Full-body suspension, corsetry and live piercing sit close to the fringe of popular entertainment. Watching it happen live is an exercise in wincing, ooh-ing, aah-ing , wincing again, and saying a quiet prayer for the artists on stage. Richard Stupart got backstage and on-stage to see what goes into putting a performance together.
Appearances can be deceiving, but yes – that is a bottle of beer. A human suspension show is only possible in the hands of experienced professionals. Quinton Carnage, (left) and Black-Arm Burt (not their real names) pose for the camera in Grahamstown, South Africa, before the show begins. Burt has been arranging suspensions for the last five years, and had been onsite for hours beforehand scrubbing down the performance area.
Tools of the trade: corsetry ribbon, reinforced black latex gloves, sterilised needles, chains and surgical steel hooks.
For John Wayne (his performance name), this will be his ninth suspension at Burt’s hands. Before the show, he sits on-stage quietly meditating to get his mind in focus for the performance.
Besides suspension, John is a dedicated practitioner of body modification in many forms. Tattoos, piercings, scarification and, more recently, implanting surgical steel balls and other shapes underneath his skin to alter its surface texture. The evening’s performance is, in part, a promotional stunt for Ink Saints, a new tattoo parlour that John and Burt have opened in Grahamstown. But it’s also intended to get people a little more comfortable with the idea of tattoos, piercings and suspensions.
As a prelude to the main performance, Burt builds a corset in the back of a volunteer who had applied weeks ago to be a part of the act. A corset is essentially two lines of steel rings down the back, with ribbon connecting between them, creating the ‘corset’ design that the procedure is named after.
Each ring is C-shaped surgical steel. A piercing is made with a large-gauge needle, the C-ring is passed through and then opened with pliers slightly so that a ball can be inserted and held in place by the pressure of the ring. It’s painstaking work, with little room for error.
With all the rings in place, the ribbon is passed through to complete the pattern.
Next up is the process of inserting the hooks in the backs of those who have volunteered to be suspended. The hooks are spaced and placed using marker pen. This volunteer had opted for piercing and minor tension just to try the experience out, and would not be going ahead with a full suspension.
When placed correctly, a series of four hooks like this can hold over two hundred kilograms. Placement is important, as is getting the hook in and adjusted with an absolute minimum of readjustment and fiddling.
The volunteer who opted to try piercing and suspension gets a feel for the procedure. It’s as far as she will push herself tonight.
Finally, the moment of truth arrives. John faces the crowd as Burt and Quinton prepare the suspension ropes and chains off to one side.
This particular pose is known as a ‘suicide suspension’, for its resemblance to the pose of a hanged person. Other poses can be obtained by inserting hooks into the front of the chest, arms or legs to rotate the subject differently.