The Invisible Month

Photo credit: Jonathan Haidt

Jayne Riew is a New York City-based artist whose recent project, The Invisible Month, uses art as a way to understand how women’s hormonal rhythms affect their work productivity, well-being, and behavior in relationships. Check out the project’s website to learn more.

Tell us a little about yourself!

I’m an artist in New York City. My work tends to explore psychological processes, like how your thoughts evolve over time or how to manage unwanted thoughts. Most of my projects take the form of books or boxes. For me art is a place where you can go for help, whether it’s for an escape, a discovery, therapy, or inspiration. We all need to change the channel more.

I love the idea of merging science and art. Can you tell us a little bit about this collaboration, and what inspired you to start focusing on it in your work?

Throughout my 20s and 30s, I noticed times in every month when I felt more introverted or more focused or more interested in sex — the list goes on! It became so predictable a rhythm that I wouldn’t schedule anything socially important during the week before my period. I would block off the first half of the month for any big projects that demanded persistence. When I got really good at forecasting the weather system of my body, I became a lot more efficient and more confident.

In the fall of 2013 I went to the Venice Biennale, a major contemporary art exhibition. The theme was “The Encyclopedic Palace.” What do we do with all our information? There’s a lot of stuff vying for our attention. How do we remember what’s important? People generally don’t forget if it’s visually memorable. But sometimes the most interesting ideas don’t lend themselves easily to image. So then the question is, how do we make the abstract visible? I decided at the end of my week in Venice that I wanted to share my observations about hormonal rhythms. If the awareness had helped me, it could help others. I’d seen at the Biennale how visuals help people organize and remember the most interesting phenomena. And isn’t everybody interested in what women want, and when, and why?

I spent the next several months reading the recent scientific literature on female reproductive hormones. After months deciphering the language of science journals came the fun part — figuring out how I’d “illustrate” the strengths and shifts I’d refer to.

The poetic and the rational work really well together. Look around: the scientists who can explain their work well usually do it by using metaphor. And the best artists have an exquisite sense of ratio.

How do you respond to people who don't relate or understand the power of hormones in your project?

Some people have criticized me for developing a project that says that women vary throughout the month, as though if men find this out they won’t want to hire women or vote for them. But I say, seriously people? Come on, let’s move forward. Everyone knows that women are variable. People are variable. Men vary from the beginning of the day to the end, as their testosterone falls. But women have a complex interplay of hormones, and there is huge reward in being able to recognize the resulting subtle shifts in behavior. Is it better to consider what might be unappealing and true about yourself and then be able to live with more insight and wisdom, or is it preferable to keep investigation to a minimum so you don’t have to face a few unsavory truths? I wish someone had told me everything in The Invisible Month when I was 18, and said, okay, got it? Now go and optimize your success, sex appeal, and self-care!

I think it’s amazing to recognize the power of a cycle and harness it in your daily life.  Can you tell us about an experience or story where someone has benefited from your project?

Last winter I developed an online questionnaire and asked a few dozen straight young women who were not using hormone-based birth control to answer all sorts of questions. I asked them to grade themselves on a scale on topics ranging from when they felt unstoppable at work to when they felt an insatiable need for sex. One woman realized after taking the survey for six months that she was only going to call her mother during the first three weeks of her cycle, that the week before her period she just wasn’t tough enough to withstand her mother’s critical style. Another woman had her roommate get rid of all the fatty food in their kitchen the week before her period because she found that she had zero ability to stick to her diet in the five days before her period.

How can women get involved and follow the patterns in their month more closely?

Start by paying close attention to three things: your ability to focus at work, your lustiness, and your habits at the month’s end. Click on all the “flowers” in The Invisible Month (found on the project’s website), and see if those works of art – and the related research – speak to you in any way. Pay attention to your body and your desires, as well as your aversions. One of my survey takers said that her lustiness surged not at midcycle, as my project suggests, but in the first days of her period. The point is, know yourself and prepare accordingly.

There’s this great movie by Max Ophuls, the French filmmaker, where the female protagonist complains that men keeping calling her a dreadful flirt. “But I can’t remedy what I’m unaware of.” That pretty much sums it up: Well, GET aware, girl, so you can plan ahead. Identify your own behavior, capitalize on high energy, tenacity, and mood, but also anticipate challenges such as when your willpower will crumble.

How would you like FW readers to follow your work?

Share The Invisible Month with your friends and anyone you work or live with. Understand your own hormonal ebbs and flows. It’s fun to observe yourself get lustier and lustier as a certain time of the month approaches. And it’s far less dispiriting to know that you’re not alone during the soul-crushing lows of PMS, and helpful to know exactly why it’s happening. #theinvisiblemonth


Your StoriesErin Bagwell