My Body, My Self

Maisy Taylor

Aerialist, Shibari artist, cabaret performer, porn star – one body, many roles. Maisy Taylor reflects on the body as metaphor, and pushing the performing body to its limits

One of my earliest memories is of flying through the air on a knotted loop of rope – head thrown back, legs straight out in front of me, toes pointed fiercely – performing a solo routine I had ostentatiously named Leaf for an audience of my amused young parents. I remember the music – some alternative 90s artist I’d chosen from our CD collection: the sounds of the rainforest, a woman’s tinkling voice, drums. The memory isn’t a visual one – my eyes were solemnly closed – but instead it is physical. A memory of inhabiting my body in a brand new way, with an exquisite awareness of every inch of myself. My every action, once performed unselfconsciously, had taken on a new significance because of my audience. I was six years old. 

I am now 24, with a degree in Circus Arts and four years experience working professionally as a performer, and I am still asking myself what the body means, what it means to be performing, and how the idea of performance changes what we choose to do with our bodies. 

In her round-up of the National Review of Live Art 2009, ‘Our Bodies Our Selves’, Laura Lloyd discusses the different ways in which the human body can be used in performance. She distinguishes between the body as 'a theatrical actor… dancing or performing actions which in some way imitate life or create a reality, tell stories' and the body as a metaphor, often subversively 'playing with the spectator’s desire to make sense of it'. The pieces she writes about – by Richard Hancock, Franko B, Raimund Hoghe – are mostly extreme examples of the body as a metaphor. They are shocking, visceral, brave pieces of work which challenge their audiences’ understanding of the body. 

Lloyd writes: ’Richard Hancock’s solos pushed limits of vulnerability and humiliation. In Postures A-M he is naked on podium with a rubber pig’s head, fingering his arsehole.' I love reading about work like this. In the moments before I start to analyse what it means, I’m filled with giddy, wordless awe, like when reading about a revolution. Why is that? Do I love it simply for its subversiveness? Or perhaps this instant and exultant joy I feel is my subconscious recognising the importance of the work before my intellectual mind has time to catch up. In his article 'Invaded Bodies' John Daniel quotes body artist ORLAN saying: ‘Art should be uncomfortable otherwise it is merely decoration... Art must upset our assumptions, overwhelm our thoughts, be outside of norms and against the law. It should be against Bourgeois art; it isn’t there to comfort or to give us what we already know. It must take risks. Even at the risk of not being accepted.’

When we make work with our body as a metaphor, we are inevitably going to make work which is uncomfortable, because a metaphor is never there to give us what we already know. And we enjoy being exposed to this uncomfortable metaphor because we are all fascinated by the unknowable experience of what it’s like to inhabit another human body, and because we recognise something important about having our assumptions upset. In 'Our Bodies Our Selves', Laura Lloyd concludes: 'You want to watch, and you’re given permission to take it in, and you want to stay in the images, and the images to stay in you. What more could you want of witnessing real live bodies in action?'

After finishing my degree, I went to work as a cabaret performer in a strip club, a place where so many uncomfortable truths about the female body, usually brushed under the carpet, are laid bare. I had a few shows to do each night I was there, shared a dressing room with the dancers and was free to roam the club during my free time. I watched the comings and goings with interest. The strip club felt like a microcosm of the real world, where I saw women’s bodies sexualised every day in the media, in adverts, in vocabulary used by the press, in casual conversations with friends. As women, we are socially conditioned to treat our sexuality as something separate from the self: a performative action. And watching the lazy, luxurious movement of  the dancers, I realised that dynamic was just a concentrated version of something I saw in the outside world every day, the sexual female presented as an archetype: a beautiful, elegantly moving, subservient exhibitionist and nothing more.

I wanted to talk about this in my work – to use the freedom and ambiguity of art to explore the rough textures and uncomfortable realities I had found – but as a young woman wishing to express her sexuality in modern society, it’s hard to know where to start. There is a growing number of women who feel that their expressions of sexuality – their burlesque dancing, stripping, sex work, posting of provocative photos online – are radical acts of rebellion. Stacey Clare, a founding member of the East London Strippers Collective, who aim to challenge societal views of stripping and improve working conditions for dancers, says in her TED Talk ‘The Ethical Stripper’: It was genuinely empowering to be in control of the sexual tension that I got from men. Sexual harassment is kind of part of my life, but when I discovered stripping I could regain some agency over something that I didn’t have control over otherwise.’ The consensus among the opposition seems to be that if a performer inspires arousal in her audience, she must be perpetuating a stereotype of male power over women, and that the only way to avoid propping up the patriarchy is not to express one’s sexuality at all. In 'Tassel Hassle' (19/2), Laura Lloyd asks: 'Is burlesque supposed to be ironic? Are we supposed to be amused that what was once thought of as scandalous is now only slightly titillating? Is the striptease in a  theatrical context a reflection of the way that women’s bodies are viewed? Can something be ironic when it is so utterly merged into the object of its irony?'

If we accept that the performance of sexuality can be subversive, the main problem seems to be in differentiating it from behaviour symptomatic of and contributing to the very thing it’s attempting to subvert. 

Why do the two look so similar? In a society that moulds the behaviour of its women to satisfy the male gaze, that teaches its girls to treat their bodies as objects and their sexuality as performance, and with the decisions we make about our bodies facing scrutiny from every side, what does it look like to make a choice?

Answering these questions has become a preoccupation for me for the last four years. In my research, I have become a successful art nude model, involved myself in the underground London kink scene, learnt and practised a Japanese bondage art called Shibari, acted in a porn film funded by the prolific feminist activist and director Erika Lust, and, most recently, worked for a few nights as a dancer in a strip club. Turning to my body for answers, asking at every step: Does this feel okay, or does it feel wrong? Am I being degraded or empowered by this action? My body has become a landscape for my research. 

So when do these acts of self-objectification become art? When John Daniel discusses the work of ORLAN, who in the early 90s, filmed herself having reconstructive surgery, he asks: 'Is ORLAN’s body transformation art or the product of a pathological mind?… What makes her plastic surgery different to that of Michael Jackson or Pamela Anderson?' He concludes by quoting Barbara Rose, who, in writing for Art in America identified in her work 'the two essential criteria for distinguishing art from non-art: intentionality and transformation'. 

By this definition, were my nights spent at the strip club art? And if not, what were they? I remember standing with my back up against the pole, gently sliding my dress off of my shoulders, my face a preening mask of confidence and an image coming to me of a man operating a bulldozer, smashing the great hulking ball of metal into the house he grew up in, feeling nothing. I wonder exactly what it was that compelled me to do it. Regardless of my political views of stripping, this is not something I would personally have chosen to put my body through without the context I have described. It was frightening and uncomfortable and confusing.

And yet, I am proud of doing it. My body, usually concerned only with the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, became an instrument for my intellectual curiosity. The discomfort is proof of both my intentionality and my transformation. My actions rendered performative by my body’s sacrifice. And sacrifice seems to be a common factor with artists who use their bodies as metaphors. John Daniel in 'Invading Bodies' says of ORLAN that 'her flesh is the material for her art'. For her, he says: 'The body is merely a costume, a cover. Her surgical metamorphosis is not motivated by a desire to improve her appearance, but rather it is to create a complete change of  image. ORLAN’s body becomes a language which speaks of identity and asks questions about the status of the male/female body in society.'

In 'Our Bodies Our Selves', Laura Lloyd reacts to Richard Hancock’s Postures A-M as 'Rare, yet sad, to see the male body enslaved and pornographised.' She quotes Pina Bausch’s dramaturg, Raimund Hoghe, feeling 'content to stay on the fringe of the stage before he, the hunchback, finally dared to “throw his body into the battle”'.

Perhaps any work with intentionality is automatically going to require sacrifice because it will always be an action outside of the normal bounds of behaviour for an individual. Or perhaps sacrifice is necessary for the creation of narrative around an action. But who is it we’re sacrificing our bodies to? To our audience, who we hope will recognise the self-awareness with which we perform our actions? Does an action that could in some lights be seen as sexist and misinformed seem subversive if it invites its audience to consider its intentionality? Or are we sacrificing our bodies to our intellectual selves in order to discover something about the human experience?  

An extreme example of the performing body belonging to its audience is Stelarc’s Split Bodies: Voltage In / Voltage Out. John Daniel describes how 'the performer’s body was manipulated by a series of computer interfaced muscle stimulators which send electrical impulses of between 0 and 60 volts to cause the involuntary contraction of the muscle in a series of choreographed movements. The body moves, but the performer has no control over the movement. The central nervous system is superseded by an external control agent.'  Stelarc's work seems to bypass individual experience entirely. This is not a description of what it means to be human, nor a subversion, but rather an expansive and far-reaching exploration of what it could be. The body used merely as a cog; it’s like art made for a God.

But it does leave me wondering: no matter how powerful the objectification and transformation of the human body may be, what does this mean for the individual?

'The performances are a reminder of how rarely we are allowed to see the body’s disturbing mystery exposed,' Laura Lloyd writes in 'Our Bodies Our Selves’, ‘you want to unbuckle yourself from the seatbelt of understanding and risk falling overboard.'

Perhaps all we’re doing when we use our bodies as metaphors is exploring what it means to be human. No matter how much we try to elevate ourselves, we remain fascinated by the dirty, sweaty, frightening subjectivity of existence.

As I sat naked, in a deep bath of warm water, a camera crew crammed into the corners of the brightly lit bathroom, about to film a sex scene for the first time in my life, my heart hammering in my chest, I realised something: existence is inescapably physical. My body is not simply a tool, and this is not simply an experiment. I cannot unravel my intellectual experience of the world from the physical reality of my life.

So maybe I was drawn to these extreme, sometimes uncomfortable experiences, for my own reasons. Perhaps we learn something about ourselves when we push our bodies to their limits. I can’t help wondering if anybody knows exactly what it is they’re trying to communicate with their bodies. Perhaps we’re simply hoping to provide a tiny glimpse into our own colourful, astonishing, deeply private inner lives. And perhaps, from the moment we realise we can, we never stop performing.