Ninety embroidery hoops dangled from the ceiling at the Center of Culture and Health in Quillota, Chile late last week. Stained on the hoops' cloths was five years of Carina Úbeda Chacana's menstrual blood, and hanging beside each cloth was a blackened apple to simulate her ovulation. She was putting it all on display as an art exhibition, which she called simply, Cloths.
Chacana's exhibition undoubtedly draws attention to the raw exposure of her menstrual blood, a medium that has more precedence than perhaps many people are aware of. Her choice of execution incited many reactions, from praise to repulsion, from confusion to disgust. But the mark of many a great artwork is its ability to generate a dialogue about convention. Chacana's latest exhibition, which can be lumped into the movement known as Menstrala, certainly accomplishes that task.
Beneath each blood stain on Chacana's cloths read such provocative words as "Production," "Discard," and "Destroyed."
The term Menstrala was first coined by artist Vanessa Tiegs as the title for her 88-piece collection that she completed over the course of three years. Since then, sidestream artists and bloggers have adopted the term, although it hasn't quite hit the mainstream yet.
Many cite the movement's medium alone, much less its subject matter, as hindering that expansion.
"I guess I understand why some people would be squeamish about menstrual art, just as they'd be squeamish about artists using other bodily fluids (urine, semen, etc.) in their work," Guernica writer EJ Dickson, who wrote a 3,500-word profile of Menstrala for the online magazine in May, said in an interview. "What I don't understand is why menstrual art produces such a uniquely visceral response, particularly in men."
Dickson views menstruation as one of the last taboos in our culture. As opposed to vomit, semen, or feces, which are merely gross, menstruation tends to strike people — and mostly men, she argues — as offensive.
"Nobody wants to hear about it, let alone see it," she said. "And women who do menstrual art are thrusting it in people's faces and forcing them to see it. Which is not to say that I think all menstrual art is good, or even important. But you have to admit, it's pretty ballsy."
While Tiegs gave the movement a title, menstrual blood as an art work's sole medium — or playing a supporting role, at least — has existed for decades. Consider Judy Chicago's 1972 piece, Menstruation Bathroom, which featured an all-white bathroom installation punctuated by a mountain of pads above an overflowing waste bin of used tampons. The medium was used at the time, arguably as it is today, to push the stigma of menstruation to the forefront of society's collective consciousness.
"When Chicago's piece was first exhibited, menstrual-themed art was considered subversive, an innovative way of bringing a social taboo to the forefront of cultural conversation," Dickson wrote. "Yet it has since acquired a reputation as a pretentious gimmick, intended solely for shock value."
Part of the movement's difficulty in gaining traction comes from its hidden nature. Described as the "only non-violent blood," menstrual blood is naturally concealed. Other fluids like vomit and semen, while culturally agreed upon as repulsive, have become partly desensitized through popular media usage.
Menstruation lags behind, Tiegs argued, because its biological component has yet to be acknowledged as natural.
"Menstrala simply reminds us that menstrual blood is not invisible, not to women," she said. "Menstrual blood is the only blood that is non-violent."