In 2006, British artist Jamie McCartney set out to end the confusion, at a scale that could not be ignored: The original vulva diversity project that has inspired so many more.
The 8 metre (26 feet) long wall sculpture consists of four hundred plaster casts of vulvas, all of them unique, arranged into ten large panels. Jamie set out to make this project as broad and inclusive as possible. The age range of the women is from 18 to 76. Included are mothers and daughters, identical twins, trans men and women as well as a woman pre and post natal and another pre and post labiaplasty and many others.
Vulvas are as different as faces and many people, particularly women, don’t realise that. Featuring in a growing list of sex-ed texts, it is used by medical professionals the world over to reassure women, alleviate genital anxiety and provide context before turning to cosmetic surgery. This latest fashion for so called designer vaginas could easily reverse one day and favour larger labia. This project has been championed as a powerful antidote to insecurity. After embarking on this project alone, Jamie’s partner has now joined him, adding a strong, female voice to this collaboration.
This isn’t just sensation, it is didactic art with a social conscience and Jamie wants you to stop, look and listen.
As an artwork it succeeds as a visual spectacle whilst surreptitiously educating by stealth! Quite simply, this vagina monolith was intended to change the lives of women, forever. Having entered into the public psyche it has since become an icon. Jamie has pulled off an amazing trick – by cunning design he has deliberately made the sexual nonsexual and thus accessible to people of all ages and sensibilities. One is able to stare without shame but in wonder and amazement at this exposé of human variety.
I didn’t want to be part of a male narrative that drives women to anxiously seek labia surgery and I was in a unique position to do something about it. Knowledge is power. Freedom from genital anxiety is the goal.Jamie McCartney
Like many great artworks, The Great Wall of
Vagina Vulva! started as just an idea.
The project began in 2006 whilst Jamie was working for an erstwhile sex education museum in London. He’d been commissioned to produce several life-size interactive figures as well as a wall of casts of breasts, vulvas and penises as a centrepiece, titled The Spice of Life. Although making figurative sculptures was fairly routine for him, making genital casts was not. A bizarre and hilarious recruitment drive ensued.
Whilst casting the women he was shocked and saddened by how many were unhappy with their genitals. They thought their labia were too large or long or asymmetrical or the ‘wrong’ colour or their clits were too big or too small etc. They talked of ‘innies’ and ‘outies’ and ‘frilly bits’. Nobody was really happy with what they had. There was just so much genital anxiety out there amongst women and nobody was really talking about it. Like most men Jamie had never given a second thought to the differences he’d observed among his lovers. He had no preference for how they looked down there. He was just happy to be near one. It’s what was between their ears that mattered to him, not what was between their legs.
As a man, Jamie understood genital anxiety. Society chooses to champion porn dicks and if you don’t have a nine inch specimen then you feel like a lesser person, incapable of satisfying any woman. He associated sexual prowess with penis size and conflated it with lovability. This absurd and untrue narrative is toxic to the core and had consistently plagued his sense of self-worth. From adolescence through to adulthood the feelings of inadequacy had been profound.
That was right up until casting men for The Spice of Life. He needed casts of many different penises (flaccid and erect) to demonstrate as much variety as possible. As a straight man Jamie had seen few erections outside of porn, had never handled any besides his own and was not at all thrilled by the prospect. Less still by the idea of men coming to his studio and masturbating! But one must suffer for one’s art.
Inviting couples to model seemed the best plan and including himself meant one less dick to handle. To Jamie’s total surprise, when the casts were all lined up and he could for the first time in his life actually compare himself alongside other men, he saw that he was just like everyone else. Not the biggest, not the smallest, not the widest, not the narrowest. Just a normal, healthy, average penis. Nothing worth getting his knickers in a twist about. It was a life changing lesson for Jamie that took him to adulthood to learn. To celebrate he created 15 Minutes – a take on Warhol’s quote about fame.
Porn is not the norm. As one girlfriend had put it,”It’s a penis. It does the thing. Why all the fuss?” Despite numerous such reassurances from lovers the message did not hit home until he’d seen these casts all lined up. That is the power of casting. Unlike photos that can be any scale, casts are just exactly the size of the model, in 3d. No argument. They are what they are and it was undeniable. I’m normal. Despite a more mature public discourse around penis size being prevalent nowadays it made no difference until he’d seen it for himself in his studio. It is human nature to want to know where we fit in. We want to know what other people are like: including their genitals!
Jamie saw that little was being done to change the genital narrative for women. In a eureka moment he realised that casting could achieve the same thing for all the women out there who similarly suffered. Casting people and showing them side by side just works. It’s so simple. Why had nobody ever done it? Perhaps it was a unique set of circumstances that paved the way for Jamie to.
Genital angst was driving a huge increase in women seeking cosmetic labiaplasties. In 2006 it was the fastest growing cosmetic surgery in the UK. A surgical solution to a psychological problem, rather than reassurance that they were normal, seemed to Jamie rather extreme. Outies were out and innies were in. Suddenly labia were under scrutiny which Jamie attributed to the desire to depilate. Nowhere left for labia to hide.
The 70s bush kept everything hidden but was now in retreat. What began as a surgery to assist women whose large labia were causing discomfort or infection had morphed into an elective surgery to look streamlined in a thong. Some unscrupulous surgeons were fanning the flames, using women’s anxieties against them.
The problem was that before The Great Wall of
Vagina Vulva! existed there was literally nowhere for women to go to see what other women looked like. There were just poorly drawn, one-size-fits-all diagrams in medical and sex education books and there was pornography. Just as mighty porn dicks caused men to underestimate themselves, porn labia were generally of the diminutive variety. In fact porn models were seeking labia surgery just to get the work. Apparently AIDS in the 1980s had shaken up the industry. Oral sex was suddenly more preferable to the models and to get a good shot the bush had to go. Visible labia were considered hardcore and sales were restricted so smaller labia models became hot property. Or so the story goes.
So anyway, there was no Labia Library to refer to. No reference for medics to use to reassure you. You were on your own. All the hand mirror examinations in the world weren’t going to help without a guidebook. This sculpture was Jamie’s response. Education is the key to freedom. Knowledge can be a buffer against societal or peer pressure to look a certain way.
I had been fortunate to once date a woman working in domestic violence. She took me to the dress rehearsals of the very first performance of the Vagina Monologues in the UK. That was an education. She also opened my eyes to men's terrorism of women and also our invisible privileges and societal structuring that holds women back. In some way I wanted to atone. As a socio-political activist and experimental artist I'd wanted to do something. Here it was staring me in the face. I had all this knowledge. I already had a body casting business. I was based in one of the world's largest and most liberal cities and I'd just given up my job in the film industry to concentrate on my fine art. I really was in a unique place to do this. I was once asked in a radio interview if I was just perverted. I said that knowing what I know and with the skills I had, not doing the project would have been perverted.Jamie McCartney