Bodily functions

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974-79

The reputation of the 1970s isn’t great. If you type ‘1970s the decade’ into its search box, Google helpfully suggests the additions ‘that taste forgot’ and ‘style forgot’. Thanks for that. In fairness, in all sorts of ways it was a pretty rubbish decade. But it was also a decade in which some pretty great art was made and one in which women used art as a political weapon as never before. Probably. I’m sure there are plenty of earlier examples, but there was a pretty significant connection between female artists and the emerging women’s movement. Feminist artists like Mary Kelly, Martha Rosler, Judy Chicago and others made work that challenged previous modes of representation and sought to celebrate women and the female body on their own terms. Inevitably, the results weren’t always pretty.
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is a large-scale installation which takes the form of a triangular dinner table with 39 place settings each of which celebrates the achievements of a different woman, real and mythological. The floor tiles carry the names of many more women of note. 

The Dinner Party (detail)

The installation is undoubtedly an extraordinary achievement. Chicago worked with hundreds of assistants – mainly volunteers – to complete the work which employs craft skills traditionally seen as female and domestic to produce elements such as embroidered table runners and ceramic tableware. Many of the plates feature imagery based on the vulva.

Though I admire the ambition of The Dinner Party and Chicago’s achievement in successfully realising the work and though I do think that visually it’s a pretty amazing installation, it doesn’t really move me at all. It feels a bit too earnest and too much of its time and – and this is where I really take issue with it – its celebration is ultimately not of women but of the vagina. That we are more than that seems to me to be fundamental to feminism.

Red Flag, 1971

Though also focused on the vagina, for me the work of Chicago’s that still seems relevant is Red Flag. The advertising of what are somewhat coyly referred to as ‘feminine hygiene products’ has never really addressed the products’ purpose in any meaningful way. According to the adverts, tampons or sanitary towels will allow us to roller skate in white trousers when the more pertinent message is that they will keep blood off our knickers. Red Flag is a simple image, albeit one that people often take time to work out, and it carries a simple message that bodily functions are normal, natural and nothing to get worked up about. Essentially the image says yeah, what of it?

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