourne Town Hall in March of this year. Again (screw the haters!), she knitted from yarn inserted in her nether regions, this time to form a protective cocoon around her to signify the private self. The artist also used knitting machines to digitally reproduce the online abuse using wool partly died from menstrual blood. This machine addition was to reflect the ‘robotic, machine-like way’ one is ‘judged by society and the roles we play in perpetuating that system.’ As she sat calmly knitting surrounded by crocheted slogans of hate it was a show of defiance and a stand against how woman may be portrayed and conceived in online spaces and the media. Know what she’s getting at? Just click on one of the many articles rejoicing a figure hugging dress accentuating some successful woman’s ample assets, grab a bowl of popcorn and scroll to watch the hate storm ensue. The relative anonymity of the Internet diminishes accountability and so there is a tendency to forget about human feeling.
Like many of our female artists at The Public House of Art, Casey Jenkins' work showcases an unapologetically strong feminine identity in the male dominated art world. Jenkins is a woman reclaiming her body and shattering preconceived notions of what she should be doing with it. She has attempted to set herself free from what she calls ‘patriarchal programming’. Crazy? Maybe. Attention seeking? Perhaps. Gross? If you like. But all these adjectives could just as easily apply to some of her online reviewers’ conduct. Art is meant to be critiqued, that’s the point, but personal attacks are surely more unsavory than a bit of menstrual blood. Between the two works of performance art Jenkins has gone from victim to vigilante. She has managed to shame the shamers and that folks is bloody wool brilliant.
Written by London based freelance writer Lydia Veljanovska for The Public House of Art.