Is 'vagina art' really that progressive?

Japanese artist Rokudenashiko has been arrested twice for distributing "obscene" materials.

Japanese artist Rokudenashiko has been arrested twice for distributing "obscene" materials. Photo: The Asahi Shimbun

Art that celebrates or focuses on the vulva – for that is what 99 per cent of people mean when they use the phrase "vagina art" – is nothing new, as this gallery's tiptoe through the annals (ahem) of the form that stretches from 35,000BC to the present day should indicate.

And yet, whenever an artist dares to make the vulva the focal point of her art practice, the reaction is the same: the artist is dubbed "controversial" and outrage follows. This year, it's Japanese artist Rokudenashiko, who has been arrested twice for distributing "obscene" materials.

Her manko (pussy) pieces are amiable dioramas, in which fanciful scenes – picnics, festivals, science fiction scenarios – take place upon a cast of her own vulva. She has also created a cute cartoon character, Manko-chan, which is what you might imagine the Hello Kitty team would come up with if they had to create a public health campaign mascot that also happened to be an anatomical diagram.

Casey Jenkins knitting for her piece 'Casting Off My Womb'.

Casey Jenkins knitting for her piece 'Casting Off My Womb'.

But as this profile illustrates, while Rokudenashiko's works are created with the aim of normalising the depiction of women's genitals, she has faced an uphill battle against Japan's obscenity laws, a hangover from 1907's Penal Code of Japan. "I'm probably the first woman to ever be arrested in Japan for using her own vagina as an expression," she told Broadly.  

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The broader reaction to her work was more or less the same that greets any "vagina art": snickering, feigned shock, mild outrage, muttering about political correctness or sex obsession gone mad (take your pick). Surely we've not forgotten the response to Casey Jenkins' Casting Off My Womb, aka the "vaginal knitting" installation?

There's room for discussion of the tendency to characterise "vagina art" – inevitably dismissed as some fringe subset of feminist art practice; everyone has a joke about 1970s femmos and their vulva paintings – as simply being another way of saying "women's art", which is essentialist at best and transphobic at worst.

The artwork named "Dirty Corner" by British contemporary artist Anish Kapoor.

The artwork named "Dirty Corner" by British contemporary artist Anish Kapoor. Photo: Getty Images

But, in 2015, surely it's time to see "vagina art" as no more or less remarkable than the countless explorations of the phallic enjoyed by male artists for years? Which is not to say that male artists don't occasionally take a sojourn into the Vagina Art world; indeed, quite a few major works in the "genre" have been created by men.

There's Jamie McCartney's The Great Wall Of Vagina, a 2011 series of plaster casts of vulvas that the artist hoped would combat "body fascism", and Anish Kapoor's Dirty Corner, which caused a mild stir upon its installation in the Versailles gardens this year (primarily because it wasn't very good).

(And some, like my favourite modern artist Paul McCarthy, are equal opportunity crotch-gazers, as his 1998 work Dick and Vagina will illustrate.)

Like many art world controversies, however, it could be argued that much of the hubbub over the latest works of "vagina art" is manufactured. It appears that the public, based on their shrugging reaction to most of these works of art, doesn't really care either way.

These works are, as The Great Wall Of Vagina's installation demonstrated, little more than something for observers to declare "a bit different".

Rather encouragingly, in an online poll that asked what they thought of Rokudenashiko's "pussy boat", only 32 per cent of Metro readers reckoned the work was "bonkers", while 58 per cent went with "freedom of expression".

And as for the 10 per cent of readers who declared it "completely normal", let's hope Rokudenashiko – with her dreams of normalising the vulva and vagina – hears them.