Today was to be my last post. Number 100. I don’t usually plan my posts. I just go where the mood takes me on any given day, but today was going to be different. I have been thinking about it for a while. It was going to be a simple thank you to the people who have so kindly indulged me in my folly. But no more. I’ve been ambushed. Derailed. Kiboshed. By a vagina. An enormous, screaming, laughing vagina.
When I opened up the news this morning, to make sure that the world had yet again not come to an end, one particular headline stood out; “Walk-in vagina installed at old jail”. Right. But that wasn’t all. News like this warrants a little elaboration; “A screaming, laughing vaginal canal has been installed at the old Women’ Jail in Hillbrow, Johannesburg”. Of course it has. We’ve been waiting for one for years.
It is, of course, an Art. More than that, it is a Very Important Art. You can tell, because it’s located in the Women’s Prison and has vaginas in it. Since, on the strength of two posts on an obscure personal blog, I am now a highly respected international art critic, I cannot simply ignore this. Particularly not if it’s going to be screaming and laughing at me.
I have not actually seen the work, but the best sort of art critics don’t let minor details like this stand in their way, and besides, I have seen it described. It is made of red velvet and cotton and occupies a twelve metre long walkway. But that’s the dull description. The artist herself, one Reshma Chhiba, says it better; “By creating this vagina which you walk into, it contains you as the viewer, but also screams and laughs, almost like a battle cry, revolting against the prison”. Yes. It certainly does sound like it’s revolting.
The enormous screaming vagina has been linked by the artist with the Hindu goddess Kali, but the good Ms Chhiba does not want to be pinned down. “It is” she stated, without even a hint of a smile, “a global vagina”.
I object. Not because it’s a vagina. We live in the age of the internet. Vaginas are not scary anymore. The sort of people who feel it is their duty to be offended by huge laughing vaginas will no doubt come out and express their outrage, but that sort of thing lacks conviction these days. The western world has been flooded by a tidal-wave of vaginas. We’re not frightened by the vagina as a symbol anymore.
And not because I don’t see the validity of the message, either. We might not be frightened of vaginas anymore, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t frightened by women. In South Africa at least, we still live in a hugely patriarchal society, where the rights and freedoms of women are seen as being a lesser thing, a bit of an indulgence to keep the gals happy while the men get on with the important stuff. Ideas or people that challenge that status quo are scary.
No. I object because it’s about as subtle as a kick in the groin. The whole damn thing is so damn obvious that it’s patronising. I don’t have a problem with good art that challenges ones preconceptions and makes one think. Thinking, however, is not on the menu here. It’s a VAGINA! In WOMEN’S PRISON. And it’s SCREAMING AND LAUGHING. Get it? If you don’t, the artist is more than happy to explain it to you.
That’s the thing about subtlety. Two kinds of people are going to be seeing this. There will be the ones who already get the message, who are perfectly aware that women are still undervalued and denied real equality, no matter what the official party line may be. The ones who get that there are still untold millions out there who are intimidated by women’s freedom and women’s sexuality.
Then there will be the other ones. The ones who will be spluttering with feigned outrage, because vaginas, or poking each other in the ribs and saying “Check it out dude! It’s an enormous screaming vagina!” and having a bit of a giggle before opening another beer and going back to analysing last Saturday’s game.
Nobody’s ideas or prejudices are being challenged here.
If you really want to challenge people’s ideas and prejudices, you have to sneak your point past their defences. You have to plant the seeds of radical ideas without triggering their inbred responses. You need to set to work with a fine tipped brush, not a sledgehammer. Or a twelve metre long screaming vagina.
Twelve metre long screaming vaginas don’t make people think. They don’t make people quietly examine their own prejudices and slowly start inching towards real change. Twelve metre long screaming vaginas make people laugh. Twelve metre long screaming vaginas make anonymous bloggers post facetious articles on the internet.
I won’t be taking the family through to check out the twelve metre long screaming vagina this weekend. We are fairly liberal about the whole parenting thing, and try to explain everything clearly and simply to our kids. At least Mrs 23thorns is. I am fairly liberal about telling the kids to go and ask their mother. But as liberal as we may be, the prospect of explaining a global, twelve metre long, screaming, velvet-lined walk-in vagina to a four-year-old is a little daunting.
And that’s not all. The exhibition is in Hillbrow, one of Jo’burgs most notorious slums. I’d be happy to go along myself, but it just isn’t safe for women.