A guide to period art
Period art is currently having a moment, but menstruation has long been a source of creative inspiration.
On the day I met Rhine Bernardino, we were both menstruating. We had just arrived in Folkestone, England to begin a residency at performance space, where we would spend two weeks living together with other artists and developing new work. When I discovered that we were both working on pieces about menstruation, I thought, “Well, no wonder. Period art is having a moment."
Vibrant and viscous, menstrual blood is not only aesthetically captivating but imbued with deep symbolism—making it a ripe area for exploration in the visual arts. While I’ve only begun exploring menstruation in my own practice, there is a rich history of feminist artists working with their own (and in some cases, the public’s) blood to highlight issues of gender, labor, and inequality.
The feminist art movement and menstrual art
When Leslie Labowitz first performed "Menstruation-Wait" in 1971 in Los Angeles, she was nearly expelled from the master’s program at Otis College of the Arts by the all-male faculty. She described the piece as follows: "I wrote on a poster that I was waiting for my period, and if anyone wanted to come talk to me, I'd be in my studio.” The next year, she received a Fulbright scholarship to Germany and performed it again in Düsseldorf (1972), where audience members mocked her by hanging painted red rags on her backdrop.
The public reaction to Labowitz’s work reflected the values of a time when feminist artists were still struggling for mainstream recognition, and menstrual activism as we know it today was virtually unheard of. Works examining menstruation were, therefore, all the more risky.
In Judy Chicago's “Red Flag” (1971), the photolithograph shows a hand removing a bloody tampon from vagina. The following year, Chicago created “Menstruation Bathroom” (1972), an installation featuring a white bathroom with shelves of menstrual products, an overflowing trashcan of used sanitary pads, and a clothesline of pads leaking blood onto the otherwise spotless floor. In "Blood Work Diary" (1972), Carolee Schneemann recorded her cycle using grids of tissue paper blotted with her blood set in egg yolk.
Beyond these seminal feminist works (all produced by Americans), Latin American artists such as Sophie Rivera and Ana Mendieta also drew inspiration from the female body and the menstrual experience. These works were produced during the feminist art movement, which emerged from second wave feminism, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war activism of the late 1960s.
Visibility and menstrual art
On the first day of our residency, Bernardino spent an entire working day sitting motionless on a white chair, with her eyes closed and her hands on a white table which held a single item: a bottle of her menstrual blood. The only point of action in the performance occurred midday when she removed her menstrual cup from inside her vagina and emptied it into the bottle (without spilling a single drop, no easy feat, according to my own experience).
Part of her “Working from 9-to-5” series, in which she repeats the same action from 9am to 5pm, the performance was a meditative exploration of the invisible labor performed by menstruating bodies, which are forced to conform to the expectations of an average workday despite the physiological symptoms and stress experienced during periods. Bernardino has also collaborated with glassblower Anna Gray for the “Regla Series” (2017), a series of glass vessels filled with Bernardino's menstrual blood and intentionally striking in its luminous and fragile beauty.
Much of today’s menstrual-inspired art aims at making visible a bodily process which is seen as taboo—from Liv Strömquist’s “The Night Garden”, a series of felt-pen drawings of black-and-white human figures with visibly red-stained crotches, to the viral “period.” photo series from Canadian sisters Prabh and Rupi Kaur, which was removed from Instagram as “explicit content" without warning. During a time when reproductive rights and body acceptance are at the forefront of political discourse, artists are reclaiming menstruation as a symbol of personal power and autonomy.
In “Casting Off My Womb” (2013), Casey Jenkins, spent 28 days weaving a scarf using yarn that she inserted inside her vagina daily. She knit through her menstrual cycle, soaking the yarn with her blood, in order to explore “the dissonance between an individual’s quiet desires” and the “intense community expectations regarding what they should do with their body.” The resulting media attention led to a public backlash and thousands of hateful Internet comments. In “Television Lounge” (2014), Poppy Jackson occupied a police station in Ipswich, Suffolk, where she stood nude in a corner for seven hours with her back turned to the audience, as menstrual blood trickled down her legs. Carina Ubeda is the Chilean artist behind “Cloths”, which features five years worth of menstrual blood on stained cloths, stitched with words like “Production,|' “Discard,” and “Destroyed.”
Menstrual art and the public
Many artists have worked with their own menstrual blood, but some of the most challenging and controversial works involve collecting blood from the public or bringing the public into contact with the physical substance of blood.
In “Constellation”, Jackson applied blood in dots across her own body and onto the ceiling of a gallery space.
Christen Clifford's “1WantYour3lood” series (2013) showed the artist painting men’s bodies with menstrual blood collected from the public. The audience for the performance, named “The Menstrual Symphony”, was instructed to wear formal attire.
And in Bjork Grue Lidin's 2016 performance “Fuck Consent”, Lidin smeared herself in menstrual blood and loaded it into a spray gun, before unexpectedly aiming it at the audience (a move leading to her ejection from the Berlin exhibition venue).
Each of these artists put out calls to the public to donate containers of blood, which were submitted by mail, dropped off at galleries, or personally given to the artists. In their sourcing of material and in the choice of performance space and format, these works confront the public and make them complicit in their creation.
Menstruation as metaphor
At a menstrual sustainability event in Utrecht in 2017, I met Cecile Hubner, who screened “Cyclus”, a video showing how she planted watercress seeds on menstrual pads fertilized with blood. She came around to serve the audience the watercress on crackers, including us in the food chain that linked menstruation to the rest of nature’s cycles.
Like many artists, I am drawn to menstruation as a metaphor for life and death, for the sacred and the profane. During my residency at performance space, I researched a new short film project about the consumption of menstrual blood in religious ceremonies, developing ideas for how to reframe a bodily byproduct often viewed with disgust as a precious substance worthy of reverence.
Nearly half a century after the second-wave feminist art movement shocked and challenged the art world with pieces inspired by menstruation, today's generation of artists are pioneering new pathways with works that are politically charged, participatory, visceral, and unexpectedly beautiful.