From the Virgin Mary's free-flowing breast milk to Instagram's period-censoring policies, we charted the history of artists who use blood, pus, spit, and semen in their work.
Photo courtesy of Rupi Kaur
A mere mention of blood is enough to make most people squirm—long relegated from polite society, bodily fluids have long been a topic deemed inappropriate to discuss with others. However, bodily fluids—from blood to breast milk—have managed to conquer the art world, creating a landscape out of piss, blood, tears, and semen to explore women's lives and experiences in a way that might make some uncomfortable.
Depictions of bodily fluids in art go back as far as Mesoamerican civilizations and come up throughout history. A famous Mayan lintel from the year 709 features the queen consort Lady Xoc running rope barbed with obsidian shards through her tongue in ritualistic blood letting; breast milk cascades down the Virgin Mary's bosom in Pedro Machuca's 16th century painting by The Virgin Mary and the Souls in Purgatory. More recently, however, the taboo against bodily fluids has become material for not religious but political messages—and especially in feminist art, which often makes use of the fact that bodily fluids that have been used to oppress women for centuries.
The Politics of Blood
The union between feminist art and bodily fluids was forged with the use of the most obviously feminine anatomical secretion: menstrual blood. Coined in the early 2000s by the "menstrual painter" Vanessa Tiegs, the term menstrala describes art created from menstrual blood as a way to rid the shame associated with it. The 1970s saw the emergence of period blood art in association with the women's liberation movement, with a flurry of artists producing work inspired by that time of the month.
In her piece Red Flag, Judy Chicago was one of the first artists to depict menstrual blood; her 1971 photolithograph of a woman's hand removing a bloody tampon from her vagina caused controversy. Of the project, Chicago said she sought "to introduce a new level of permission for female artists," and she did, with artists continuing to use menstrual blood as a way to express their social and political beliefs while aiming to normalize bodily fluids in society. Chicago followed Red Flag with Menstruation Bathroom in 1972. The photograph features a spotless white bathroom filled with used menstrual products. Of the image, Chicago said, "However we feel about our own menstruation is how we feel about seeing its image in front of us."
Artist Carolee Schneemann was similarly affected by women's liberation in her works lamenting hypermasculinity. Inspired by a former lover's reaction to seeing a drop of period blood during sex, Schneemann created Blood Work Diary by drying menstrual blood on tissue paper with the help of egg yolk to keep the blood set in place. Chicago and Schneemann both captured something that is consistently ignored and shamed in society and pushed it to the forefront—which was celebratory for some and nauseating for others.
In the 1980s, we begin to see more bodily fluids used in political works. German-born American artist Kiki Smith's 1986 works Game Time and Untitled both critique a societal fear of bodily fluids, particularly in light of the AIDS crisis. Game Time, in particular, engaged with AIDS: The work consists of 12 jars of blood stacked on a shelf that reads, "There are approx. 12 pints of blood in the human body." The Untitled exhibition showcased twelve large glass jugs labeled with different fluids, including blood, tears, diarrhea, and pus; the jars are empty, allowing the viewer to see her own reflection in them. According to scholar Roxanne Runyon, Smith's pieces were inspired by psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva's theory of "abject"—a concept that refers to how we react when our selfhood is threatened by a visceral reminder (e.g., vomit, a corpse) of our horrific bodily form. After working for many years on striking but relatively not-disgusting photographs, Cindy Sherman also began to play with bodily fluids; her film still Untitled 175, for example, depicts a too-colorful beach scene dotted with baked goods and splashed with vomit.
However we feel about our own menstruation is how we feel about seeing its image in front of us.
Saliva and the New Millennium
The 1990s saw a growth in the use of bodily fluids in feminist art, with artists expanding into the realms of semen, spit, and more. Janine Antoni made particular strides with saliva. Her 1993 sculpture Gnaw used two 600-pound minimal cubes—one chocolate, one lard—that she aggressively bit into fragments using saliva and her teeth to carve out other objects. Antoni stated that the lard sculpture was stood in for the female body, adding a cannibalistic dimension to her critique of cultural perceptions of femininity. That year Antoni also exhibited Lick and Lather at the Venice Biennale; in that work, Antoni licked busts of herself made of chocolate, resculpting them with her spit. (In her 2013 work Honey Baby, in which a male dancer floats "in utero" on film, Antoni returned to bodily fluids again, using honey to represent amniotic fluid.)
Tracey Emin further explored bodily fluids in the late 1990s with her iconic work My Bed. In representing a depressive episode Emin experienced, the 1998 display of Emin's own bed was unmade, disheveled, and covered in a variety of stains. Through inviting viewers into her private space—its unkept glory littered with cigarette packages, bottles of vodka, condoms, and what looks like menstrual blood and semen—to some Emin earned the title of the "soul-baring queen of TMI." To others, she was acknowledging the flawed, messy, imperfect world that women should not be ashamed to live in, furthering the feminist message set by her predecessors.
In the noughties, feminist art, like other branches of the art world, began to mesh with technology and science. Rose Lynn Fisher's The Topography of Tears utilized all three themes: The piece is a series of images of 100 dried human tears photographed through a microscope. Fisher stored these tears over a five-year period and labeled the different emotions that produced them, finding that tears of joy differ drastically in composition from tears of grief when under the eye of a microscope.
Bodily Fluids and Social Media Censorship
While feminist artists of the past four-plus decades have hoped to normalize of bodily fluids, today we see that change still hasn't totally taken place. In 2015, Canadian student Rupi Kaur addressed the taboo of menstrual blood on an image posted on Instagram. The photo, depicting Kaur lying on her side on her bed with a period stain on her underwear, was (twice) removed by Instagram for violating the social network's "community guidelines." The use of social media censorship on an inoffensive image showed us how far we've come in the more than 40 years since Judy Chicago waved her Red Flag. Indeed, after many feminists expressed outrage at Instagram's removal of the image—and after the photo accumulated over 53,000 likes and at least 12,000 shares—Instagram re-uploaded it, in a small feat for supporters everywhere, though controversies similar to this persist.
Read More: The History of Toplessness
The normalization of bodily fluids in feminist art is definitely a work in progress. Artists like Petra Collins to Rebecca Morgan are publicly speaking out against internet censorship and the new limitations that feminist artists are facing. In a statement, artist Katya Grokhovsky summed this up: "There is a clear message here: cover it up, erase it, shut up, be pretty and clean, don't show us you are a human woman. In fact, we prefer you were a hairless, ageless, oh-so-cool-sexy, tiny, easily manipulated, shiny machine-object, not a visceral, bleeding, odor-and-noise-and-fluids-producing, food-needing, bathroom-going, valuable, capable, ambitious, smart, emotion-and pain-feeling, gloriously human being."
As long as that monthly bleed continues—and as long as we have to do things like, say, urinate—the feminist art world will continue to explore bodily fluids in a bid to normalize bodily functions and what they represent in our culture. Social media censorship may be the new battle artists face, but obstacles like Instagram guidelines are just new versions of the taboos that have inspired feminist artists to work with bodily fluids for decades. Ultimately, these limitations will probably backfire—serving to make the work more significant, not less.