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Looking at "WOMB" By Kelly Chuning

By Juliette Eberle and Etta Harshaw

Kelly Chuning’s “WOMB” is comprised of eight prints which each represent a day of her period. Chuning collected her menstrual blood each day and used this bodily fluid as pigment to print photographs. A chain of events surrounding her health inspired the artist to create this series. Chuning was diagnosed with endometriosis after a tumor was found on her left ovary which ultimately resulted in the surgical removal of that ovary. After her diagnosis, she was informed she needed an IUD. Chuning did not have insurance and had to set her case before the government and plead for funding for this device, which was necessary due to her condition. Endometriosis affects 1 in 10 women, yet the process to treat it remains complex. Beyond the difficulty of simply finding funding for healthcare in the US, research for women-specific medical issues are grossly underfunded. After this period of medical procedures it occurred to Chuning that people would first ask her whether or not she was still capable of having children, not whether she was in good health or feeling okay. The combination of pain, dealing with the US healthcare system, and the insinuation that her body was meant first and foremost for childrearing fueled the artist’s concept behind this body of work. 


While Chuning was producing these prints in school, complaints were raised by fellow students. For the artist to continue her process using school facilities, two caveats were enforced: her work and materials were labeled as biohazardous and she had work at night while no other students were present. Blood is a natural product of all people, it is necessary for human life. Unlike other materials that have previously been used for art like urine or fecal matter, it is not excretion but the very substance through which our most important biological processes are carried; yet the use of blood, more specifically menstrual blood, is considered foul and hazardous. This healthy blood - that which could be used to save lives through transfusion, which carries integral materials throughout the body - is transformed from precious to taboo once it exits the body through the female reproductive organs. 

The subject matter in the photographs are self portraits of the artist and interior settings. The interior settings are meant to explore the artist’s necessity to host a man-made object within herself - an IUD - as opposed to the man-made structure of a house, which houses humans. More importantly, Chuning depicts her own image in a material that her body has produced. While it contributes to the meaning of the works, the subject matter is secondary, even in effect as the use of menstrual blood obscures the images, making it difficult to decipher the subject initially. It is the process of collecting her own menstrual blood and using it to develop her images as an act of mimesis between material and meaning that delivers the more impactful aspect of this work.

These prints are not the first works of art to be made of natural materials which inevitably decay over time. In 2018, when they were produced, the menstrual blood created a yellow stain, now in 2022 they have faded to a light gray. The use of this material recalls work of post-minimalist artists such as Eva Hesse, who utilizes nontraditional materials to evoke the human body. Hesse used materials such as latex that deteriorates over time intentionally as a commentary on the fragility of life. However Chuning not only evokes the human body but incorporates material that is naturally produced by her body, to develop photographs of her own body. 


Nor are these prints the first to utilize animal material. Take for example the work of post-modernist Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or Blood Cross or works from Damien Hirst, of the Young British Artists, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living or Mother and Child (Divided). Each of these artists faced large controversy. For Serrano, criticism came from the religious: The artist submerged a figure of Christ on the crucifix in a jar of his own urine and then photographed it in the former work, and in the latter work he photographed a plexiglass cross filled with cow's blood. While Serrano uses bodily fluids to situate his subjects which he then photographs, Chuning uses them to produce her subjects on paper. The use of urine was critiqued contextually. It was not simply that Serrano used urine in his work, but that his piss submerged the image of Christ. In the case of Hirst, there is the question of animal cruelty that fuels the criticism of his works. Mother and Child (Divided) consists of four formaldehyde cases - two contain each half of a mother cow and the other two the halves of the calf. The mother and child are separated from each other as well as being separated from themselves through Hirst’s bilateral dissection, which allows the viewer to pass through and witness an internal plane of the beings. These works are criticized for their blasphemous or cruel nature - yet Chuning’s process was disrupted only because of the material in and of itself. Why is it that Chuning is still criticized if she is using material taken willingly from herself, to depict herself? Without the scapegoat of moral concern, we are forced to see that the real objection to Chuning’s work is the artist’s preference of the visceral depiction of the female experience. 


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