The Bloody Matriarch

Visual and performance artist Jesika Joy opens up about spirituality, feminism, dead animals and their relationship to her work

By John Paul Gilson

A young woman dances seductively on the screen. She’s attractive and has a somewhat forbidding demeanor; dark eyes on a pale complexion framed by long dark hair. She starts stripping, taking off articles of clothing one by one.

And then the screen turns black. We can’t see anything. All we can hear is the esoteric sound of water dripping in the background. As the screen comes back to life we once again see the woman, now wearing only a corset and holding the heart of a pig. She resumes her slow dance routine, rubbing the bloody heart all over her body, leaving streaks of pink. And just when you thought things couldn’t get any more absurd the young woman cruelly tears the heart to shreds, and stuffs the tattered remains up her privates.

The name of the short film is Pig Heart, performed by Jesika Joy, a Toronto-based visual and performance artist. This piece made headlines at the 2006 Montreal Underground Film Festival (MUFF for short), and brought instant notoriety to Joy.

Joy has been doing performances like these since 2003, and has produced 35 pieces, of which only 22 have been shown publicly. As can be seen, she has a knack for producing art that is both desirable and disgusting.

I first met this Gothic beauty in the weight room I trained at. She introduced herself as a performance artist, and disclosed that she performs a lot of her work in the nude. She recommended I check out her website, jesikajoy.com.

I had never seen any of Joy’s work before I met her, including the aforementioned Pig Heart, but as a testosterone charged, heterosexual male I couldn’t resist the temptation to see a naked woman on the Internet.

Joy’s homepage features a sensual and fully clothed photo of the artist. Underneath the picture is your normal Internet caution–“WARNING–Contains Explicit Content.” As it turned out this is perhaps the most euphemistic caution I’d ever encountered. I clicked on the “ENTER” expecting to see nude photos, but instead I found a free passage into the Ninth Circle of the Inferno.

In the website were dozens of images of the naked Joy surrounded by symbols of carnage. Among them were video stills of Joy’s previous works such as Pig Heart, Strip Show, and a collection of pieces from Video Object.

There are also plenty of photographs, such as the Chicken Heart collection. In Chicken Heart, the naked Joy is crawling on all fours wearing a gruesome, yet elaborately designed necklace of small chicken hearts around her shoulders.

And then there’s the TV Blood collection, where we see Joy sitting on the couch, wearing a black leather jacket, smoking a cigarette and watching television with her legs wide open and pantyless. This would be your typical spread-eagle porn shot if it weren’t for the volume of what can only be described as menstrual blood smothered between Joy’s thighs. A version of TV Blood is even available in a postcard format just in case you want to surprise your religious aunt next Christmas.

But not all of Joy’s works are of this graphic nature. In the Tub photo collection, which is my personal favourite, we see her wearing a white wedding dress, immersed in a bathtub full of water. There is some nudity in these images, but it isn’t over the top. I think what really got me was the haunting feelings the images produced.

After visiting the website I didn’t know what to feel. As a teenager, I had grown up reading magazines like Heavy Metal where women (cartoon women that is) are often featured in gory and sadomasochistic roles, but Joy’s work is different. There is a part of me that is attracted to the naked Joy, but the sight of all that emptiness and car-nage–especially the menstrual blood–left me feeling all icky inside.

I felt like my senses were manipulated by some mad artist. And then I stumbled upon one of Joy’s quotes, “I draw upon feminist performance art and body art as a means of complicating the phallic gaze to rearticulate gendered and psychic and bodily experience.”

I wanted to know more about this artist, and when I finally got the chance to meet her again I realized that Joy in real life is as enigmatic as the art she produces. She is a PhD student at York University, specializing in social and political thought, a feminist, a Christian, and perhaps most surprisingly, an aspiring vegan. She wasn’t quite the random Goth girl I expected.

The Interview:

Q: What are people’s major misconceptions about you?

A: People sometimes don’t understand me to be as benevolent as I am. Because I make strong and even violent imagery people sometimes assume that I am self-interested or only out to shock. I sometimes think there is an idea that I am mean spirited. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think all art on some level is a cry for love and also an experiment in how to love. This isn’t just for art, some might argue, most of what we do is motivated by love. I feel my work is a genuine search for connection with others and the world around me. And when I am expressing criticism in my work it couldn’t be more heartfelt. I am not pretending to be upset–I feel it in my bones.

Q: Were you conservative as a child?

A: (Laughs) No, I wasn’t, but I did go to a Christian school from grade 11 to grade 13. It’s because in high school I was a rebel, and was always getting into trouble, getting poor grades, and getting sent home, so my parents decided it’d be best if I went to a Christian school.

Q: Is there a relationship between Christianity and your artwork?

A: I feel art and religion, or spirituality is basically structured in the same way. First, both are concerned with finding meaning in life–of thinking critically about how we choose to exist in the world, how we ought to relate to others, about what is most important. Also, Christianity is, or ought to be, primarily concerned with love. Someone, somewhere once said that all works of art can be reduced to two words–love me. Love is an act of faith. Art and love do not quantify. They communicate and grow in a non-antagonist relationship to the irrational. Art wants us to identity with it, to feel something in relation to it. This is true even for conceptual art in that all art involves some element of open-ended interpretive possibility. This is what makes it art. In order for this interpretive possibility to work it needs to compel belief in the viewer. The viewer, in other words, needs to have faith.

Q: What’s with the dead animals?

A: The dead animals have both an overarching meaning and a particular meaning depending on the piece. On a general level I use dead animals to gesture towards fundamental existential concerns. We are all flesh and blood, and we are all finite. Dead animals help bring us back to the basics.

But each animal also has a particular meaning. For example, pigs are the animals with hearts most similar to humans’. Pigs are also a metaphor for selfishness and being dirty. The chicken symbolizes fear and cowardice, and goats, such as the one I used in my Nuit Blanche performance, represent sacrifice or the scapegoat.

Q: Are you a feminist?

A: Yes, I am.

Q: Then why did you write on your website, “Dead animals are more important than feminism.” That sounds kind of strange coming from a feminist.

A: Well, as I said, the dead animals represent my existential concerns. They represent the fact that we are all human, and that we all share the ultimate fate that we’re eventually going to die…

Q: Whoa, you’re making me depressed.

A: (Laughs) I know, but I think there’s something beautiful about that. Death is something we all share in common. Feminism is important to me, but what’s even more important is being human, the interconnectedness of all human beings irrespective of race or gender. Our shared human condition–our need to love and be loved.

Q: When I first saw your work I didn’t know what to think. Do you intend to create confusion in your male viewers?

A: Absolutely, it’s planned. I like to play with dominant cultural scripts and constructions of desirability. In the past I used a lot of pornographic tropes, but have recently been moving towards playing with the pop star image. I hope to eventually move on to the priest. I utilize tropes that already exist and then subvert them or recreate them anew.

Q: What about desire and disgust?

A: It has often been a strategy of mine to elicit desire before incorporating “disgusting” imagery to create the confusion you spoke of earlier. But not all my pieces are like that and I am currently developing new strategies that do not rely on these techniques. For instance, in my Tub pieces I’m more sensual and not nearly as abrasive. They’re more about emptiness.

Q: On your website you mentioned that you use a lot of abject imagery to manipulate your male viewers. What exactly is abject imagery?

A: It’s the disgust we encounter when confronted by that which does not fit into any pre-established categories. The female body is considered abject in that it is leaky–it bleeds, easily grows fat and generally does not sit within well-defined bounds. It breaks down the boundaries between the “I” and the world around it. I think this is an accurate way of characterizing my work.

Q: From what you’re saying, the abject sounds a lot like something coming out of a David Cronenberg film and the “body horror” genre. This genre is known for creating images that distort sex. Is this what you intend to do?

A: My views have changed over time regarding this subject, but I think sex is already distorted in our society. So many of us engage in sexual activity without feeling any emotional bond to the person we’re sleeping with. I think there’s something sad about this. We’re forgetting about the best part of sex–love. While the liberalization of social mores has been largely beneficial it has also given rise to a proliferation of empty sex because sex is so much more accessible now.

Q: What’s your sex life like?

A: I really don’t feel like I fit into conventional heterosexuality, but at the same time I’m not a lesbian, even though I may dabble from time to time. I mean, I like guys, I just don’t like being a girl with guys. I want to be treated like another guy. I don’t want to be fucked like a girl.

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