The piece began with two naked artists covered in photographs of the female body, behind which hid coils of fishing line pierced into the skin. This was “Balancing on the Edge/Age,” a work addressing societal views of menopause and old age by Mexican artist Rocio Boliver, also known as La Congeleda de Uva, with Spanish artist Begoña Grande. After removing the photographs, the artists uncoiled the lines, displaying dozens of thin, translucent strings that dangled from eyebrow to thigh. Boliver and Grande used the fishing line to perform a bloody ballet-like tug of war, grasping at the skin of each other’s labias, underarms and faces atop a stage set up like a runway.
“Balancing on the Edge/Age” was curated by Anna Felicity Friedman and Joseph Ravens as part of Majesty of Flesh, a Defibrillator performance art gallery series aimed at exploring body modification within time-based art. Boliver had previously performed a similar piece alone as a part of the Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival, but tugging at the fishing-line piercings herself didn’t work as anticipated. Boliver chose Grande, a friend of seven years, as her partner for the piece because she knew their connection would translate well on stage — a connection she compared, in later conversation with Hyperallergic, to tigers engaged in a ferocious fight. During the performance a fluidity between them was palpable, with each artist completely engaged in both her own movements and their connection, instinctively pulling and pushing against each other’s strength. Grande remained nearly silent as Boliver gasped and moaned, maneuvering to her tippy toes to counteract the tension in her tightly pulled skin.
A small balancing board lay between the two women, and they took turns climbing atop, swaying the weight of their bodies against the pull. Grande’s malleable skin showcased the contrast of age between the two artists; Boliver’s sagging skin bled first. The most disturbing part was witnessing the pulled skin on the artists’ faces, which contorted into exaggerated skeletal structures with pointed brows, cheeks, and chins. The increasing violence of the performance caused blood to drip from their brows into the women’s eyes. Boliver said later that she didn’t care about the pain, but rather used it as a motivator to go deeper into expressing the grotesque lengths that women go to for societal acceptance, including under the knife.
After a prolonged struggle, each woman grabbed a lighter hanging from a suspended shelf. I neared the threshold of my own fear, uncomfortable with the uncertainty of the flame’s intention. But my tension released, along with the artists’, as the flames were used to dissolve the fishing lines that connected Boliver’s and Grande’s bodies. As one artist would teeter back on the balancing board, the other would light a flame to a length of line. Just when the first looked like she might pass out from pain, the flame would sever the connection and the artist would be flung back on the small, tilted board. Immediately following one particular snap, Boliver delivered an audible “whew.”
Boliver and Grande then placed mirrors on their heads, with perfect cutouts for their faces, and climbed from the stage to enter the audience. The artists stared at attendees individually, our own reflections seen on either side of their bloody visages. They took packaged razors from a white envelope and handed them to each audience member, a gesture Boliver later compared to handing over a pre-loaded gun. Audience members seemed to confront extreme solitude when facing the artists: one woman broke into uncontrollable sobs.
This feedback from viewers is extremely important to Boliver’s practice. She was highly influenced by her master, Juan Jose Gurrola, who taught her to “take the audience’s balls and never let them go,” she says, bringing them to their knees. Boliver uses this method to create messages that bypass rationality and cut straight to unconscious thought. A section of the artist statement on her website reads:
Tearing, yanking off the mask of that great lie created by man, that putrid way of communicating with one another. Disgusted by everyday lies, by the acceptance of hypocrisy as a passport. I vomit on everyone, I shit on their faces, I scare them and make ’em suffer, I put ’em between a rock and a hard place.
After climbing back on stage, the artists used their own razors to create a single slice into the sides of their hands. The blood was not a slow drip but a moderate flow, splashing bright red droplets onto the stage. Boliver and Grande applied the blood to each other and themselves as makeup, posing in the mirrors and pursing their lips as if they were putting on nothing more than a brighter hue than they were used to. Their effortlessness was captivating.
To end the performance, the artists engaged in an aggressive kiss, mashing lips while moaning. As the kiss became more ferocious, Boliver lost herself, ravaging Grande by smacking against her body, breast on breast, leg on leg, mirrors clacking violently. Grande’s obvious horror forced Boliver to pull back, her physical catharsis transformed into an audible scream and then a whimper.
Rocio Boliver’s “Balancing on the Edge/Age” took place at Defibrillator (136 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago) gallery on March 29, 8 pm.