Melbourne-based feminist artist Casey Jenkins says she had no idea that a video clip showing her “vaginal knitting” performance art project would go viral, attracting more than 4 million viewers after it was featured on SBS, an Australian news publication.
“In my mind it was a subtle piece of performance art, marked by quietude and space,” Jenkins says.
The short video shows Jenkins sitting in the Darwin Visual Arts Association knitting with yarn pulled from her vagina. The skein of wool lodged within her was wound in such a way that it unraveled from the center when pulled. In the video, her pace is slow and calm as she adds to the long scarf-like banner hanging from wire hangers in the gallery.
For 28 days last fall, Jenkins engaged in this performance art piece titled Casting Off My Womb. Each day she inserted a new skein of wool until the piece was finished, along with her menstrual cycle. Then her long scarf-like creation was “cast off.”
“My take on performance art is that it is poetry of action,” Jenkins says. “Casting Off My Womb follows work I’ve done previously where I’ve consciously subverted low expectations of craft-making techniques associated with women to encourage viewers to look at an issue from another angle,” Jenkins says.
She considers herself a “craftivist,” an artist who combines craft-making with activism. Currently she is working with Knit Your Revolt, a group of craftivists combating extreme conservatism.
Jenkins says Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot is a “regressive nitwit in the style of George W., and he’s been introducing all sorts of draconian policies that target the most vulnerable since he came into power last year.”
The Knit Your Revolt group hopes to “knit him out of office.”
In the work Casting Off My Womb, a large part of the video’s shock value comes when she was working with blood-soaked yarn. She says the resonance of the piece would have been lost if she didn’t include the days when she was menstruating.
Jenkins says that at times the project was uncomfortable and the yarn became difficult to work with.
“I’m trying to draw the warped and misogynistic views about the vulva and menstruation into the open,” she explained in her artist statement. “I hope the dissonance between those views and the dismissive responses to knitting (in a patriarchal world) will begin to break down both responses and the damaging ideas behind them, showing them to be absurd.”
After SBS posted the video to its YouTube account and dubbed it “Vaginal Knitting,” responses came flooding in. Some of them were positive but most were negative and sexist, prompting SBS to block all commentary. The video has since been reposted to sites like Gawker and the Huffington Post. Typical comments from Huffington Post readers include: “Glad she hasn’t taken up baking” and “Reinforcing the idea that women ARE their genitals.”
“These negative reactions come from preconceived disturbed ideas about vulvae and menstruation, not because my work contains any moment of actual lurid drama,” Jenkins responded in her artistic statement.
One aspect of the project that SBS excluded was Jenkins’ queer identity. Although it was important to the piece, she was thankful it was left out because she feared it would provoke gay bashing. She believes a lot of ideas about our bodies arise from society’s fixation on a heteronormative gender binary system.
“To me, it feels like such a gift to be queer, because you’re released from all of those limiting ideas,” she says.
Despite all the social and philosophical ramifications of Casting Off My Womb, Jenkins says her piece was intended to be a very personal experience. It was about becoming intimate with her own body and reflecting on her own free will.
“The work was a long and gentle process for me,” she says. “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 judgments.”