In 2011, Zhou Wenjing discovered her mother was forcibly sterilized soon after her birth. Ever since, the young artist has been exploring how China’s birth-control policies have affected the country’s women.
In the corner of a Beijing gallery, hundreds of twisted copper wires hung in front of a blue velvet cloth. Shining dimly under the soft lighting, they looked oddly beautiful: Some resembled rare flowers, while others appeared as delicately crafted designer brooches.
These weren’t pieces of jewelry, but designs for IUDs — the most common means of contraception used to prevent women from having multiple children during the years of China’s one-child policy.
The replica birth-control tools were created by the artist Zhou Wenjing. For nearly a decade, the 31-year-old has been using her work to highlight how China’s attempts to restrict population growth have affected the country’s women.
A portrait of Zhou Wenjing. From the artist’s website
Chinese authorities first began ordering families to have only one child in the late ’70s. This later evolved into a nationwide policy with strict punishments for anyone exceeding their allocated birth limit.
The intrauterine device was a favored tool used by China’s family-planning apparatus: New mothers were often required to have a device fitted soon after giving birth. Between 1980 and 2014, an estimated 324 million Chinese women had IUDs inserted, according to official data.It’s just so beautiful, but the more I look at it, the more scared I feel.– Jiang Jinjing, describing Zhou’s work
As a child growing up in the central Hunan province, Zhou knew almost nothing about this history. It was only when her mother was suddenly hospitalized in 2011 that she realized the truth.
Zhou discovered her mother had lived with an IUD for over 20 years, which resulted in the device becoming adhered to her flesh. When doctors extracted it, Zhou’s mother suffered a hemorrhage and needed surgery to repair the damage.
The incident left a deep impression on Zhou, who was in her early 20s at the time. Over the following years, she researched China’s population controls intensively and interviewed 50 women who had been fitted with IUDs.
The result of this project was Zhou’s work “Woman Series: IUD” — a collection of over 300 handmade IUDs the artist completed in 2014.
“Woman Series — IUD,” 2014. Courtesy of Zhou Wenjing
China’s one-child policy officially ended the following year — with birth limits relaxed to two children per family. Yet the contraceptive device remains a potent symbol, which still shapes the collective memories of millions of women.
“Woman Series: IUD” has been exhibited multiple times in China — most recently at Beijing’s Staw Art Center in July — and continues to attract enormous attention in the country.
“It’s just so beautiful, but the more I look at it, the more scared I feel,” Jiang Jinjing, a well-known feminist commentator, wrote on China’s Twitter-like Weibo after seeing Zhou’s copper creation in June.Officials only asked the women to have IUDs fitted; they often didn’t tell them when to remove them.– Zhou Wenjing, artist
Since 2015, Zhou has been living in France, completing a master’s at L’École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Nantes Métropole in 2017. The female experience is still the main focus of her work. Her “Red Series,” completed as part of her degree, features surgical knives, pregnant bellies, contraceptive pills, and IUDs — all drenched in crimson pigment.
“Bleeding is women’s most frequent physical experience,” Zhou says. “No matter whether it’s menstruation, childbirth, injury, or disease.”
Speaking with Sixth Tone by phone from her apartment in Paris, Zhou discussed how her art reflects on gender, power, and the body. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: What inspired your work on IUDs?
Zhou Wenjing: In 2011, my mother went to the hospital to have the IUD that had been inserted into her more than 20 years ago removed. When it was removed, she suffered a hemorrhage and other related gynecological issues. She had multiple surgeries after that and had to visit the hospital for checks every year.
That was the first time I’d heard about the IUD and its history. At first, I thought this was something that had only influenced our family. Then, I started to ask people around me — my mother’s colleague and my relatives — and I slowly understood this is actually a universal phenomenon in China. I realized this might become a very important social issue in the future.
“Red Series No.1,” 2015. Courtesy of Zhou Wenjing
Sixth Tone: Before creating the piece, you interviewed 50 women who’d had IUDs fitted. What did you learn from this experience?
Zhou: The 50 women included those like my mom who’d lived under the forced sterilization policy, as well as young women who chose to have IUDs inserted themselves. Their views were quite mixed.
Among the older group, who were born in the ’60s and ’70s, many told me they considered IUDs to be a form of violence. Back then, access to information was quite limited, and so they often didn’t know how to take care of their bodies after the IUDs were inserted. However, there were also a few elderly women who spoke positively about IUDs.
One thing I discovered during the interviews is that officials only asked the women to have IUDs fitted; they often didn’t tell them when to remove them. Women usually removed them after menopause, when one day they suddenly remembered they might not need an IUD anymore.
My interviews with young women surprised me the most. Most had chosen the IUD as a form of contraception simply because their family members or friends had recommended it. Before having one fitted, they often knew nothing about how IUDs worked, the potential health complications, or the different types of devices.
“Red Series No.6,” 2016. Courtesy of Zhou Wenjing
Sixth Tone: It’s been six years since you created the IUD installation. How do you view this work now?
Zhou: Actually, in 2016 I made another piece on IUDs using a different method, as I felt unsatisfied with the first work. I felt the ironic message my first project projected by turning the IUDs into a type of female jewelry might not be accurate. I think a good work of art should present a question, rather than an answer.
In my 2016 project, I made the pieces using ceramics, to emphasize the pain that forever marks women’s bodies. Ceramics have a texture very similar to human skin. I inserted the IUDs into the clay and then removed them, leaving behind an eternal trace.
Sixth Tone: What issues are you trying to raise through your later work on the female body, such as the “Red Series?”
Zhou: Through my journey investigating women’s bodies, I discovered that pain is an essential part of their physical experience. The “Red Series” is about self-awareness, pain, motherhood, and love. The initial meaning of the color red is blood. Bleeding is women’s most frequent physical experience, no matter whether it’s menstruation, childbirth, injury, or disease.
In 2016, I created 12 plaster casts of women’s bodies, but without the heads, arms, legs, or any other personal or social characteristics. I put them into red ink and saw the plaster gradually absorb the redness. At first, the color was a gentle, beautiful pink, but then gradually it developed into a red with some scar-like shapes. It had violent and pathological intimations.
“Red Series No.3,” 2016. Courtesy of Zhou Wenjing
Sixth Tone: Do you think all women experience their bodies in this way despite their differences?
Zhou: I’ve been thinking about this issue in recent days. In the end, I think there’s actually no such thing as collective experience. Every time I meet someone, the person is very specific and different.
The concept of “women” is abstract, but life is very specific — just like art is very abstract, but each work becomes specific. When I was creating my work, it wasn’t a case of me sitting down and thinking, ‘I want to create some art about pregnancy.’ I don’t want to say this is a common experience that represents women all over the world.
In fact, I find when people give compliments, they tend to use words like ‘eternal,’ ‘great,’ and ‘grand,’ which to me are very chauvinistic and masculine concepts. Few people consider micro and specific things good works of art. I’m very opposed to these grand and abstract narratives.
Sixth Tone: Would you describe your work as political? Many people consider me an activist or emphasize my gender as a ‘female artist.’ I don’t like that.– Zhou Wenjing, artist
Zhou: Many people consider me an activist or emphasize my gender as a ‘female artist.’ I don’t like that. Actually, I typically don’t define myself as a feminist.
In today’s feminist activism, there are so many divisions — it’s a very complex notion — so I find it hard to describe myself this way. Though I do think my work has a female perspective, and my art projects are based on my identity as a Chinese woman.
I won’t say my works contain strong criticism: I’m not a sociologist or a doctor. I’m not trying to solve the medical or social issues I raise, just pose questions and express them through my art. People see my art, and then make their own choices.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: “Red Series No.3,” 2016. Courtesy of Zhou Wenjing)