Identity

I Tie People in Knots For Erotic Theater

Gestalta is a performance artist specializing in shibari, the Japanese art of erotic rope-tying. She explains why shibari is all about the power exchange between rigger and model.
Sirin Kale
as told to Sirin Kale
October 18, 2018, 9:14am
Hands tied by rope in the practice of shibari
Illustration by Soofiya

My First Time is a column and podcast series exploring sexuality, gender, and kink with the wide-eyed curiosity of a virgin. We all know your "first time" is about a lot more than just popping your cherry. From experimenting with kink to just trying something new and wild, everyone experiences thousands of first times in the bedroom—that's how sex stays fun, right?

This week we're talking to performance artist Gestalta about the Japanese practice of shibari. You can catch My First Time on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts.

I got into shibari as an accident. I had a fairly strict religious upbringing, and then I left home at 18 and discovered the internet for the first time. Within about a month I got to know people who were involved in the BDSM community, and from there I heard about shibari. I remember thinking that BDSM was very ugly from an aesthetic point of view, with all the leather and the chains, whereas shibari looked so beautiful.

Shibari is a form of rope bondage that originated in Japan. No-one’s clear on exactly how it came to be, but we know that at some point around the first half of the 20th century it became a performance art, often seen in erotic theatre or photography. In shibari, you focus on tying the body in a certain position so that the rope causes a particular kind of pressure or sensation. Whereas in BDSM you tie someone up in order to do things to them, in shibari the rope itself is the discipline.

The first time I did shibari, it was during a photoshoot where I was the person being tied. After that, I was hooked! I started looking for other people to tie me, and then through that people invited me to be in their performances as well.

shibari gestalta

Gestalta rigging a model. Photo courtesy of Gestalta

There are different ways of being tied. I’m into things that are very painful and stressful on the body. I enjoy the sensation of being contorted into an uncomfortable position, when the rope is tight and restricts your breathing a little bit, or even cuts into the skin. But shibari doesn’t have to be uncomfortable if you don’t want it to be. There are other styles of rope that people describe as being more meditative.

I’d always been the person being tied (the model) rather than the person doing the tying (the rigger), but after a few years I realized I’d picked up how to do it. One day I tried tying myself up, and amazingly, I didn’t kill myself! After a year or so of practicing, I started tying other people up, and also giving lessons and workshops.

Being tied, as opposed to being the one doing the tying, is a very different mentality. What people often don’t realize is that as the person being tied, you have a huge amount of control over the situation. You’ve aware of everything. Whereas the person who’s tying can sometimes feel a little powerless, because you’re having to guess what’s going on in the other person’s body. You have to really listen to the other person and read their reactions and empathize with how they’re feeling, but as you’re not in their body, a lot of it can be guesswork. So the initial, really scary part was guessing what was going on in the other person’s head.

For More Stories Like This, Sign Up for Our Newsletter

I actually only know two knots, and that’s pretty much all you need. In shibari, the knots are pretty simple—it’s just a matter of putting them together in increasingly complex formulations. The difficult part is about making all the ropes a different tension, or being fast enough so that you can get out of a difficult situation quite quickly.

Most models and riggers are fairly well acquainted with the common safety protocol that people who do shibari abide by. One of the relatively common injuries people can sustain is compression to the nerves, which can cause sensation loss in the skin, so most experienced models and riggers are aware of this and will be equally responsible for checking that everything’s progressing safely.

shibari gestalta performance

Gestalta rigging a model on stage. Photo courtesy of Gestalta.

I’m not sure that I have a definitive style. I grab elements that I like from other riggers and mush them together. Models I’ve worked with say that I tie with a very steady rhythm and I’m very soft in the way I tie. I’m calm and measured. You never want to sense a negative or angry energy from the person who’s tying you. There have been a few occasions where I could sense that the person tying me was frustrated, or angry, or panicking a little bit, and that can have a negative impact on the model. As a rigger, one of the first things you learn is the ability to keep a lid on your emotions.

I practice shibari in private, as well as on stage. There’s something about being on the stage that adds an extra element, because you’re sharing an emotion with the audience. When you’re in really close proximity to audience and can feel the energy exchange between the performers and the viewers, that’s a huge adrenalin rush.

The biggest preconception about shibari is that it’s all about restraint. But I’ve never felt it in that way. I don’t feel like I’m losing control by being tied up. I don’t feel powerless. That couldn’t be further from the truth.