Genital Embryogenesis

The animation, ‘Genital Embryogenesis” 2005, is based on my participation as a member of a research team – urological surgeon, pediatric endocrinologist, radiologist, geneticist and artist – at Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg, Canada, 1976-1980.

My charge was to make models representing both the normal and anomalous development of the genitals in the human embryo. My primary research methods included direct observation of embryos, analysis of ultrasound imaging, photography of collections of specimens, and a review of extant illustrated literature.

Modeling in plasticine clay, “Genital Embryogenesis” begins without textual explanation making five stages of normal development visible. The initial (indifferent) pre-genital structure differentiates, first into female then male polar extremes of the possible spectrum of genital anatomies. The animation then re-plays these images supported by my personal, partly scientific-technical, partly poetic, textual explanation of genital embryogenesis.

I believe that, because the way we see our individual genitals is culturally loaded with signification, it is neither possible nor desirable to represent genital development without acknowledged bias. Sexual difference is a critical social marker imbued with the politics of power. My personal choices in constructing these models, their graphic representation and texts, express my theoretical and existential understanding of the biological process. I have, for example, rejected the traditional position of the subject, lying on her/his back, presenting the genitals for public examination. In “Genital Embryogenesis”, I position the genital “upside down” in relation to the frame, similar to its more natural position in the womb. This reorientation re-contextualizes the embryo and, therefore, the genitals, in relation to the mother. For me, this position sheds the unacknowledged practice of objectification and disempowerment implicit in virtually all representations of the genitals, whether in the scientific literature or in popular pornography.

I believe, also, that the text and images of “Genital Embryogenesis” suggest the possibility that these stages of genital embryogenesis may make visible – expose the look of – the potential range of adult genitals between the imaginary ideals of female and male.

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