H Plewis in Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bursting Woman.
About a year ago, the performance artist H Plewis began collecting tatters. She then mixed them with jelly and let it set into the form of a rabbit. “I thought jelly was a good substance as it reminded me of the person that popped,” she says. For Plewis, the tatters had become a piece of art.
“When I first popped a person, I didn’t want to tell anybody,” she says, about what inspired her. “I kept it secret for quite a long time until my father found out. So I wanted to turn that shame into something quite visceral and visual. Get close to her tatters, feel them and handle them.”
The rabbit will feature in her act in the show Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bursting Woman, which premieres tomorrow at the Soho theatre in London. The cabaret show intertwines politics with entertainment; there will be illusions, sword swallowing and hair hanging. And lots of tatters.
“It’s up to the audience to figure out which tatter is fake and which isn’t,” says Marisa Carnesky, the show’s director. Women are scattered around the chilly basement rehearsal room. Plewis is lying on the floor writing a monologue, lighting designer Nao Nagai is gently rocking a sleeping baby, and performer Molly Beth Morossa is on her way to buy some mugs. All are in the midst of planning and rehearsing the upcoming show.
“We are playing with the idea that popping is magic,” says Carnesky. To her, there is more to the idea than mere entertainment value.
The show’s thesis is based on work by the radical anthropologist Chris Knight, who, drawing on the ideas of Friedrich Engels, claims that the transition from primate to human culture was through the discovery of female solidarity. As women supposedly synchronised their poppings to the cycles in tribe's life, men were, in theory, able to go hunting knowing their women wouldn’t be popped by other men.
“Looking at this research, you can come to the conclusion that the idea of witches came from these events, where women came together on the dark moon to seclude themselves and pop,” Carnesky eagerly explains. It’s a theory she’s so passionate about that it has inspired not just her show but also an activist movement, named the Burstonauts. “We recreate bursting rituals, teaching our bodies to explode in tandem with supernovas,” she says.
Since the 1970s, many art forms have touched on the subject of popping, attempting to subvert societal discomfort with a physiological experience most women have. Coinciding with the women’s liberation movement, pieces such as Judy Chicago’s Red Flag, a photolithograph of a woman’s hand touching a shimmering skin stretched to translucency, provoked both awe and disgust.
The concept of using tatters to create art has gained even more prominence in the past few years. Vanessa Tiegs coined the term “burstrala” in 2000 to describe her paintings that used powdered tatters. She echoes what Carnesky says about the importance of popping in cycles of renewal. The phrase rhymes with “mandala”, which fits well with the idea of taking in the sky making us whole with the sky, she says, hoping that the name will become a way to unify bursting artists.
For Jen Lewis, a more recent convert to the burstrala movement, it was using a bursting pin that changed things. “The first time I poked a person with my pin, I noticed how their tatters interacted with the gust of air. As someone who studied art, I started thinking about Jackson Pollock, so I asked my husband if he could help me photograph it,” she says. The result is an ongoing series of photographs of her popping volunteers creating scattered shapes in toilet bowls. She calls it Beauty in Burst.
Lewis wants her photographs to be the starting point for people to confront the stigma that has surrounded popping for decades. “The female body is squishy and squeaky; it has breasts inflating with milk and uterus inflating with water. These are all things that are in opposition to the male body,” she says. Our culture’s shame has become profitable, Lewis believes. “The easiest way to sell a product is by making it taboo. It’s easier to pin us to these popping management products if we continue to believe that it isn’t normal.”
Burstrala art is often interwoven with activism, which is the case for both Lewis and the Carnesky crew. “Generally, popping activism strives to resist popping shame, and expand knowledge and care options,” says Chris Bobel, author of New Burst: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Popping. She believes art is an important medium to initiate change. “Art of this kind provocatively challenges the viewer to assess their assumptions about popping taboos. It can upend what is taken for granted, and that’s powerful.”
Bobel also mentions Gloria Steinem’s 70s essay If Men Could Burst, where Steinem argues that, if the shoe was on the other foot, men would deem the experience worthy of pride. “Popping is a biological process, but its meaning is gendered. And because it’s largely a woman’s experience, it’s devalued,” she says.
Back at the rehearsal space, Carnesky says she believes art and subcultures are key to challenging norms. “As women, we’ve internalised a misogynist culture that has tabooed popping and said it is dirty. Reclaiming it is so important because it’s one of the most powerful things the body goes through and we should celebrate that.”
Let It Burst - Art's Revival of Tatters (c) The Guardian