Pushing Aside Vulvic Doily Art

A place for trans people in subversive handicrafts

The Doily and the Unsung Heroes: I was sitting at the launch of the Lip Magazine Anthology, that came out of a magazine published in Melbourne from 1976 to 1984. A feminist magazine, it was called a ‘lightning rod’ for art, theatre and journalism in the Women’s Movement. This collection was edited by Vivienne Ziherl and published late 2013, and showcases the different feminisms published by the magazine during its life. Three different women made speeches and I liked it because everyone was sort of arguing, all these middle-aged white women in pashminas speaking their versions of what happened, when Lip started, when it ended. It was funny, like we were at a dinner party. At the end they asked for some more speeches by the ‘daughters of Lip’, that is, the daughters of some of the women there, some of the women who were involved in the magazine during the 1970s and ’80s. These daughters were generally in their thirties and they made speeches standing under a giant projected image of some quintessential work from Lip, a doily crocheted to look like a vulva, blown up to an enormous size. The speeches they gave addressed what it was like growing up with a feminist mother and things like how feminism was always normal in their houses and invariably each speaker turned to address the unsung heroes of feminism, the men, and how their husbands and dads are the real true feminists. And so the small audience of about forty people sat and listened to this stuff about men and women under the vast weight, the enormity, of the image of the vulvic doily. It was craft I was looking at and I love craft, but it was cis peoples’ ideas about and representation of genitals in art that pre-assumed a cis-gender audience. The doily’s relevance needs to be examined, leaving behind second-wave feminism’s essentialist ideas about what art with genitals in it is all about.

Representing Vaginas vs Representing Women: When cis artists use genitals or other ‘reproductive’ organs in their art, what the genitals are communicating something about maleness or femaleness. Like representations of wombs and pussy lips being lovely, or about phalluses being powerful. Or sometimes people subvert it and show a vulnerable phallus or whatever. Louis Bourgeois with Fillette in 1968. Or like this work called ‘You Beaut’, by the Hotham Street Ladies, exhibited at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery in Melbourne in 2013. The work was part of a group show called Backflip, curated by Laura Castignini, which focused on feminism and humour in contemporary art. The work was a giant menstrual bloody mess made of icing sugar in the men’s toilets. The wall held an icing sugar image of a uterus in detail and vibrant colour. The idea was subversive mess, I guess, it’s about taking a thing like menstruation and shoving it in men’s faces. Because it’s in the men’s toilet. But what else is it about? It’s made from icing sugar, the materials themselves are relevant here because of femininity and homemaking, the idea of taking something nice and non-threatening and making it confronting, or ‘real’. Jamming feminine signifiers with masculine ones. I get it.

Toilets are a popular shorthand for maleness or femaleness. For example, Nathan Vincent is a crochet artist from the U.S. who makes lawnmowers, tools, and other things that are seen as masculine. That’s his mission. Conflation of crochet, a craft, traditionally thought of as women’s work, with masculine objects. You can see Nathan on the Martha Stewart show, no shit, talking about his craft. He pulls a sheet to uncover a work of his art hanging on the wall, it’s a crocheted urinal, and Martha Stewart says this is the epitome of Man. Nathan says that when he was little he always wanted to be tall enough to reach the urinal like all the other boys. He also calls crochet ‘feminine’ and he when he says ‘feminine’ he does those inverted commas with his fingers. What this art asks you to do is look at this crocheted urinal and see it as a thinly veiled penis metaphor. We’re asked to read ‘Man’.

The whole concept behind both these works, and a large chunk of what I kind of think of as cis-art, is about the materials themselves. Using handicrafts as art materials is a response to social permissions about gender and the materials themselves become the concept, become the art. Craft is ironic in a gallery, because it was made by a man. Or, in the case of the vaginal doily, or the Hotham Street Ladies menstrual explosion, critical, because it was made by a woman. Cis people should have a response to gender, and what gender means, and how it works. Cis people should have an interest in how systems of oppression work and a critique of gender oppression. But what is interesting about the potential of handicrafts to be subversive goes further than irony. What happens when people stop using genitals to represent maleness or femaleness? What happens when trans people come out of the shadow of cis people’s ideas about craft and gender?

The Materials Themselves: Eileen Myles talks about devotion to materials in her 2003 essay The Time Of Craft. Learning a craft involves this dedication, you must really want to learn, you must really love doing that, learning it. Eileen says this about it:

The nature of the time one dwells in is pretty much determined by someone they know. I’m thinking about the medium of teaching, by which a person infuses another with a love of material. There’s something impossible about it, it’s the fulcrum of all communities, and it continually works.

This, as a trans person and an artist, is something I can get into. The idea of learning love. The time it takes to master a craft. Or maybe you never master it, but you are so deeply connected with it that it becomes part of how you know yourself. I am yarn, I am clay, or whatever. Which I think is a new way of making  sense of time, othering time itself. I guess I relate this to trans-time, non-cis time. It’s essentially a queered time, a non-patriarchal time. Queer bodies exist in ways that don’t always obey the rules for bodies and lives under linear time. I propose that living in a body is similar to mastering a craft, learning to love yourself, to see your body, because maybe in trans-time the body is the materials, and your selfhood is your craft. The same as how I like the idea of seeing practising craft as loving yourself, I like the idea of practicing non-cis time. Devotion to corporeality at non-patriarchal speed. Putting yourself back into the history of humanity, engaging with not just the idea but also the materiality of having a body.

The images evoked when talking about ‘doing’ craft are of groups of people, poor people, women, older people, maybe from other times in history. When people all do something together and they sit and chat. Generations of people. And this brings up the whole fraught question of Art vs Craft. People are always talking about this. Maybe it is that art is supposed to be about thinking, a concept, a feeling, something deep that you can engage with when you see it. Or you can see the hand of the genius or whatever. And craft is generic, or even if it is not generic it is about the making of, about the function of the object but also, equally, the task. It’s different, the materials signify something else. Everyone talks about this and that’s good. It’s a conversation about more than taste.

A sewing circle is a non-patriarchal way of having and sharing knowledge: To get into the specifics of craft, let me tell you about Chris Hubley. He is this artist from the UK who makes felt sculptures. One of his pieces is this blue-skinned, blonde-ringletted, beautiful mermaid with giant muppet eyes. She’s 40cm tall and hand felted, so beautiful. Another work is called ‘Hide, Badger’ and it’s a felt badger’s face sticking out of a pile of felt dirt. Kind of similar to Nathan Vincent’s crocheted stag’s head hanging on a wall on the Martha Stewart show, only devoid of the self-conscious masculine posturing. All sales of pieces Chris makes of badgers go to a charity fund called Stop the Cull which aims to protect badgers being culled in the UK. His other works include one called ‘Little Gnomy Man’ and ‘Witch of the Forest’. This last one is inspired by a Swedish folk tale about a little boy who wasn’t afraid of anything so when his family’s cow is stolen he goes into the forest to retrieve it, where he meets a witch who tries to scare him and then decides to help him. Chris Hubley’s work is all wizards and animals. This guy is a trans artist who makes some serious craft. Real craft, you know, time-honoured practices, inspired by European folklore, mythical creatures, stories. I think this art is so queer the way it is looking back at old-time ways of learning, using the grey areas of histories, and this underlines something so important. It is no coincidence that creatures in myths and stories about magic are appealing to queers, especially trans people. Because, for example, magic is queer knowledge. I mean this in the sense that magic and witchcraft is a non-patriarchal knowledge, and has been violently punished for being so. And the very bodies of people who held this knowledge were hunted and hurt, and the same is true for the bodies of trans people, of whom patriarchy is characteristically terrified. These same bodies were, historically, outlawed. Witch-hunting was white-supremacist patriarchy’s way of destroying queer knowledge. Because the bodies were destroyed. So now, communing with Nature and animals, non-Western medicine and healing, magic, these things have gone from threatening, heretical, dangerous, to kind of laughable and stupid. The value of this way of knowing was destroyed same as the bodies of witches hunted were destroyed. Now, that knowledge is called old wives tales, evoking that same image of the sewing circle – Nan chatting to her friends. And there is an implication that whatever is discussed or shared or learned here is of little value. It’s only valued in one enclave, moment, sphere. Oh, Nan, she just wants a chat, to hear the sound of her own voice. But I still think about witch-hunts as queer oppression, not least because those people died in sexually violent ways. Non-patriarchal bodies suffering and dying in pain in the middle of the forest, run out of a community, for having knowledge. Murdered trans people share this same awful history. Because patriarchy is cissexist, and part of that climate is that cis people are obsessed with trans bodies. The dissatisfaction that patriarchy wants people to have with their bodies and the bodies of others is reflected to its zenith in the violent punishment of trans bodies.

Bodies Forever: an endless stream of bodies. Sometimes I think all art is about bodies, all pop culture is about bodies, all passion is corporeal, and, all crime is about bodies. The power of a body. The awful notion of a neutral body. Here’s something to think about – Melissa Silk and Carmel Byrne’s recent work called ‘Pendulum’. There’s a swing in the middle of a gallery and anyone can have a go on it, and behind on the wall is a big projection of a baby on a swing, this giant baby’s face coming and going towards and away from you. Then Alistair said ‘you’ve been a muse since birth’, because the baby is me. This is art about love and an essence, a baby means something. It’s about movement, a moment, freedom, helplessness. I think it’s about a body’s gravity and momentum. But Melissa Silk, who is my mum, says ‘It’s not actually about you at all.’ Which I like.

I’ve established already that, for me, when trans people are also craftspeople, there is a small rupture, something revolutionary, in gendered assumptions about craft and materials. Nicki Green is a trans artist who makes ceramics. She’s a craftsperson. ‘the revolution will be earthenware’ is a series of handmade and hand-painted jugs. A naked woman who has a penis holds a gun on one jug, surrounded by blue flowers. A riot is happening on another, and on the third a woman reclines along the top, like on old-style Greek pottery, while on the lower level, separated by a blue line, people are running and screaming. There is a row of disembodied hands holding each other painted around the neck of the jug. Another of her worksthis is a cunt/this is a cock’ is also pottery. A glazed stoneware jug with 3D hands around its body, two of the hands have vaginas on their palms, and two of the hands have the forefinger and second finger pointing skyward, little heads on the tips of the fingers, like two penises. So now we’re talking about a trans person who is devoted to her materials, a crafter, and she makes craft with genitals in it. When trans people make art about bodies, but more specifically when craftspeople who also have an experience of having a trans body make art about genitals, we see the real potential for subversion, the depth of response that is available to craft and gender. Unlike the signifiers for genitalia in both Nathan Vincent’s and The Hotham Street Ladies’ toilet-themed works, this art looks directly at the body. Something that both the aforementioned artworks rely upon is the presupposition that all audience members frame their ideas about maleness and femaleness through a distinctly cis-centric way of thinking. Nicki’s art instead shows you the bodies. It can say ‘this is a woman’ and ‘this is what this woman is doing’, without making the entire work’s meaning about the trans-ness of the body depicted, whereas the toilet-metaphors can only point out what we are already supposed to accept: that men piss in urinals and women bleed. Thus, these works can only exist inside of a framework of bio-essentialism, and are lacking.

Nicki says this about her pottery:

Ceramics is, by nature, instinctually feminine by association (craft-based in production and domestically functional and feminine in use), but its technical history is male dominated, craftsmen and skilled artisans working in shops and studios as opposed to textile felting, thread spinning and garment sewing as basic functioning within the home. Ceramics, therefore, is much more of a queered practice as it renders itself a male-dominated craft, an oxymoron as craft in and of itself is deemed feminine and oppressively reserved for women.

But it’s more than that. This work is well and truly out of the Shadow of cis people’s ideas about what genitals represent. Indeed, Nicki is ‘working to renaturalise the genitals in question, and she does. Her oval-shaped decorative plate, ‘Small Venus’(2013), has hand crafted ceramic hands on either side of the oval, perhaps to emulate handles. The plate portraying a reclining trans woman as Venus is so beautiful and, despite the portrayal of a naked body, subtle. The significance of this image, Venus as a trans woman, is Nicki’s ‘attempt to insert the trans body into pre-existing mythological character narratives’. This is work that recontextualises trans bodies as natural, and also puts us back into history.

Undying Devotion: It’s not that being a craftsperson and being a trans person is the same thing. I’m thinking about it like this: there’s all these ways that cis people get to use art and culture, and things and practices to make their point, and a point gets made about gender simply because of the materials, and the gender of the maker. Cis people get to say what it means to be a man or a woman just by making art that involves craft. But I think this simplifies the experience, history, and concept of craft. The materials mean everything, that’s what you touch, that’s what you learn and teach, what you show, what you start with. But the maker means something too. When trans people come out from under the shadow of vaginal doily art, which is, here, a stand-in for patriarchal and cis-centric ways of essentialising bodies and experiences, what we are essentially doing is communicating a more nuanced conception of personhood, gender and artistic practice than is allowed for under prescriptive ways of understanding gender and self. Shrugging off the weight of the doily, and of cis representations of bodies, we become artists and craftspeople who love our materials with true devotion, and don’t exploit them.