Is sexual reproduction in art still taboo? The case of Casey Jenkins and the Australia Council

Performance artist Casey Jenkins has been documenting the process of self-insemination to be live-streamed and viewed online in their current performance titled IMMACULATE, which has been the trigger for a fiery public debate in recent weeks. Questions have been centred on its worth as a queer feminist artwork, as well as the ‘potential legal risk’ it apparently posed for the Australia Council, the peak body that first granted, then rescinded its funding. While the move left many in Melbourne’s queer art community reeling, the Council distanced itself from critical commentary on Jenkins’ work by claiming that it was the project’s status as ‘new activity’, as opposed to its content, that triggered the decision to withdraw the funds.

The Australia Council’s official statement frames the decision using a legal rationale, citing a requirement for ‘contract variation’ from artists due to Covid-19 travel restrictions as its first sticking point. According to the statement, Jenkins’ contract variation along with others had been passed quickly in the interests of ‘flexibility’, but was then ‘escalated’ and a decision to rescind funding was made due to the project being a ‘new activity’.  The statement does not describe whether all of the contract variations were to be considered by default ‘new activity’ or just Jenkins’. In either case, we are left to ponder a gap in the events detailed in the document, between the project’s having passed the contract variation process and being deemed a ‘new activity’.

In her own online statement, the artist denies introducing ‘new activity’ and casts a different light on their correspondences with Australia Council staff.

My interest in these events is not to identify legal gaps in the Australia Council’s account of its procedures.  Nor is it to determine if rescinding funds was truly a dispassionate decision based on ‘new content’. It might be that, from a procedural or legal perspective, rescinding funds is not the equivalent of breaking with an agreement. However, from an arts advocacy and feminist point of view the Australia Council’s decision – even if procedurally protected – is deeply significant in terms of what it unwittingly contributes to the already heightened criticism of Jenkins’ work in the press, and the doubt it casts over the acceptability of the theme of sexual reproduction in Australian art for the future.  This doubt is not easily expunged. It pools in the gaps between words and actions.

Administrative and legal logic can be clean and cunning, allowing decision-makers to skip over what everybody else recognises as the guts of the matter –  that is, I propose, that arts governance in Australia is still deeply squeamish about the ‘ethically’ knotty matters of sexual reproduction explored in art. It’s crucial to recognise that arts governance does not happen in a vacuum, nor does artistic production.

Unease around the treatment of sexual reproduction in art is not new. Often this unease is expressed in terms of presenting a ‘future risk’, a financial liability, a challenge to religious beliefs, or a contravention of received notions of public decency.

I can think of at least two other high profile episodes in the history of arts governance in Australia where allusions to sexual reproduction, especially abortion, have resulted in the overturning of support during convoluted funding and staging negotiations, or in legal proceedings brought against an artist.

The first episode relates to lines of poetry by the fictitious poet Ern Malley referencing, among other things, a ‘desecrate womb’. The lines found their way into the literary journal Angry Penguins in 1943 under the co-editorial control of Australian poet Max Harris, who was interrogated and later charged for publishing obscene material. The allusions to reproductive organs and abortion in the poem are oblique, but nonetheless inspired a moral certitude in the interrogating police officer who prodded Harris on matters of interpretation: ‘Do you think it refers to a description of an abortion … I think it does, and I think it’s immoral.’  

The second episode is the rejection of Patrick White’s play The Ham Funeral from the 1962 Adelaide Festival of Arts by the Board of Governors. Officially, the rejection was made on financial grounds, citing the play’s lack of box-office appeal, and not because of the scene in the play in which two vagabonds discover a foetus in a public bin. The official minutes of meetings between members of a drama committee and the Board tell a very different story. Opinions were divided, but the decision to reject the play was ultimately handed down after a narrow vote. Those against it found it an affront to moral decency with a member decrying: ‘As for the abortion in the dust-bin… really, words fail me’. As in the Ern Malley case, the rationale for the withdrawal of support relies on the presumption that it is common-sense that themes of sexual reproduction are offensive.  

Arts scandals over the theme of sexual reproduction vary in their details, but there are similarities in that the undercurrent of feeling displayed by decision-makers sometimes breaks through the procedural surface of the discussion – or where it stays under wraps, as is the case with the Australia Council’s decision to rescind, it circulates beneath the official language as an electrified absence.

The money paid to Jenkins by the Australia Council was an expression of faith in the project. Its withdrawal, regardless of the reason, leaves a gap in which doubt circulates. The doubt creeps over the artist’s chosen subject matter and over their legitimacy. In an emotional and psychological sense, it an expression of ‘no confidence’. It hangs in the air like a floating signifier, an unspoken accusation.

The examples of arts governance discussed above might be understood as reflecting a world view more in keeping with dominant social mores of the time in mid-century Australia.  However, a similar strain of moral outrage towards themes of sexual reproduction persists. While the nation is being encouraged to have more children to help strengthen the economy in a recession, discussing the lived realities of reproductive labour is still subject to strong taboo. 

Discussing IMMACULATE on Sky News, Dr Bella d’Abrera and former Tony Abbott advisor Peta Credlin used terms such as ‘nonsense’, ‘an outrage’, ‘crazy’, ‘an offence to Catholics’ and declared that its funding by the Australia Council ‘really beggars belief’. The affective language adopted by the pair produced a sensorium of outrage, side-stepping a rational discussion that might otherwise address why the artwork is ‘nonsense’, ‘crazy’ etc.

Above all, their conversation, as well as the subsequent decision by the Australia Council to rescind funding demonstrates a tragic failure of the imagination.  It fails to imagine the expansiveness and reach of such a project, which generously offers an intimate glimpse of parenting and conception as it often already unfolds – that is, conducted outside the frame of the medical clinic and or nuclear family structure. Contrary to the outrage it has inspired, there is something very quiet and unassuming in Jenkins’ manner which gently disarms expectation that conception is tied spectacularly to sex. 

In the video, the artist positions themselves on a sofa with their legs stretched up above them. They wait quietly for fifteen minutes to pass, while they intermittently and subtly shift positions. This draws us into a sensation of time passing slowly. The regular rhythms of life are evidenced in the sudden eruption of sounds emanating from the street outside. There’s a dramatic screech of a motor-bike engine as it passes by, the thrum of brakes as a bus stops, and a sudden car horn blazing through the stillness. But there is no visual endpoint, no climatic resolution to be found – and that seems to be the point.

‘Life’ is already a tidal sort of concept. Enclosing it in a singular thought or disciplining it into one modality of being is like attempting to govern an ocean. Jenkins offers a concept of the reproduction of life as an open horizon, an event that unfolds only because of its temporal ungovernability. The ungovernable aspects of ‘life’ suggest that, while it may be managed and cared for, it cannot be enclosed as property of the individual. Nor can it be enclosed as property of the Catholic Church, the clinic, nor the institution of marriage. Nobody can own it, but each governing entity has a stake in managing it as a possession. Why?

Jenkins’ artwork shows the activity of trying to conceive as communal and not privatised. It happens everywhere, in all kinds of different familial combinations and in bodies of different genders. If we collectively benefit from the creative energy, wealth, labour and openness generated from the reproduction of life, why is it ‘crazy’ for an artist to document and share their experiences of it?  Why is it so threatening?

Consigning experiences of reproductive labour to secrecy has long been a target of feminist critique. Secrecy helps create a condition in which economic exploitation and the oppression of women and others who perform unpaid labour in the home can continue to happen. The argument goes that while it remains hidden, the work of reproductive labour – in the form of doing chores and rearing children – is naturalised as biological destiny or as an intrinsic part of reproductive life; it is by definition the opposite of work.

It is a well-documented fact that the unpaid work of reproductive labour benefits the economy by boosting labour power in the form of a growing population of future producers. It is the economic centrepiece in a larger project of nation-building in which the activity of ‘motherhood’ is mythologised as heterosexual and sacrificial, a glorified activity that is nonetheless to remain unacknowledged and unremunerated. Part of the innovation of Jenkins’ artwork is that it demystifies reproductive labour by showing it to be ordinary work, and queers it by uncoupling it from heteronormative sex. IMMACULATE is confronting because, as a work of art, it is productive and reproductive simultaneously, making it difficult for governing bodies to manage its processes as either work or reproductive labour. 

Amidst an embattled arts ecology in which cuts to government spending have all but eviscerated the arts sector, with theatre and performance departments at universities across the country crumbling beneath our feet, I suggest we can benefit from an expansive reimagining of ‘life’. Whether they acknowledge it or not, the Australia Council decision to rescind Jenkins’ funding casts a shadow of doubt upon the viability of seeking support for artwork exploring themes of sexual reproduction in the future. This doubt cannot be contained by the walls of a boardroom or in the exonerating language of well-resourced legal public statement. It gathers strength as it is joined by a chorus of disapproving voices with a long history of being left ‘speechless’ and finding art ‘immoral’ or ‘crazy’. Is it true that expressions of queer life, labour, and intimacy may still be ‘too much’?  I hope not. But the doubt remains.

Sandra D'Urso

Sandra D'Urso is a theatre critic and performance studies academic with an interest in queer feminist performance art. She has previously published writing on the topic of arts scandals in the Australian and European context.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. One of the other cases you mention is from 1943, the other 1962. That is 77 and 58 years ago respectively. Is there not anything more recent to support your argument about reproduction being taboo in Australian art?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *