“Your Words, My Scars” – Live performance art piece
Stood naked on stage surrounded by mirrors with a bucket filled with papers on the floor. The audience are asked to take a piece of paper, read it and write it on my skin. The papers have negative words and phrases that have been said to me over the years. Stood covered in words I will paint over it – symbolising my tendencies to ‘paint over’ the pain and pretend everything was ok. The audience will then be welcomed to come back and write statements of love and encouragement. This is to show to love I have been given over the years. However, this is not the end. The scars remain underneath. And so to erase those words, I will then look into each mirror and say “I love you and I forgive you.” as I wipe away the words and the paint. Because ultimately it is in loving myself that the scars disappear.
I had decided pretty early on that I wanted to have a live performance at the exhibition. I don’t remember where the idea came from or even when but it just seemed to appear in my head one day, perfectly formed with roots that planted so deep into my soul, I knew I would do it. As I told people about my idea, the shivered at how powerful and intense it sounded. Many asked “Are you going to be able to do this? Won’t it be too much?” but I knew in my heart that I would be able to, there was a quiet resolve, a silent knowing, that this was what I was meant to show people.
Finding a venue that I would be comfortable and feel supported and safe was key to the performance being a success. I wanted a space in which people would feel cosy and connected but with ample opportunity to leave, walk around or just be in another part of the room if it got to be too much. Matter offered us all of that and more. Open, spacious, light with a comforting and safe air about it, I felt instantly at home and knew this was the place. The space itself was divided by a curtain, allowing people to remain inside the space but be shielded, I also set up so that people could leave without disturbing the performance or others. It was the perfect venue…
I was nervous days before, not about being naked on stage, nor the potential pain that these memories would cause me, but that no one would show up! That I would be there, alone, the artist with no one to view her message. I didn’t need to worry. We had over 50 people stay for the performance, many of whom participated in reading and writing the words on my skin.
Before the performance started, I came out and explained what the project was and why I had chosen to do a live performance. I reminded those present that they were welcome to participate but it was in no way compulsory. I then read out this poem before retiring to the back of the room to get undressed.
Hurt people, hurt people
And this isn’t about blame or shame
This is about me taking responsibility for my own mental health
Giving myself permission to give myself a love I denied it for so long
As I rise and as I fall, I take this temple I beat til it was broken and own it, hold it and yes, even caress it because my God, that’s right MY GOD flows through these veins.
I am divine and I am beautiful.
Not because of this white skin, full breasts and long legs. Not because of this cellulite or stretch marks or scars. Not even because of the tattoos I marked it with but. Because it’s mine.
Because it shouldn’t take 30 years, drugs and a therapist for me to look in the mirror and say “Jenny I love you, I really, really love you”
As I sit in these ashes, awaiting my salvation, as I claw my way to standing, blinded by my restoration, as I spread my arms like the wings of my resurrection, I cannot help but wonder.
What if it wasn’t the fire that burned me but the light. The realization of that connection to self and God so unrecognized, so disconnected it felt like flames licking against my skin not the sunlight nourishing my being.
We are born from light. Not from darkness.
And so today I will stand before you and turn towards the light. I remember who I am and why I came here. I feel the warmth, the light of a love so perfect that it could only have come from me.
And I rise.
I rise. I rise.
I came back out from behind the curtain and stood in the middle of the stage, with the mirrors around me. There was no escaping what I would see. I had asked a friend to be the first to come up, again fearful people would not participate but even as she stood up I saw others move forward. I stared straight ahead, trying to breathe calmly, reminding myself I was safe and that whatever came up, however those memories stirred or flowed, I need to let them have their time, to show them, to feel each and every one.
The first few sentences were tough, but I could breathe through them. I could see them on my skin and my heart beat faster. And then one of the bigs ones was said and I felt the sting in my nose, the prickling in my eyes and I started to shake. I could remember each and every occasion. I felt 10 year old me, 15 year old me, 21 year old me…. all break at the same time. I wanted to hug each and every broken piece of me and collapse at the same time. I was angry, determined, weakened, strengthened, obliterated and reform each and every time… and looking at my body, covered in spite and pain, over 20 years of it….It was the hardest thing I have every had to do. There was an overwhelm, a numbness that swept over me at one point, as if my soul had had enough.
In the original plan for the piece, the audience was meant to say and write the negative words, allow me to paint over myself and then come back with word of love. But as each individual came up and read what was written, wrote what was written, they held me, kissed me, told me I was loved, that I was worthy. Artistically, perhaps it did not create the impact I planned – me a blubbering and broken mess on the floor for all to see – but it showed the humanity of the audience. They wanted to support me but also to protect me. For all the vileness written in my past, this was a room with nothing but love.
It was interesting to see how people reacted coming up and reading the words. Some tore them up in anger, others started to cry, there were shaking hands, and people barely able to get the words out. There was a lot of swearing, disbelief but also a lot of “I’ve heard that one before”. It created a community of people who had not only heard these awful things being said to themselves, but also seeing how they affected me, stood before them naked.
Once the papers had all been read, I wept as I painted over them. I had tested this at home and it had worked perfectly and yet on the day, the words shone through, no matter how many layers of paint I tried to use…
As I had been shown so much love throughout the piece, I decided to move straight away to cleansing. I knelt down in front of the mirror and looked at myself in the eyes. It was the first time in the whole performance I felt scared. I felt as though I had lost my voice. I didn’t want to maintain eye contact, and so I started to rub soap on my arms and legs to give me time to breathe. I looked again and sobbed as I chocked out “I’m so sorry, I love you. Please forgive me. You are beautiful.” It felt unreal, my heart beating so fast I thought I would have a panic attack but as I washed away the paint and the words, I felt myself calming. It was easier to look at myself and a gradual peace took over my body. I continued to wash myself and look in the mirror, feeling lighter with each moment. I noticed at one point that I would not be able to reach the writing on my back and I realised I didn’t care. That the words no longer mattered. I felt free. Later on a guest would say that he felt it was symbolic that I couldn’t reach behind me, that it was representative of it all being behind me.
As I hugged myself and laughed, feeling the blissful wave of calm, I knew I had done what I set out to do. I had risen again.
In an unplanned but beautiful expression of love, several women from the audience came up and washed the rest of the words off me. As I stood there, being bathed I felt a renewed strength, as they washed away my pain, I was cleansed and I was finally free.
After the performance was over I got changed and walked around the room. I was surprised and humbled to find people talking about the performance and what it had meant to them. Several men talked to me about how they had said many of the things that were read out. That they had never truly considered the impact their words could say until seeing it written on my skin. A group of women discussed how much they also hold on to words and negative internal speak, and how that manifests into pain and sickness in their lives. There were people who were left speechless, as they processed how they felt about what they had just witnessed.
I just felt so incredible proud and humbled. The love and support of everyone in the room. The humanity of the whole experience. The openness to participate and to explore feelings afterwards. All of the artists who had been a part of the exhibition, the time, the money, the blood, sweat and tears. This project has been such a gift. It has changed my life forever.
Jen Skuse – The Risen Phoenix
**Please note more photographs as well as the video of the performance will be posted at a later date**
Thoughts from those who attended:
“I knew what to expect, but what I didn’t expect was how moved I would be.”
“I still have no words.”
“This was the first art exhibition that I have really been to and I was overwhelmed by the raw openness of it all. During the performance, I found myself breaking down right along with Jenny, reliving many of the hurtful things I had heard throughout my life. And then again as she attempted to cover up the painful words with paint. I saw my own struggle throughout the years of covering up painful memories and hurtful things, telling myself everything was okay rather than face the problems head on. But then, I left with a sense of hope. That just like the Phoenix, I too could burn and rise above it, better than before. That I do have the strength within me to face all the hurtful or painful moments of my life and grow to love myself.” – Emma Kalka
“It was compelling and thought provoking for me. It definitely struck strong emotional chords. I’m sure it affected people to varying degrees based upon their own mental landscape. But, people stuck with you. You did amazing. You had to stand there for such a long time in such a vulnerable position. But, you could feel there was so much love and support in the room. I think you really inspired alot of awareness about just how much negativity we can internalize and carry with us throughout our lives. I just kept thinking about the fact that the bits of paper in that cup are but a small fraction of the negative self talk people can create in their own heads.” – Lauren Bedard