Welcome back! Today we’re sharing the first in a series I like to call The Good, The Bad, the Ugly: Representations of Menstruation in the Media. There’s a lot of misinformation, shying away from the truth and in some cases, twisting of the truth going on in the films, TV, books and art we surround ourselves with. Not only do bad representations mean that on the whole we aren’t normalising menstruation and its associated symptoms, but it also means we don’t understand that it’s perfectly normal to experience your period differently to how other people do. So here is a place to explore these representations and hone in on what makes the good good, the bad bad and hopefully we might even be able to think a little deeper about what we mean when we say ugly.
We’re so lucky to be sharing this interview between Gift Wellness’ Lara Bland and the artist Emily Ayre:
Demystifying the Period with Visual Artist Emily Ayre: “How Can Anyone Say That Losing Cells and Re-Growing Them Each Month is Some Sort of Weakness?”
Manchester-based artist Emily Ayre, talks her 2019 installation ‘The Bleeding Woman’, wax vulvas, and what it means to be a person with a vagina in the Age of Anxiety.
Emily, who is currently studying a Masters in Contemporary Fine Art at the University of Salford is a part-time designer, part-time content creator, and (self-confessed) full-time “plant Mum”. With a degree in Fine Art and Film Studies already under her beret, it seems there’s nothing this 23 year old can’t turn her hand to. Working predominantly in paint, text, performance, and video she stresses how important it is that her work spans a number of mediums. Mug in hand, with a cobalt blue lipstick smile she tells me, “everything I do is pretty much a portrait of something.”
‘The Bleeding Woman’ is a mix media binge for the senses. The layers and juxtapositions of textures, colours and words are conceptual, mood driven, visceral. A publicly personal commentary of the individual’s female experience. I see Emily’s work as a call out against the manipulation, sexualisation and contortion of not just the female form, but the body more generally. There’s no denying that the Grotesque exists within her work, in fact she embraces, celebrates, and actively searches for it in all its bloody, fleshy, gory glory.
The beauty of Emily’s metamorphosing sculptures lies in the autonomy that emerges from her interaction with them. Through her performances they become extensions of her own physical form. Parts of the body so inward, so intimate, that even those who menstruate only see them once a month, are laid bare for all to see and touch. A common theme evoked amongst Emily’s work is the strength that can be found in vulnerability. ‘The Bleeding Woman’ ultimately highlights the liminal state of being in which the female body exists. Feared, yet revered. Medical, yet mystical. Regulated, yet transcendent. Emily’s art is a much needed interrogation of the psychological, physical, and transformative realism of being a person with a vagina.
What was your process behind making 'The Bleeding Woman'?
It was a project that spanned over a number of years, and started off as a series of figurative paintings that I did. I was interested in exploring ostracised, biological parts of the female body. I started transposing these paintings onto sculpture which is what got me interested in alternative materials to sculpture other than clay, because clay is quite permanent. I was looking for something that was more malleable and transcendent. [laughing] So I basically started making these wax vaginas. I played around with materials like cement, plaster board and expanding foam. Materials that were both domestic and violent were very much in my mind. The more I made, the more I realised I was looking for something more un-identifiable and visceral. So that's where the blood clots came from. I was heavily inspired by the genres of ‘Giallo’, body horror, and menstruation rituals, and I wanted to make a kind of biblical statement about how the body is manoeuvred in those frameworks. They use a lot of high saturated colours - pornographic colours like pinks and reds. The violence is very poetic. It’s always these beautiful, porcelain skinned women being murdered, and that tells you a lot about the male directors who are involved in the filmmaking. So I thought, how do I subvert that and create very self-driven project? That’s where the performances came from.
What was it like to get into mindset for the performances?
It was quite emotional. A lot of personal stuff was happening at the time, but I do think that played a part in the liberation of it. It is quite hard to revisit things that are obviously trauma based. But after a while, it became this calming, quite meditative process. It was very inward. I think with art sometimes that lens works in your favour, and sometimes it doesn't. I made a persona for myself that embodied all of the insecurities and all of the themes of sexual assault, of birth, fear of motherhood, fear of disease, and all of these different elements that it means to be a person with a vagina. To begin with, it was about getting rid of the body as an aesthetic. I was seeing it as a vessel that you can use to translate your work into. And you know, it's just flesh, isn't it? [laughs] Like it's just a flesh chamber. So, it started off quite jarring, and then it became normal. It was a freeing process.
You speak about your work being ‘situated in the gap between reality and the other worldly’. What were the inspirations behind your work?
I was very interested in feminist performances, so people like Marina Abramović and Annie Sprinkle. Sprinkle was actually a sex worker who then got into performance art because she did porn. Because porn is just performance, isn't it? She got really famous from doing a pap smear on herself in front of a live audience. She was a big inspiration because there's something quite surreal about doing something so intimate and so visceral, and being completely medical about it in front of a live audience. That kind of de-sexualization of the body and alienation of it was something that really interested me. I was really interested in the Uncanny, and I still am. A lot of my work now still has that shifting barrier between the mind and the body, closing that gap between the disconnect of how we see ourselves in the Age of Anxiety versus how we physically are.
How do we break down the taboos surrounding periods? What needs to happen for positive change?
I think they just need to be demystified. We need to talk about them like any kind of medical or biological process that happens. The ‘Girl Boss’ discourse is something that I think is deep seated in internalised misogyny, because it implies that there is still some type of ‘othering’. Women shouldn't have to be told that they can do something, they should just be able to do it. They shouldn't be othered because they are women. Although a lot of it is well intentioned, I do think some of these narratives are outdated. It was radical in the 90s, but we're 30 years on from that now. Like, the fact that you lose organ tissue, right? Why is that considered a weakness? How can anyone say that losing cells and re-growing them each month is some sort of weakness? It's like digestion. Any biological approach that exists in the human body. We need to just talk about it through the lens of realism, instead of trying to glamorise certain areas of being a person with a vagina.
So this series is called ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’. Where do you think your work lies within this?
I reckon all, possibly, or maybe just the ugly? [laughs] No, I'd say all because I think I'm trying to encompass a kind of universal and accessible experience. I think everything that I make is very reactionary. So it's always a kind of direct response to that stimulus. So I think that can't be just one element. I think it would encompass everything, but I also think life's quite ugly. Not in a negative way. But in a sort of outward way. So I guess all three – with an ugly emphasis.
Words and Interview by Lara Bland
To find out more about ‘The Bleeding Woman’ and Emily’s other work visit: https://emmearts.co.uk.
Follow Emily on Instagram at: @fl_emmeartcollective