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When the feminist artist Judy Chicago showed her painting Red Flag in 1971, she set the precedent for a subject of art that now has a rich lineage: menstrual blood. Red Flag was a photolithograph that closely depicted a woman removing a used tampon from her vagina. At the time, moon-cycles were so hushed and taboo that Chicago said many people had no idea what they were seeing. Period art has since taken many forms. The disarray of Tracey Emin’s 1998 “My Bed” installation included stained underwear. The 13 abstract canvases of Lani Beloso’s 2010 “Period Piece” were thickly painted with her own blood. And let us not forget, more recently, the punk singer Meredith Graves mixing her blood into the vinyl of Perfect Pussy’s debut record. In 2000, the artist Vanessa Tiegs coined a term for this field: menstrala.
There is a long history of abject art that makes use of corporeal waste. Julia Kristeva articulated this in her book Powers of Horror: “These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands… on the part of death,” Kristeva wrote. “There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being.” But period blood is different. According to Kristeva, it “threatens the relationship between the sexes” because it “signifies sexual difference.” And so, in threatening men, the stigmas surrounding menstrala have not waned. This year, the artist Rupi Kaur posted on Instagram a poised self-portrait with a central red stain—and it was twice removed, “accidentally.”
The Norwegian avant-gardist Jenny Hval takes on the possibilities of musical menstrala with Blood Bitch. In an artist’s statement, she called Blood Bitch “an investigation of… blood that is shed naturally… the purest and most powerful, yet most trivial, and most terrifying blood.” With that, Blood Bitch, her sixth album, deliberately enters two other great traditions: vampire movies and—as with all of Hval’s work—the timeless cross-hairs of art and pop.
No contemporary artist sings words like “sublimation,” “clitoris,” or “soft dick rock” with such enveloping elegance or unfettered ease. On Blood Bitch, Hval continues with her subtle deliveries of “abstract romanticism,” “subjectivity,” and “speculum.” Her voice is at once extremely musical and coolly flat; occasionally, she whispers. On “The Great Undressing,” even as Hval makes a cogent metaphor between capitalism and unrequited love (“it never rests”), the yearning in her voice recalls Lana Del Rey. (In 2015, at least once, Hval’s touring troupe of singers, dancers, and performance artists did an unusual cover of “Summertime Sadness” that I will not forget.) Hval’s “Period Piece” weaves melodies like gorgeous latticework as she describes a sterile scene in a gynecologist’s office but turns it into her own personally transcendent experience. “Don’t be afraid,” she beckons, “it’s only blood.”
Collaborating again with noise producer Lasse Marhaug, as on 2015’s Apocalypse, girl, Hval was drawn to reflect on her roots in Norwegian metal (in interviews, the duo have even noted ties between Darkthrone’s black metal classic “Transilvanian Hunger” and Blood Bitch’s lush, rolling penultimate track, “Secret Touch”). Though there are patches of harsh noise to be found, Blood Bitch parallels black metal more by its atmospheric nature, how it feels as though the record is thematically all-gravity and yet physically floating. The arrangements employ repetition, with recurring motifs and menacing synths that move in concentric circles. A subtle siren blare anchors “Female Vampire” and carries over “In the Red,” replete with the sound of incessant panting, as if someone is running in fear. On the former, Hval sings directly of “a strange slow rhythm, not exactly creating a rhythm, in and out of focus, vulnerable,” underscoring the nonlinear textures of Blood Bitch’s sound. At its most featherlight, Hval’s music is still positively saturated with ideas, all pulp, marrow, and (indeed) blood.
Combined with copious interstitials and its horror premise, Blood Bitch is Hval’s most filmic album (which is saying something considering Apocalypse, girl listed characters from Bergman’s Persona in the credits) as well as her most conceptual and surreal work. It’s also slyly hilarious, adding levity to her repertoire. “The Great Undressing” starts with a meta piece in which Hval’s bandmates discuss the record itself—a classic expository scene. (Zia Anger: “What’s this album about, Jenny?” Annie Bielski: “It’s about vampires.” Anger: “No!” Bielski: “Yeah… Well, it’s about more things than that…”) Hval evokes true modern horrors, not just fantastical ones. On “Ritual Awakening,” she sings, “I clutch my phone with my sweaty palm,” soon flipping the object as “the coffin for my heart… It’s so loud/And I get so afraid.” Machines lock us. Whether it’s Anger deeming vampires “so basic!” or Hval singing of “useless algorithms,” Blood Bitch sounds fiercely present.
Blood Bitch is also more a montage than any of Hval’s records. “Untamed Region” includes a sample of the British filmmaker Adam Curtis describing the disorienting power-trip of Russian politics: “It sums up the strange mood of our time,” Curtis says alongside choral sighs, “where nothing makes any coherent sense.” “Untamed Region” moves into a stately passage in which Hval vulnerably and assuredly dissects her own period, touching the blood. More extreme is “The Plague,” which goes from tabla taps to a distressed, vampiric Hval summoning skyward, “I don’t know who I am!” It’s all cut with horror organs and absurdist dialogue (“Last night I took my birth control with rosé!”) before ghastly noise bleeds into a faint dancefloor banger. “The Plague” is like a repository of ideas, as if precisely documenting an active mind.
“Conceptual Romance” is Hval’s best and loveliest song, and its genesis point is clear. Hval has often cited Chris Kraus’ 1997 theoretical novel I Love Dick as her favorite book. The text celebrates the interior intellectual life of its narrator, a failed experimental filmmaker, in the context of a peculiar love story—she’s become obsessed with a man named Dick and she writes letters to him. It began one night, when she believed she had “conceptually fucked” him (through conversation). She turns her fixed “infatuation” into an art project. When Hval sings of her “combined failures,” when she sings “I understand infatuation/Rejection/They can connect and become everything/Everything that’s torn up in your life,” it’s like she is writing her own love letter right back to Kraus (which Hval herself affirmed in a recent Wire feature). Hval said she was inspired by karaoke on Apocalypse, girl, and “Conceptual Romance” could be a result. Her most lucid writing casts the spell of dream logic. “Conceptual Romance” is Blood Bitch’s lightening bolt moment, but it throbs with grace, like a procession of clouds.
“Why do people still not get it when we [women] handle vulnerability like philosophy, at some remove?” Kraus writes in I Love Dick. It’s a fine summation of Hval’s music. More than any of the musicians to whom she is often compared (Laurie Anderson, Björk), Hval is a clear disciple of Kraus. On paper, Kraus moves fluidly from reference to reference, dense with ideas; Hval’s music is like this, too, and never more than on Blood Bitch. Like I Love Dick—which tends to draw lines, life before reading, life after—it is primarily about female genius and voice. “I need to keep writing because everything else is death,” Hval sings on “The Great Undressing,” “I’m self-sufficient, mad, endlessly producing.” Blood Bitch conveys the visceral euphoria of creation. Blood, it reminds us, is not only a life force—it’s where we begin.Share