… and my Y-fronts are in a bunch.

Because I’m struggling — or my alter ego, as Cicero would have phrased it, is struggling  — to comment on Jamie McCartney’s bas-relief The Great Wall of Vagina. I’m struggling and I’m hesitating. I’m hemming and hawing. This is the second time I’ve been asked for my opinion on this installation (the first instance having occurred three years ago) and therefore it’s the second time I’ve struggled, hesitated, hemmed, and hawed. I believe I can now say with confidence that the struggling and hesitating and hemming and hawing are the real deal. Deals. It’s no act. For those arriving fresh to the controversy, which seems to be back in the news, here’s the artist’s description of the work, quoted directly from his website:

“The 9-metre long polyptych consists of four hundred plaster casts of vulvas, all of them unique, arranged into ten large panels.… The age range of the women is from 18 to 76. Included are mothers and daughters, identical twins, transgendered men and women as well as a woman pre and post natal and another one pre and post labiaplasty.”

Panel #1, The Great Wall of Vagina, Jamie McCartney
Panel #1, The Great Wall of Vagina, Jamie McCartney

Blahblahblah, he continues for quite a while. Anyway, I’m troubled less by the work itself than by McCartney’s maneuvering pietism. He’s trading in what neo-Freudian critic Jacqueline Rose has called “spurious forms of unity.” If I interpreted correctly, Rose’s splendid rubric (heard in this BBC interview in which she slices — I want to say harpoons — Harold Bloom to ribbons) denotes a falsifying of universal categories: tweaking them so that they propose claims beyond their brief and appear to be vastly representative, more or less without exception.

It’s a swindle that succeeds by implying dubious kinship — either illogical or unearned — with persons, things, and events that would never have been included had objective scrutiny been applied. In her debate with the Boneless Gnostic [linked above], Professor Rose is speaking of indentured underclasses — specifically of women at the wrong end of the economic spectrum — whose ostracism and subservience may not be obvious even to themselves. Whisked into such categories and made complicit, they are used — their innocence is used — to validate cynical agendas. So it’s an inclusiveness, or a unity, as she would say, that manages at once to con us while distancing itself from critique. I have no idea why four hundred women would sit still for this man’s unctuous project, spreading their thighs for his nine-meter-long … polyped dick, insists my autocorrecting keyboard with typically impish parapraxis, which I’m inclined to let stand. Suffice it to say, McCartney’s got four hundred witnesses whose unwitting sanction — in the form of lovingly edited testimony — can’t be questioned. That is, unless we question it.

But first let me be clear on a couple of things. Personally, I have no problem looking at four hundred plaster casts of vulvas. (Actually, to be perfectly honest, my attention began to wane right around three hundred.) Riffling through various drop-downs on McCartney’s website, outlining political rationalizations as well as details about his, erm, hands-on method, I find no debasing pornographic motive of the conventional sort. (The unconventional sort being another matter altogether.) Nor can I pretend for one second that I didn’t immediately scan for anatomies that resembled those in my own carefully memorized back-catalog of intimacy.

Even the fabrication process — actual human beings getting smeared with petroleum jelly and then lathered up with blobs of wet plaster by McCartney’s gynecologically gloved digits — sets off no particular alarms. Presumably these were consensual volunteers who must have signed off on the appropriate paperwork. Presumably, too, these subjects were either exhibitionistic by nature, and possibly in a state of delayed stade du miroir, or were otherwise committed to a feminist (though which frigging wave?) reappropriation of their historically purloined loins.

Reverence is deprecation. Objectification is the established jargon term. Neither reverence nor objectification is in itself problematic, it seems to me. What is problematic is the effect of their camouflaging, by means of sham beatification, what Laura Mulvey famously referred to as the “male gaze.” A guy did this, after all, not Hannah Wilke, not Marina Abramović, not Valie Export.

In other words, because it’s art — I mean Art — it couldn’t be pornographic or even merely lubricious; we’re above that. Worse, this is art — I mean Art — that is indemnified against protest. Four hundred women willingly de-pantsed and sat, literally on their asses, for McCartney’s molding sessions. No victim? Heck, then, no misogyny.

Not that there aren’t plenty of things to complain about. For one, the installation’s title, which is truly wince-inducing. It’s wince-inducing in part because these are not vaginas — I imagine he would have used the word “coochie” if not for the opportunistic, completely inapposite pun on “China” — but miscellaneous montes veneris, labia, clitorides, bits of artisanal gadgetry (fourchettes, Princess Dianas, and the like), as well as two clear cases of CAH. Mostly, though, the title is wince-inducing because it is just fucking stupid. Additionally groan-worthy is McCartney’s didactic promise to less-than-confident female viewers, in press releases and in the site’s mission statement, that whatever yours looks like, you’re among multitudes of good company, and everything down there is just fine: “For many women,” says the artist, in the condescending tone of an avuncular GP in a Bristol-Myers ad, “their genital appearance is a source of anxiety and I was in a unique position to do something about that.” Unique position? That’s one way to put it! (I love this parallel conceit, too, promulgated first by Abigail Van Buren in the 1950s, that dread of one’s appearance can be assuaged by a kind of democratic consensus.)

Here’s what I see. That is, here’s what I see in photographs. Never having visited the installation in person, I’ll simply pretend to be open to the possibility of being moved by its palpable dimension and scale, qualities that wouldn’t, couldn’t, be conveyed in a flat image. But I believe that what I’m looking at is something on the order of one metric ton of bone-white, bone-dry twat. Twat, moreover, that has been extracted — “dissected” might be a better term — from bodily context and then … framed. What are we supposed to do, how are we supposed to respond, when viewing the installation live? Rush at it, in a frenzy of Houellebecqean groping, lapping, and fondling, as in those hilarious New Age orgies of The Elementary Particles? Probably not. (If so, you’d need a step-ladder to get your tongue up to the top row.) In fact the most interesting thing about this work can be seen in candid shots (also on the sculptor’s web page) of the public shuffling through some gallery or other to view it. Here are the postures of concern, of cool-headed disinterest. We see the nodding; we see the chin-scratching contemplation. As if to show that any adult misgivings have been carefully considered. And summarily dismissed.

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