Jamie McCartney has been on our radar for a while, ever since we heard about his amazing sculpture, “The Great Wall of Vagina” – a powerful nod to diversity and the female form. This project – and all the dynamics of it – is fascinating and we’re so happy to be able to share Jamie’s words and experiences with all of you! Viva la Vulvalution!
Tell us about yourself!
I grew up in London but now I live on the coast. My mother is an artist and she took me around all the galleries when I was young. I was going to be an artist. There was never a question in my mind. Nobody else thought it was a good idea but that just encouraged me. I’m a maverick artist. You don’t ask for permission to do that!
When I’m not in my studio working on commissions (most of my work is for private clients who want something for their home), I will be out on my bicycle or out on the sea. I like to stay active. It’s good for my
mind to get away from the studio. My other love is travel. I choose my international clients carefully so I get to travel to new places all the time. Travel gives you back your childhood wonder. Because everything is new, you get to see through the eyes of a child again. It’s very intoxicating.
What is your background as an artist? What led you to become a sculptor?
I studied ‘Experimental Studio Art’ at Hartford Art School in the USA. I was awarded my Bachelor degree with highest honours in 1991. Since then I haven’t looked back. I still make art in the same maverick, sociopolitical and experimental way that I always did. The only difference is now I can afford to make some of my grand plans which as a new graduate was impossible. I prefer to refer to myself as an artist rather than label myself as a sculptor, although a huge amount of my work so far has been three dimensional. I work in many different medias including performance and lately I spend an equal amount of time on my experimental photographic collages. I think the sculpture came about really because I’m rubbish at painting! I always found myself making collages of objects attached to my paintings and then they became sculptures which hung on the wall. Most of my work is still sculptures which hang on the wall and are still collages of objects. I’m really quite boring!
What inspired you to create the Great Wall of Vagina?
I was commissioned in 2006 to make a large panel of plaster casts of genitals and breasts for a sex museum in London. I called it ‘The Spice of Life’. I included a cast of my own erect penis amongst the 17 other men I had to cast for it. In doing so, I was able to compare my penis to other men for the first
time. This is human nature. We all want to know where we fit in. My only reference for other men’s erections before had been pornography. For the first time in my life I felt normal! What also happened was that the women coming to be cast for this sculpture were looking at the casts of other women’s vulvas and were having a similar epiphany. They were saying things like, “Oh my God! I had no idea they looked so different” and “I wish mine looked like that one” and “I feel better about mine now”. I realised that just as comparing a cast of my penis to casts of other men had a positive effect on my self-esteem, so too was this process just as powerful for women.
What attracted you to the idea of creating art to battle an issue that so many women face?
About the same time, I also discovered that labia surgeries were the fastest growing cosmetic procedure in the UK. I was shocked. I didn’t want to be a part of a society which was encouraging women to cut off parts of their genitals, particularly as most women seem to have no idea what other women actually look like down there. Through my unique skills, my knowledge from the previous project and my personable way with my models (trust me you have to be a certain personality to cast strangers’ genitals!) I felt I was in a unique position to do something about it. Women were getting a very skewed view of how they should look (pornography is partly responsible) and deciding that they are ‘defective’. I decided to set out to produce a sculpture which would show women the huge variety of vulvar and labial shapes and sizes so nobody would have to worry about their ‘bits’ again.
“As an artist I could see the opportunity to make a powerful statement and a spectacular work of art. I became obsessed with producing something unequivocal which would have the power to change people’s lives. How often do you get that kind of opportunity?”
What are your thoughts on pornography, labiaplasty and the doctoring of women’s bodies in adult films and general media?
Pornography is a difficult one. I can’t say I have never used it but at the same time I think it is in general a fairly nasty and abusive industry. I think that obsessive use can be harmful to people’s relationships and it gives young people a very skewed idea about what sex should be. There is a trend in some pornography to show women with tiny labia that look almost juvenile. Again, I think it gives young people the idea that larger labia are monstrous. It can be very influential in shaping people’s sexual preferences.
I have to say though, that I am not against labiaplasty. Although I know it can be painful and harmful and reduce sensitivity, many women have it done and feel great about themselves afterwards and that’s great. What a woman wants to do with her body is her decision, not mine. What I am against is the industry that makes money from making women feel defective so they can cut bits off them. I’m also concerned about women making that decision without the knowledge to make a real choice.
“Until I created the Great Wall of Vagina, there really was nowhere women could go to see such a huge range of normal vaginas.
When you have seen 400 other women’s genitals, you are going to feel a lot better about your own. No matter what you have down there, you are going to feel normal. That’s the idea anyway!”
Describe the process of creating the casts for the Great Wall of Vagina. How did you recruit models for this project?
I used the same material to cast vaginas as the dentist uses to take moulds inside the mouth. It’s a non toxic paste that sets into a rubber in a few minutes. From that mould, I then create a plaster cast.
I cut the casts down to exactly the same size so they can fit into the grid of the sculpture. That’s the really difficult bit. Imposing geometry onto three dimensional organic shapes is really complicated and time consuming. The whole project took me five years.
I rarely use professional models in my work. They are volunteers, attracted to my methods or excited by the purpose behind the work. If money enters the equation it rather breaks the spell.
Models for the Great Wall of Vagina span nearly 6 decades in age difference (from 18-76). They came from all walks of life and found me through my website, word of mouth or various advertisements I posted. There was no vetting process. This wasn’t about particular vaginas, it was about all vaginas (or vulvas really, but vulva doesn’t rhyme with China). Essentially anyone over 18 who had a vagina and could get to my studio could take part.
To begin with it wasn’t easy. I just asked everyone with a vagina and most people just thought I was mad. Slowly people began to understand what I was doing. After it went on TV when I was two years into the project, recruitment went crazy. I was sometimes casting over ten women a week. When I look back I can’t believe I did it all.
Is there any one particular casting/model that sticks out from the rest to you? How did the women react to being in the project?
“I guess it is the unusual people that stand out. Casting identical twins was fascinating as was casting a mother and daughter together. I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t some curiosity on my part about these things. It’s perfectly natural and normal to be curious. I guess if I was the only one then the sculpture wouldn’t be so successful!”
Probably the most significant was the woman who came before and after having a labiaplasty for which I am very grateful. It’s what the project is all about and it was hugely important to represent that. Personally I preferred her labia before the operation. I am a labia fan. I guess you’d have to be to do this kind of project! You can see all these unusual casts pointed out on the website.
There was no average reaction. Each women was different. Some did it for deep, personal reasons or to do something for other women and some did it just for fun or for a sexual thrill. In the book of the project, 100 women describe why they did it. They explain all those reasons and it’s a great read. For whatever reasons they came, they are all legitimate and I am eternally grateful. This whole project is a great exploration of the human condition.
Did you discover anything eye-opening during the process of creating the Great Wall of Vagina?
What was interesting for me was to see how very rare it is to have tiny labia. Only about 5% of women in the sculpture have the so-called ‘perfect’ vagina. I don’t know why ‘innies’ are supposed to be better in some people’s minds. What’s wrong with ‘outies’?
“95% of women I saw had labia that didn’t conform to this fascistic idea of what is acceptable. I don’t believe that 95% of women are defective so therefore whatever you have down there is normal, natural and just fantastic. Trust me, most men are just happy to be near a vagina. They really don’t care what it looks like. If your man doesn’t like you the way you are, don’t change your parts – change your partner!”
What have been the public reactions to the Great Wall of Vagina?
Every time the sculpture has been exhibited, the reaction has been fantastic. People walk up and down all 8 metres of it and back just staring in wonder and interest at the amazing and unique site in front of them. Strangers get into conversations, people become very emotional, people cry. It’s a powerful work of art. The press reaction has always been huge as well. Lets face it, this is the most extraordinary artwork. Everybody wants to see it! It’s like the circus comes to town. Nobody except a few internet trolls have ever said anything bad about it.
I’m not bothered by some of the other names that have been thrown at me (such as “pervert”!). I know that what I’m doing is important and when you make something that challenges people, you better be prepared to take some flak. The only thing perverted about this artwork would have been to have all the knowledge and the skills and then not to make it.
What kind of impact would you like the Great Wall of Vagina to have?
I’m trying to start a cultural shift away from the desire for uniformity. It’s easier to conform than to rebel. The pressure to be the same is so much greater than the encouragement to be oneself. Body fascism is a typical example but it is our differences that make us interesting. Personally I’m much more concerned about what’s between someone’s ears than between their legs. It’s high time our society grew up a little in regards to these issues.
From the number of comments on my website and the huge interest in the project it looks like I have done something about it. This artwork changes people’s lives for the better. How many other artworks can claim that? Viva la Vulvalution!!
Do you have any future plans for expanding the Great Wall of Vagina?
I don’t think I could expand the Great Wall of Vagina and still be able to exhibit it. It weighs a tonne (literally) and is 8m long! Anyway, that particular project is finished. I never had an idea how big it would get but when I felt it was complete I stopped. I am working on many other projects and some of them are more vagina panels. For instance, I’m casting a woman from every country in the world and a woman from every state in the USA. Any other suggestions are welcome. I’m also trying to cast people who are more unusual down there. The more variety I can show, the more inclusive and functional the project becomes. It is not intended to be a freak show, though. I just want to show people in all their glory.
I’m also trying to create a panel which is all women who have suffered from Female Genital Mutilation. Sadly, in seven years of looking, I haven’t had even one woman come forward. I think this is my fault; I need to do more work to reach out to the communities and prove to them I’m legit.
What other forms has the Great Wall of Vagina been shown in besides the exhibit? Are there products?
The Great Wall of Vagina has only been shown three times in its entirety. Right now it sits in crates in storage. It is such a shame. I really wanted to exhibit it more but the economic realities of being an artist are such that I don’t have the time to concentrate on it any more. It took me five years and was totally funded by me. It cost me probably £100,000 in time and materials. I am doing other things now. I need to make a living!
I am determined this year to find a museum to put it on permanent display. It needs to be seen. It does no women any good sitting in storage. I am, to be honest, disappointed and ashamed of myself for this failure. I have let down the women who put their faith in me and my work. It needs to be seen.
On the plus side, there are other ways I developed to spread the message. All ten panels are available to view on the website. There is also the book of the project that has photos of all 400 casts life size and is the next best thing to actually seeing the work. It also has the stories written by 100 of the women who took part explaining why they did it and what it was like.
To help recoup my costs and fund future works, there are also all kinds of other things for sale like Great Wall of Vagina mugs, magnets, iPhone covers, posters and postcards and also a do-it-at-home casting kit that enables you to cast your own vulva at home or maybe even start your own Great Wall of Vagina. They are all available from the web shop. You can even buy vagina panel sculptures just like the real Great Wall of Vagina directly from me at the web shop as well as limited edition photos of all ten panels. There is also a fascinating lead crystal glass sculpture of the inside of a vagina. Basically if you like vaginas, visit the website!