Visualizing Birth and Rebirth in Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Hon – en Katedral” (“She – a Cathedral”)
Widely known for her brightly colored monumental sculpture installations and other art that defied tradition during the mid to late twentieth century, Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), was a French-American artist important within contemporary and feminist art circles.
Collaborating with Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt, Saint Phalle created a temporary exhibit called Hon – en katedral(She – a Cathedral) in 1966 at the Modern Art Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, which was devoted to creating a massive pregnant form with which audiences could interact. In a great 2018 piece for Women ‘n Art, which also includes the link to a youtube video about Saint Phalle’s art making of the installation piece, Natasha Moura gives a beautiful description of the artwork and how people experienced it:
The sculpture has a form of a gigantic pregnant woman, laying on her back with knees raised and heels planted. The spectators could enter the figure through a door-sized vaginal opening between her legs. Once there, they found themselves in a warm, “dark” female body that functionated as an amusement park with a love-seat sofa, a planetarium, a gallery with “fake” artworks, a 12-seat cinema, an aquarium, a milk-bar inside a breast, a fish pond, a coin telephone, a sandwich vending machine, a brain with mechanical parts (by Jean Tinguely), an art installation by Ultvedt, a playground slide for the children and an early Greta Garbo film playing elsewhere.
Following exhibition of the work, Saint Phalle remarked in fascinating video footage (which also shows the construction and destruction of the piece) that viewer-participants who had experienced She – a Cathedral had been born and reborn by going in and out of the pregnant form of the installation piece. They were likely changed in some way when they exited the sculpted birth canal, she remarks, noting elsewhere that perhaps an uptick in births in Stockholm the year following the exhibit had something to do with the sculpture because many people from Stockholm had experienced it during their visits to the museum the previous year.
More information about Saint Phalle is available widely on the internet. The Tarot Garden, located in Tuscany, is her life work and includes many permanent sculptures devoted to the female form.