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The Living Sculpture Series: hymNext hymens

“My cells are in the sculptures because I wanted myself to be new art media"

"In each sculpture, my DNA is a personal signature. Replacement hymens confront cultural and traditional functions of the thin membrane. The act of reproducing my vaginal cells gestures toward the one-time occurrence and breakage of the biologically virginal hymen. The hymen is neither inside nor outside the vaginal canal. In philosophy, “hymen” is a stance in between two discursive positions, without tendency to one side. In biological and philosophical modalities, I am, like the hymen, in between the artistic and scientific disciplines. The resulting art pieces are a conjuration of new symbols to encourage discussion about scientific research and body politics.”

- Excerpt from New Literary History Magazine, 2007.

The installation commented on modern sexuality, confronted the traditional roles of the female body and presented a collection of synthesized hymens for the hypothetical application upon the human body. The original unisex hymens were sculpted with living materials and the artist’s own vaginal (body) cells. From 2004 to 2007, matrix/tissue constituents, growth media, laboratory tools and customized culturing plates were researched/developed to create unique forms in the specimens and survive as living sculptures for a definite period of time. The remaining hymen designs consisted of a combination of neonatal foreskin, bovine collagen, and rodent aortic smooth muscle. All were grown in a nutrient media and survival rates ranged between 2 - 3 weeks before cell death or contamination issues ceased normal cell proliferation, then preserved for exhibition. The sculptures were a representation of the symbolic gift of virginity in a reciprocal gesture between lovers. As part of a group show Sk-interfaces (Liverpool, UK 2008), curated by Jens Hauser, all the participating artists presented work on their translation of how skin acts as an interface between people and environments. For more show information, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Accompanied with laboratory artifacts, the work displayed the intersection of art and science. The viewer is encouraged to look down into the ceremonial boxes, as if he or she was the recipient. The tabletop laboratory was exhibited to show the actual setting of hymen production during the last phases of their life cycles.The viewer is also encouraged to speculate about the possibilities and limitations resulting from the medical and scientific arts in a time of emerging technologies.

boxes display

Challenging expectations of sexuality

The hymens challenge social expectations of female and male sexuality. The fleshy membrane has historically been a male instituted tool of surveillance upon the female form to ensure the chasteness of the virgin before becoming the property of her husband. In modern times, the female role in developing societies continues to rise in terms of social and professional status and so standards of what is deemed acceptable female behavior should also evolve.

Medically, there are clinics around the world, including the U.S. where it is a lucrative venture, to perform hymenorrhaphy or hymen replacement. For premarital proof of virginity in some cultures, a hymen replacement means saving a family’s integrity or even the bride-to-be’s life. Although the hymen is still a vehicle to control the feminine form, the social consequences in those instances may prove disastrous if the surgical deceit is not performed. Other reasons may be to rejuvenate a vaginal canal that has experienced muscle lapse due to multiple births (D'Ardenne and Barnes, 1998). Both scenarios illustrate the desire to start over. Physiologically, they are virgins again. Both types of hymen replacement recipients will go through the same pain and sensation as they did the first time.

Doing it for love

Defloration and the associated pain can be sentimental. Pain is subjective and in physical breakage of the hymen, it symbolizes pivotal point of change. Therefore, virginity is a state of mind. People transform into different versions of themselves or may change completely. Life starts over. Defloration should be repeatable if the initial loss of innocence was not satisfactory or occurred from unfortunate circumstances. In the same respect, the male form does not have any biological indicator for purity of mind and body in a new sexual relationship and so they are included as subjects who may give and receive the hymen as a symbolic gift.

To address both sexes, and in respect to the alternate sexes (transgender and transitional), the hymen also represents the re-introduction of a Greek mythological figure, Hymenaios, the patron god of loving unions. This god was the son of Aphrodite and Dionysus, and brother of Priapus. His family members also represented different aspects of sexuality or pleasure: Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and sexual delight; Dionysus represented inebriation and ecstasy; Priapus also a god of fertility and bountifulness (Smith, 1870). It is only later in the development of the Western, male dominant culture that the god was assigned to only heterosexual marriages.

According to original Greek mythology, Hymenaios represented the union of people in love, regardless of gender paring. In Greek art he is depicted as tall and delicate, bearing a bridal torch to lead the refuge maidens back home from the robbers who stole them away from home. In return, he was able to marry the one he loved and the maidens bring up his name in bridal songs as they got married to their loved ones. In pre-Raphaelite art, he is depicted in a flowing dress and playing his lute for a couple in a wedding ceremony. The hymen, wedding hymn, and ritual blessings are all based on Hymenaios’ legend of his presence in the act of commitment of love between two people.

Enigmatic boundary

The hymen is a membrane that is neither inside nor outside and its biological function is still debatable. In philosophical discourse, “hymen” is also referred as neither here nor there, positioning the discussion participant “on the fence” or as undecided about a point of contention (Bass, 1982). Symbolically, the hymen can also be seen as a united front for both parties involved in the sexual and discursive act, a barrier that is broken down to begin a relationship or open a channel of communication. A cultural boundary is also crossed in The hymNext Project because the hymens are intended for novel use only, not as replicas for the lost hymen. Each hymen produced has a design that makes it obvious that the artwork is a parody of the traditional one-time sexual ritual of taking someone’s virginity, purity, chastity, or innocence.

hymNext symbolism

"unisex" The first line of living hymens in The hymNext Project. Not prescribing to one gender, but addressing all genders, the unisex hymen represents the unity between the sexes and philosophically, between art and science.

"Cho Ku Rei" Translated from Japanese meaning "Put all the power of the Universe here." In healing practice and meditation, to speak, write or perform the sacred character is to invoke Universal power to the subject. The power of the hymen is the subject in this case. The symbolism of the hymen has become associated with the meaning of bodily submission and/or fear when absent under matrimonial requirements. A sacred symbol for power, the incantation and written form of cho ku rei is applied to the hymen and its recipient. Power and autonomy is once again reclaimed to the one who offers the gift of their (re)virginity.

Nanay translated from Filipino as "mother" and the meaning of the stylized shape is twofold. Visually, the human mother is represented by the larger u-shape form, embracing its offspring. In cellular biology, a budding host cell gives rise to cellular byproduct. This hymen signifies the maternal influences upon the artist and the process of sexual or asexual reproduction in organisms.

Vesica Piscis translated from Latin, meaning "Vessel of the Fish." This rendition combines the sacred geometrical shape and the fish form. The vesica is depicted in pagan and other religious art throughout history. In Christianity, Jesus and saintly persons are pictured with the vesica surrounding their enitre body or as an adaptation of the halo around the head. The area within the vesica represents the portal between the earth and divine. It also represents the life-giving, maternal womb.

Duo Flames The two dancing flames represent two lovers joining in matrimony. The flame form visually represents life, rebirth and energy. In Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander art motifs, the flame form is integral to background patterns especially around dieties and dioramas. Flames are seen as ornamental screens on temples and patterns on clothing. In this piece, the flame and the lover are combined and presented in a box also with a mirroring flame on the primary design.

CLICK IMAGE FOR DETAIL:

HYMNEXT GALLERY

SKINTERFACES GROUP SHOW

Liverpool, UK (2008)

CLICK HERE FOR SHOW CATALOGUE

CLICK HERE FOR BOOK EXCERPT

Show curation and book editor: Jens Hauser

Skin represents a place where art, science, biopolitics, philosophy and social culture inter-face. sk-interfaces presents the work of 17 international artists reflecting on the way current technologies are changing our lives, with an emphasis on the transformation process itself. The artworks in sk-interfaces deal with the concept of liminality - a period of transition between two states of being-- and the fluctuating ‘in-betweeness’ of our current socio-cultural climate.

 

hymNextTM 2004 and hymen production process is owned by Julia Reodica. Patent pending.

Completion of the Living Sculpture Series was funded by a fellowship award from re:new media and The Rockefeller Foundation.

Special thanks to Helen Hong, Ph.D for consultation.

 

References

Bass, A. (1982). Margins of Philosophy:Translation of Derrida's Differance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pg. 3-27.

D'Ardenne, P. and Barnes, T. (1998). Medical solutions for sexual dillemas. Sexual and Medical Therapy. Vol. 13, Iss. 2, pg. 125. Abingdon.

Smith, W. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. pg. 536.