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Breaking the mould
12:16pm Monday 20th October 2008 in Interview
As a controversial exhibition featuring casts of women’s vaginas arrives in Brighton, Ruth Addicott speaks to some of the local volunteers who agreed to bare all.
What makes 200 women including a 64-year-old grandmother from Eastbourne want to have a plaster cast of their “bits” on display in Berlin?
The reasons range from sheer curiosity to wanting to celebrate womanhood. Or, according to Brighton sculptor Jamie McCartney, the chance to be part of “history in the making”.
Better known for his casts of hands, feet, bottoms and boobs, Jamie’s latest focus is the nether regions.
Since starting his “Design A Vagina” project nearly three years ago, he has taken moulds of 120 women, including 40 from Brighton. His aim is to complete five panels each featuring 40 casts and to take the exhibition worldwide.
The first panel has already been on display in Berlin since mid- September and will be shown in Brighton as of tomorrow.
According to Jamie, the idea was sparked by the trend for the “designer vagina”, where women resort to plastic surgery for a certain look.
“For many women their vagina is a source of shame rather than pride and this piece seeks to redress the balance, showing everyone is different, everyone is normal, and everyone is beautiful,” he says.
A socio-political statement or a load of claptrap? For Annie, 64, it was neither.
A grandmother of five, from Eastbourne, she signed up to add a “frisson of excitement” to her marriage.
“I haven’t told anyone. People are narrow-minded about these things,” she says. “I wanted to do something erotic that would add a sexual spark to our relationship.”
Her husband, if a bit bemused, went along “as part of the excitement”.
“I don’t like being 64 but I’m not some idiot trying to act like a young woman,” she says. “Sex is fine if you’re young, it’s what everyone does, but when you’re post-menopausal, women don’t talk about it. It’s as if people are saying ‘you’ve had your time, now give up’, and I don’t want to give up.”
Annie might have a bus pass and answer to the name “granny”, but she and her husband are anything but stereotypical pensioners. He’s got a tattoo on his bottom and she had her clitoris pierced ten months ago (again, to add to the “excitement”).
She paid £25 for the privilege and £100 for the ring (solid gold) which she wears every day. Combined with the cast, she claims it has taken their relationship to a whole new level. “It keeps things alive,” she says, bluntly.
The only problem is finding a place to display the cast. Sitting next to the carriage clock on the mantlepiece wasn’t quite right, so it is hidden in a box in the drawer.
“We look at it from time to time but primarily it was about the experience,” she says.
For social worker Kate, 44, from Brighton, spicing up her love life was the last thing on her mind.
She was more interested in the ethos behind it.
“I think the approach we have to our bodies in this country is a crying shame,” she says. “People have so many unrealistic images about what is normal pushed on them, they feel under pressure. We are all different and I rather like the idea of celebrating that.
Taking part in the exhibition seemed a good way to do that without being an exhibitionist.”
While there was a part of her that found the process quite liberating, she says if the cast had a sign next it saying “Kate, 44 and-a-half”, she would never have agreed.
She likes being part of a collection and was as surprised as anyone by the different shapes.
Asked if she’d be able to recognise her own in the display, she believes her partner would stand a better chance. “I’d be more likely to spot it if I was blindfolded, doing it by touch,” she quips.
The project has attracted volunteers aged 18 to 64 from all sorts of professions, as well as a hen party, two transsexuals (one who used to be a woman, the other who was a man) and a virgin.
Jamie stresses it is safe, fast and fun, with contracts signed to ensure no one oversteps the mark.
Bandana, 45, is a part-time manager for children’s charity Barnardo’s, and signed up on a whim. “A mid-life crisis, probably” she jokes. “It is a celebration of womanhood, and it appealed to my adventurous side.”
The thing that surprised her most was how empowered she felt afterwards.
“It’s like sky diving, once you’ve done it, it gives you a real confidence boost,” she says.
“There are a lot of opportunities out there and we are often too embarrassed or too afraid to try them. Taking part in something like this makes you realise you can do anything.”
While she has told a handful of friends, however, she has yet to tell her mother, who she feels might take some convincing.
Aside from the scale of the project and persuading women to bare their “bits” to a complete stranger, the biggest challenge for Jamie was getting through airport security.
The artwork was wrapped in bubblewrap with a sign saying “Fragile” on top. “I had no idea what was going to happen at X-ray,”
he says. “The hall was full of bored people waiting their turn and I put the package on the conveyor and walked through the scanner. Suddenly from behind me came the scream “Oh my God!”. I turned to see the security woman with her hand over her mouth, staring intently at the screen.
Clearly visible, the 40 vaginas had lit up like a Christmas tree. Everyone was straining to get a glimpse. When they realised it wasn’t a suicide bomber, relief turned to amusement. As I got on the plane, I couldn’t help thinking ‘What fun – my fannies caused such a kerfuffle.”
- Design A Vagina will be showing at the Impure Art Gallery, Ship Street Gardens, Brighton from October 21st.
- Anyone interested in being a volunteer can visit, www.brightonbodycasting.com/design-a-vagina.php