Carina Úbeda, “Paños” (2013): for five years, the Chilean artist Carina Úbeda deposited her menstrual blood onto sanitary rags which she later used to create this installation, consisting of 90 unique blood-stain abstract forms that also serve as mini-artifacts documenting her bodily cycles. To give each mark a more poetic register than a simple cataloged collection, she embroidered the rags with symbolically-charged words that deal with themes of natality and mortality, growth and decay, consumption and production. The embroidered rags were placed in embroidery hoops like canvas stretched onto frame ( the “tondo" shape, befitting of its traditional context of intimate domestic settings) and suspended from the ceiling, surrounded by dangling rotten apples symbolizing ovulation. After all, what is fruit if not the swollen ovaries of a plant?
By presenting her blood as an object of aesthetic value, Úbeda, challenges viewers to perceive bloodstains as beautiful organic forms and thereby supplants our cultural revulsion to menstrual blood as something abject. Some premodern cultures before the advances of modern medical sciences construed menstrual blood as dirty, impure fluids that sporadically leaked from the woman’s body:
"When a woman has a discharge and the discharge from her body is blood, she will remain in a state of menstrual pollution for seven days. Anyone who touches her will be unclean. Anything that she lies on in this state will be unclean; Anyone who touches her bed must wash clothing and body. If a man goes so far as to sleep with her, he will contract her menstrual pollution and be unclean for seven days. Once she is cured of her discharge, she will allow seven days to go by; after that she will be clean. On the eighth day she will take two turtledoves or two young pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The priest will offer one of them as a sacrifice for the sin and the other as a burnt offering." (Leviticus 15:19-30; link…suddenly I find myself in the mood for some Diamanda Galás Plague Mass!)
While many might consider the periodic discharge of excess uterine fluid as nothing more than bodily waste (i.e. merely a useless byproduct of the reproductive process), Úbeda considers these objects the result of everyday artistic production: “When I look at the cloth, I do not see that, but an abstract image…Many people have asked me why I wanted to show something so intimate…For me, it is simply a work of art made by me, I see them as separate things.” (link)
The piece takes on another meaning from the standpoint of human labor when we consider the labor that went into this project. The codification of human labor into domestic private space and the public space of work (including artwork) and politics was a primary preoccupation of the philosopher Hannah Arendt. In her book The Human Condition, she contrasts woman going into labor to give birth with the labor of the proletariat (working class): “The distinctive trait of the household sphere was that in it men lived together because they were driven by their wants and needs. The driving force was life itself—the penates, the household gods, were according to Plutarch, ‘the gods who make us live and nourish our body’—which, for its individual maintenance and its survival as the life of the species needs the company of others. That individual maintenance should be the task of the man and species survival the task of woman was obvious, and both of these natural functions, the labor of man to provide nourishment and the labor of woman in giving birth, were subject to the same urgency of life. Natural community in the household therefore was born of necessity, and necessity ruled over all activities performed in it.” (p. 30) Later in her chapter on labor, “§14: Labor and Fertility,” Arendt elucidates on the metaphors of fertility conflated with in concept of labor and production throughout the history of Western civilization. But menstrual blood is generally considered no more productive a material than fecal matter. The artist again has inverted the traditional role, where the artistic process serves as the material “excess” of labor’s production, just as blood is the anatomical excess of human reproduction.