The Great Wall Of Vagina
At first glance, Jamie McCartney seems an unlikely champion for feminist causes. His workplace is crammed with graphic replicas of naked body parts, he says “tits” and “willies” a lot, drives a car emblazoned with the words “Get Plastered with Us”, and his work has featured in papers like The Daily Sport.
This Friday (6 May), at Brighton Fringe Festival, he’ll unveil a nine-metre polyptych composed entirely of vulvas. Four hundred of them, each the result of a different woman visiting his studio and, well, opening her legs for him. Its name? The Great Wall of Vagina.
It might sound like the stuff of pay-per-view websites, yet McCartney insists this is not pornography, but political art; not exploitation, but education. The 45-year-old sculptor – who regularly reproduces all manner of human anatomy at his “Brighton Body Casting” workshop – says it was his revulsion at “the growing trend, influenced by Californian swimsuit culture, for surgery to create the ‘perfect’ vagina, and the idea that even this private, hidden body part is now subject to societal pressure” that drove him to spend five years making plaster-casts of women’s most intimate organs.
“It shocked me that women were having labiaplasties without proper knowledge. Vulvas and labias are as different as faces, and many people, particularly women, don’t seem to know that.” Determined to show the infinite variety of female genitalia, and challenge the misconception that our nether regions should be “nice and neat, with no frilly, sticking-out bits”, McCartney began inviting vagina-baring volunteers onto his “casting couch”.
Aside from “asking everyone I knew who had one”, he recruited through his website, Facebook, and a 2008 Channel 4 series, The G-Spot. Wanting to be as inclusive as possible, he sought out a broad range of women, aged 18 to 76, including those pre- and post-pregnancy, pre- and post-cosmetic surgery, identical twins, mothers and daughters, and transsexuals. He also “spent the entire five years seeking a victim of female genital mutilation, but sadly without success”.
So why would anyone choose to publicise their privates like this? The casting process sounds straight out of Alien; volunteers must position themselves clap clinic-style, with feet together and knees apart, while McCartney clones the vulva by applying a layer of alginate, a seaweed-based compound – “it’s what dentists use to cast teeth” – to their bits. This sets to a flexible rubber in about two minutes, forming a mould which is then filled with plaster.
“It sounds weird, but it wasn’t painful or uncomfortable, and was over really quickly,” recalls Claire Ottewell, a 35-year-old tourism company director who took part. “Jamie was very professional – there was definitely nothing sleazy about it.”
Things were trickier for 76-year-old artist Amy Grimes: “I’d recently had a hip-replacement operation, and needed help getting onto the table. My legs started trembling, but the mould set just in time. I did it for myself – I’ve always been a bit sexually repressed, like most ladies of my generation – and for older women – we wise old crones are ignored after we reach 50, but our bodies are nothing to be ashamed of.”
Yet countless women, regardless of age, feel uneasy about their vagina’s appearance. “I’ve always been very body-conscious, and grew up thinking of that part of me as incredibly unattractive,” says Ottewell. “Seeing the results of the project made me realise that it’s not in fact a monstrosity.”
Hannah Whitlock, 22, a care support worker, agrees: “I have Lichen Sclerosus (LS), a condition that makes the skin around the vulva inflamed and fragile, and shrinks the labia minora and perineum. It means I have a lot of pain, find sex difficult, and don’t look like ‘the norm’. I got involved to raise awareness of LS, but it’s also been great to discover that, although my vagina looks different, so do other people’s – and there is beauty in all of them.”
McCartney hopes viewers of the exhibition – which he plans to tour throughout the UK, and then across the globe – will share this celebratory response. “This piece is intended to change the lives of women, forever,” his website proclaims. Whether his fresco of fannies will do that remains to be seen, but it – and an accompanying book relating his volunteers’ stories – will undoubtedly get people talking, and hopefully expose not only his participants’ pudenda, but also the lunacy of the “designer vagina” aesthetic.
The Great Wall of Vagina runs from 6 to 31 May at Brighton Body Casting, Ship Street Gardens, Brighton
Words By Colette Bernhardt