"Cutting" a taboo

by Marta Smolinska-Byczuk, Ph.D.


Blood is seeping through thick matter, coloring it vivid red and accumulating in a narrow slit. Raw meat is being formed in such a way that a deep and dark groove – something resembling a cut – appears in the center of its wet and soft substance. A razor blade is sinking into the delicate skin near the labia, bright red blood is surrounding vulnerable pink flesh. A similar situation repeats in a "disembodied" drawn version in which a form that can be associated with a vagina is being cut with a razor blade by a graphically rendered hand. This time blood is dripping with black drops. In another work a vagina is covered with a zipped-up zipper that suggests unapproachability, inaccessibility, virginity. In the next one sterile gloved fingers are stretching the skin below the loins to show the vagina stitched up with a red thread. A needle stuck in the flesh implies that the surgery has not been finished yet. Thus, in a series of her "girls cut" works Magdalena Frey presents stitching up and cutting vaginas, a kind of female circumcision – one of the greatest taboos of the contemporary world. The term "presents", however, does not get to the bottom of the matter here, since in the artist’s computer animations cutting is only imitated or implied. None of the women who had experienced it agreed to be photographed. That is why Frey chose to metaphorize her representations.

What is the point of this metaphorization? In the background of the montages or in their foreground, in front of the cut vaginas or forms resembling vaginas, female silhouettes appear (a skipping girl, a girl dressed like an adult woman), as well as a notice in which the word "control" attracts the most attention. The motives merge, delivering the message of the cycle and provoking the following questions: how does a girl develop her femininity – is it the essence of her nature or a social or cultural construction?; how can one perceive the cutting – solely literally, as reporting the terrifying ritual performed in Islamic or African circles or as a metaphor related to the condition of a woman in today’s reality? Frey presents cutting as a TAINT, a STIGMA that women bear both literally and metaphorically. In the microcosm of the digital "girls cut" collages a woman is "cut" or "stigmatized" with a vagina – one of the most ambiguous and culturally burdened symbols. It joins maternity to debauchery, virginal chastity to dissipation, an idealized source of life to menstrual bleeding that is passed over in silence. Purity and dirt, a flawless image and bloody meat. In his text for the Hoffstaetter Gallery exhibition catalog Hermann Nitsch emphasized the connection Frey’s art revealed to the tradition of the Viennese Actionism that was especially clear in the artist’s ability to show humans as bodily beings. In the case of the "girls cut" such a style enabled Frey to violate a taboo, to individualize it using bold metaphorical compositions and, consequently, to open the message of the works to the broad context of the way femininity functions in the world that, after all, grants equal rights. She is cutting a stereotype and penetrating a taboo sphere just as a razor blade is sinking into concealed and soft female loins.

The author is a Foundation for Polish Science grant holder.

(Translated from Polish by Anna Bernaczyk)