The spectacle of suspension

Nicole Hennessy

Imagine hanging from hooks inserted into the flesh between your shoulder blades. The sound of your inhalations and exhalations amplified inside of your gas mask; your black knee-high boots dangling as you swing through the air.

Nate Sexstella’s scars, indicative of where these hooks once penetrated his body, serve as memories of this suicide-style body suspension.

“It is shocking to some people,” he said. “But other people find it beautiful.”

In the still-frame photographs of past performances, Sexstella’s white gas mask is expressionless and his hands are clasped behind his back, his legs slightly bent.

The black and gray tattoos on his right arm depict portraits of characters from B-horror movies such as “The Evil Dead” and “The Lost Boys.” On his left arm, a blue “electrical gremlin” dismantles wires and machinery — an allusion to his previous life as a machinist.

But the art on his body is not the focus of the assumed audiences not seen in these photos; the subjection of his body to this “spectacle” and the endorphins pumping through it becomes the art.

“People say that’s crazy,” Sexstella said of society’s attitude toward suspension. “Well, I think riding a bull or climbing a mountain is crazy.”

A self-proclaimed “layman anthropologist,” suspension offered him a way to learn about different cultures.

Historically, some Native American tribes and sects of Hinduism have utilized suspension as a rite of passage, healing ritual, vision quest or demonstration of deity devotion.

“I basically just wanted to see what it was like — try to test myself,” Sexstella said. “When I first did it, it was very private.”

Slowly, sliding needles into his skin when he was 14 evolved into performing in shows that he claims are akin to traditional theater in that they involve costumes, makeup, themes and lighting. They just happen to “incorporate suspension and body play,” he said.

Senior piercer and owner of Body Anthology Tattoo and Body Piercing in North Olmstead, he asserted that tattoos and piercings reflect personal expression, but he said suspension is more ritualistic.

“It’s very traumatizing to the body. You really put a lot of energy — mentally and physically — into it,” he said.

So beforehand, he makes sure he gets enough rest and eats a good meal.

“I’ve done it enough times that I know what to expect,” Sexstella said. “It’s not like I have to go and meditate and fast.”

In another photo, a man spews fire from his mouth while the six temporary piercings in his arms burn. Behind him a fire extinguisher sits unassumingly. Sexstella and his friend Tyson Charboneau prepare to “pull,” connecting the hooks in their backs with ropes.

Leaning forward, they balance themselves in a lunging position. The black stage, which Sextella’s black boots now touch, is flooded with red lights.

“It is dangerous,” he said. “It’s nothing that anyone can do.”

Contact features reporter Nicole Hennessy at [email protected].