Have you ever had the most incredible idea of a lifetime – revolutionary, life-changing, monumental – only to find someone else got there first? Yeah I know, like every day. After talking to a lot of different women, I realised that the world is overflowing with self-hating vaginas. I decided that there needed to be some sort of online archive of vagina which women could peruse to reassure themselves that no vag is normal, because they come in so many wide and wondrous variations. Like deep sea creatures. Or penises. I was about to single-handedly start a revolution, revive feminism, save womankind. But then I heard about this guy (as well as a bunch of other people), who had absolutely, irrevocably got there first.
Sculptor Jamie McCartney's The Great Wall of Vagina is pretty self-explanatory: It's a wall, of vagina. I called him up to talk about the type of time travel he used to steal my idea approx. five years ago. We also found time to speak about his art. VICE: Hey Jamie! Your show Skin Deep just opened in London and The Great Wall of Vagina is part of it. How’s that going?
Jamie McCartney: I’m actually terribly excited. This London show is the first time The Great Wall has been displayed in a commercial gallery and the first time it has been displayed to the public in one, long row. I read that you made 400 vagina plaster casts over the last four years, right? Which is a little different to what I had planned, but I guess it still works.
The construction of the sculpture is very minimalist. I wanted the casts to do the talking. It was necessary to have as many casts as possible because by their juxtaposition they prevent the focus on any one. That is one way it transcends porn references. Genitals disassociated from the body just aren’t sexy and in such numbers are even less so. The plain white casts also remove any questions of race or colour. Their homogeny allows a simple and direct comparison with all of the other casts.
How did you come up with it?
I produced a similar sculpture called The Spice of Life. It was a wall sculpture of the genitals and breasts of 18 different couples. I realised that through casting I could change people’s lives for the better. I included myself in the piece and for the first time in my life I was able to compare myself to others. The only reference I had before was pornography. I did worry, since I wasn’t packing a porn pistol in my pants, that I was inadequate. After making that sculpture, I realised I had nothing to worry about. The women I cast felt the same way. I realised that this could be a very healing thing. When I discovered that labiaplasty was the fastest growing cosmetic procedure in the UK, I decided it was time to act. OK, let's get to the important stuff: How did you get 400 women to spread their legs for you?
Well to begin with I asked everybody with a vagina. Most people said, “Are you out of your fucking mind?" Some brave souls said yes, though, and so the project began. They are the real heroes of the story. I pretty much averaged two vagina casts a week, in the past four years. That’s quite a thing. I think on my busiest day I cast 12 people. Mental!
That is a lot of vagina. How do you think it has affected you?
Greatly. People ask what it was like working with 400 vaginas. I like to point out that I actually worked with 400 women. I have heard a lot of stories and points of view that I’m sure have affected my understanding of quite a few women’s issues. I’d like to think it has made me grow up a bit. I take it your views on vaginaplasty aren't exactly positive?
I don’t think it is a bad thing, per se. What a woman wants to do with her body is nobody else’s business. Many women have the surgery and are very happy with the results. What I object to is the number of people seeking this surgery who have no idea about the variation in normal genital appearance. Rather than reassuring women they have nothing to worry about, many plastic surgeons are invested in persuading women that they are defective. Thinking your genitals are ugly is a psychological problem and being offered a surgical solution as a first resort is unethical at best. I once saw a stolen image of one panel from the Great Wall on the website of a plastic surgeon who was using it to illustrate how ugly many labia are. I was shocked. In the wrong hands, this can be a double-edged sword.
What do you think about the role of porn in all of this?
The predominance of trimmed and tiny labia and no hair at all is certainly driving this popular aesthetic. Similarly, the supreme erections of pornstars are leading many men to suffer anxiety. It’s so very sad and so utterly absurd. It’s time our society grew up around these issues and we realised that what is between our legs is far less important that what is between our ears. So porn is to blame?
We are to blame. All of us. Every person that ever made a big dick comment or a small dick joke or a flappy labia joke is guilty. As a society we do it to ourselves. It takes very little to give somebody a complex. It takes an awful lot of work to change it. Porn just reinforces the stereotypes. It substitutes for sex education these days, which is shameful. You talk about male anxiety as well, but does your work attract as much attention from men as women?
When I first showed the sculpture in my studio the majority of visitors were women, probably about 70/30.
When I realised that it was a man who stole my vagina revolution it made me even more pissed. Then I remembered that vaginas are kind of a big deal for everyone. Have you had anyone reacting negatively to your gender?
I was scolded by a woman at my showing saying how uncomfortable she was that a man had done it. So sexism is alive and well. My take is that somebody had to do it. It’s also harder to dismiss me as just another feminist or some such. In the end I think it doesn’t matter who did it. Most people will just look at the pictures and not read about it much. It's that they are looking that matters, not why. What about positive reactions?
I get emails from women and men all over the world saying thank you and well done. It’s really heartening. I feel like I’ve done something right with my life. Right on. I just wish I'd had the idea first.
Sorry I stole your revolution. Viva la Vulvalution, I say…The Great Wall of Vagina will be on show at Jamie’s Skin Deep exhibition at the Hay Hill Gallery in London until June 2nd.