This Artist Is Redefining How Brutal S&M Can Be
For "Jilf," pain is all about empowerment.
All photos coutesy of Jilf
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.
Note: Some readers might find the following article and photographs disturbing.
If you’re into S&M, you’ll know Fetlife. It’s an online community for kink enthusiasts who share stories, photos, and videos, and generally bond around a shared love of whips. Like any social media site, certain members become known for certain proclivities—which brings us to a Fetlife member known as Jilf. In some corners of the internet Jilf is famous for pushing kink and body modification to the point where it becomes something else—something that’s genuinely unsettling.
Originally from Brisbane, Melbourne-based artist Jilf photographs these pain rituals and uploads them to both her own website and Fetlife, where she aims to force onlookers to evaluate their understanding of pain, disgust, and how social conventions shape both. Her partners regularly begin sessions with Jilf with the phrase, “Today, I will suffer for your art.” What follows is the kind of imagery that gets taken down from almost every other platform.
Jilf, a psychological sciences grad, says her interest in pain and disgust began at the age of 12. Her latest project involved peeling open her partner’s shin, which compelled me to reach out and ask about her process and thesis. She told how behind each macabre and surreal photo is a complex process of research, consent, intimacy, pain, and psychological pioneering.
VICE: Tell me about your first experimentations with pain.
Jilf: From a young age, I've always enjoyed extracting something from my body that was supposed to be concealed. It was interesting to watch the blood run down my body, and I found it fascinating. It seemed like a very intimate process for me and only me; waves of peace would enter my brain. I had no idea what it was called back then, but it was not self-harm. In fact, it was totally the opposite—I felt such a deep connection and love with my brain and physical body.
How did that evolve into the way you engage with pain now?
It grew into a deep love and respect for where pain could take me, both in my body and my mind. I decided to seek it out. I wanted to see if there was anybody else like me out there. I wanted to share that intimacy. To engage in this level of trust with another person leaves absolutely no room to hide from yourself or them, whether during negotiations and planning or the actual act of sadomasochism itself. When we “play”—for want of a better word—there is no escape from being in that moment. You cannot possibly be anywhere else but with that person sharing a mutual love and respect for the entity that is pain.
What does “pain” mean to you? And how does it feel?
Pain is complex and complicated. It is something to be nurtured and respected, almost deified. Pain is a way of pushing myself, of finding self. When you engage in hard S&M it’s that feeling of knowing what you’re capable of both physically and emotionally.
There is fierceness in it. It is a way of being present; it can also relieve that crushing feeling of existentialism. It can provide recalibration and it is a cathartic release. This is a way of feeling purpose and knowing that I can act on my agency, of having feelings that are not about paying the bills or going to work—the mundanity of everyday existence.
Related: The Brutal Tattoo Ritual Built on Pain
How do you label your work?
My S&M intersects with identity, sexuality, and gender—this is a way of documenting all those intersections. My long-term partners and I do this together—we are quite the well-oiled machine. We do not document everything we do; sometimes it can be a spur of the moment thing during S&M or it can be S&M done to document feminist queer sexuality and BDSM.
Do you find that gender politics often inform your work?
My S&M, from whatever process I am engaging, is my way of subverting dominant paradigms and radically distorting belief systems. I liken it to a giant “fuck you” to the quiet, subservient female and the historic subjugation of women. We embrace our wants and needs by actively and consensually participating in these perverse acts. We play with power structures within our relationships on our terms, and not what society dictates. I find it comforting and empowering that women are actively engaging in subversive and transgressive acts. It is a display of queer female sexuality.
And nihilism, how does that inform your work?
Life is absurd and there is no intrinsic meaning, so it means finding and creating meaning in the absurdness. I want to build a subjective creation of meaning. This might mean taking what some would perceive as risks. As a society, we are so conformist—my nihilism leaves room to let go of that conformity.
Speaking of nonconformity, you practice an extreme form of BDSM. What are some things you enjoy doing to the human body, and what has been the most extreme?
I like contorting the female body—making it grotesque. I like being confronted and uncomfortable. I like playing around in filth. I like blood. I like intrusive acts. Both body and mind. I like heavy CT [vaginal torture]. Breast skewering. Suspensions. We did 4,700 needles in my partner once. I crave S&M that stretches and challenges my brain. The creation of consensual trauma and violence. Things that require unpacking and introspection. The apex of my S&M, though, would be peeling my partner, K. That blew my mind.
Talk me through the process of peeling her, from inception to recovery.
It has been nearly three months since “the peeling." The whole physical and psychological process from inception to recovery has been incredibly rewarding and absolutely exhausting. It stretched both my partner and myself in ways I could never have imagined. It has deepened our relationship.
We first put the process on the table about 18 months ago. Both the people involved, K and myself, did extensive negotiations. Informed consent and risk mitigation are paramount. Technically, we spoke to a very open-minded doctor regarding physical recovery and body trauma. We planned both physical and emotional recovery in advance. Finding stainless grade tools proved difficult. We ended up finding a specific peeler from overseas, but strangely enough, I could not find any info on how to peel a human.
Research involved looking at skin grafting techniques. We researched anatomy, adding to our prior knowledge. We did the actual peeling in front of our close S&M family. We started off creating a flap of skin that could be inserted into the peeler while leaving enough of the skin flap exposed to be held taut. A friend held the flap, and then I basically peeled a layer of skin back up the shin towards the knee. We cooked it, and then we ate a little bit of it. I think it’s one of the most intimate things I’ve ever shared with a human.
The realness of knowing that I was going to heavily scar a woman—how do you put it into words—what it felt like to sit with your “chosen” family and share such a brain-blowing, intimate moment. All while inflicting excruciating pain and consensual trauma on somebody that you love. The next day sitting in the space was emotionally overwhelming. I think even now, nearly three months down the track, it is still raw. It has been complex to unpack.
How do people usually react to your work?
With fear, disgust, confusion, horror, and intrigue. Some have said it makes their brain “tingle.” Others have felt turned on by the work. I try not to interpret how people feel about my work—whatever you feel is how you feel—I prefer to let people make their own personal interpretations. But a lot of people have thought it beautiful and empowering, most being women, which I have found very interesting.
It appears that all we do as a society is avoid and avoid: We do not like discomfort, we avoid pain, we seem to want everything so clear-cut and clean. We want humans tidy in their skin bags. When I look at art, in whatever form it takes, I want to walk away feeling like my brain, chest, and stomach have been ripped out and absolutely trampled. I like the feeling of wanting to escape and having to sit there uncomfortably, almost like needing to have invisible bondage that forces me to engage in the work. I want to think and unpack it years later. People sometimes write to me saying, “You triggered me!” Personally, I want to be triggered.
What would you say to people who find your work pathological or perverse?
Pathological would suggest lack of thought process and consent; no active engagement and desire on both sides. Conflating consensual S&M with pathology is the easy way out. It would suggest that there is some negative or detrimental underlying reason for what we do. To observe what I do at a deeper level and to sit with the thought that somebody has actively sought hard S&M out can be deeply challenging.
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