It’s period art


At Yale University, an undergraduate art student is saying she spent the academic year inseminating herself and then taking steps to induce miscarriages (or abortions, depending on your semantic preference) for the sake of making a very deep statement about ... something.

In the last few weeks, while much of the country tried to make sense of the presidential candidates’ economic policies, Iraq war strategies and the elocutionary uses and abuses of the word “bitter,” Yale senior Aliza Shvarts, who grew up in the Valley, has been fueling heated debate. The issues, which range from the totally gross to the merely annoying, break down roughly as follows:

Over the course of several months, Shvarts, during ovulation, injected herself with semen (provided, she claimed, by STD-screened volunteers). On the 28th day of her menstrual cycle she would take an abortifacient (which she’s described only as “herbal”), resulting in bleeding whose origin -- menses or a terminated pregnancy -- was inherently ambiguous. The message, as Shvarts explained in a guest column in the Yale Daily News on April 18, is to show how “the act of ascribing a word to something physical is at its heart an ideological act ... in a sense, the act of conception occurs when the viewer assigns the term ‘miscarriage’ or ‘period’ to that blood.”


It’s hard to say what causes the worse case of dry heaves, the graphic bodily-function-speak or the gratuitously inaccessible art-speak. On both counts, it gets worse. Shvarts’ final project was to be an installation featuring a cube wrapped in plastic sheeting that was smeared with Vaseline and (ostensibly) her own blood as well as videos showing her “removing blood from her body and collecting it in disposable cups.” (Shvarts explained this in her column as “an intervention into our normative understanding of ‘the real.’ ”)

As it turned out, the project was a bit too ab-normative for Yale. As Shvarts became blogospheric fodder, attracting outrage from pro-life and pro-choice groups alike, the university issued a statement calling the project “a creative fiction.” A Yale spokeswoman also said that Shvarts told college officials that she never inseminated herself and the project should be considered performance art.

When Shvarts disputed that statement, the spokeswoman told the Yale Daily News that Shvarts had vowed to deny what she’d told the university and that “her denial is part of her performance.” When Shvarts refused to sign a written statement saying she hadn’t inseminated herself or induced abortions -- “no one can say with 100% certainty that anything in the piece did or did not happen,” she says -- her installation was barred from the senior exhibition, which opened April 22. A Yale news release issued that day stated “there were serious errors of judgment” on the part of two faculty members and that “appropriate action has been taken.”

Now only one thing seems painfully clear: Aliza Shvarts has a bigger audience than most young artists -- let alone young performance artists -- could ever dream of. She’s also, at least for this week, probably the most famous college student in America outside of certain NCAA quarterbacks. That’s no small thing for someone about to graduate into a recession armed with little more than an undergraduate art degree and a flair for esoteric jargon.

It’s also no small thing for someone whose medium is both shocking and, alas, rather familiar. Many artists, including photographer Cindy Sherman and multimedia artist Judy Chicago, have incorporated menstrual blood into their work. As for those maybe-miscarriages and their role in performance art, hoax or some combination thereof, Shvarts has nothing on 18th century Englishwoman Mary Toft. In 1726, Toft became a sensation when she managed to convince the public and much of the medical community that she was repeatedly giving birth to rabbits.

Despite the lack of originality, Shvarts has something that most artists can only dream of: A media presence that could take her beyond her 15 minutes toward infamy. In less than two weeks, she’s been discussed in the Wall Street Journal and Gawker and an ever-multiplying field of blogs. An artwork that no one’s actually seen is being looked at by the whole world.


The result is that Shvarts’ project has become not about what she may or may not have done to her body, or may or may not be saying about reproduction, but about a subject that never fails to draw rapt attention: fame.

Now, excuse me while I take back every condescending thing I ever said about Norman Rockwell.