interview and photography by OLIVIER ZAHM
performance by MARIE SAUVAGE
featuring REGINA DEMINA
a new generation of feminist artists is reinventing the japanese tradition of shibari, creating a more inclusive experience and transforming the body into a living sculpture for sensual moments or public performances.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Marie, how did you first get involved in bondage?
MARIE SAUVAGE — I’ve always been fascinated with Japanese culture and human sexuality, and I found shibari to be at the intersection of both. I had noticed that there are no female shibari artists who perform in public spaces. So, when I went to Japan, I found a shibari master named Hajime Kinoko, asked him to become my teacher, and he accepted me as his apprentice. And that’s how I got into it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you find this master?
MARIE SAUVAGE — I just did an old-fashioned Internet search. He was the only one who appealed to me because his approach was different from the others.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How so?
MARIE SAUVAGE — The other shibari artists I saw in Japan, their practice is more about BDSM, whereas this artist’s practice is about creating artistic installations out of rope and incorporating people into them. And when he does practice shibari in an erotic way, there isn’t a definitive power dynamic when he ties. It’s more about the sensuality — and almost the glorification — of his muse. That’s what appealed to me about his style.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What does shibari mean in Japanese?
MARIE SAUVAGE — Shibari means “the philosophy of tying” or “an aesthetic of tying.” Western people refer to bondage as shibari, but in Japan they refer to it as kinbaku, which literally means “bondage.” Shibari has an ancient history that goes back to the Samurai era, and it was a way of tying and tormenting prisoners. The aesthetic of the tie and the knots in the tie corresponded to their rank — like social status — and the criminal offense.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, if you’re more elevated in society, you get a more elaborate torture?
MARIE SAUVAGE — [Laughs] Yes — or a more beautiful tie, maybe?
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s serious. You told me that the police still have rope.
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes, tying is such an integral part of Japanese culture that, even today, the police have learned the art of capturing and tying people, even if they do have handcuffs.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They can use a rope to control you?
MARIE SAUVAGE — It’s a mix of martial arts and ropes — turning the arm in a certain way, tying it really quickly, and bringing the arm in the back.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What color is the rope?
MARIE SAUVAGE — Thankfully, I’ve never seen them. [Laughs] I didn’t get in that much trouble in Tokyo.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Good. And you told me it also comes from the fact that there’s no metallurgy in Japan…
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes, metallurgy is more European. In Asian cultures, using bamboo and hemp rope has been a part of the culture of production and packaging and construction for centuries, and they still use it today.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Even packaging for gifts, the way they do the knots — it’s an art. Do you have any idea of how this transition into the sexual world happened?
MARIE SAUVAGE — I suppose it had something to do with capturing female prisoners. Because in Japanese culture — and this doesn’t translate very well to European culture — there’s an aspect that revolves around honor and shame. A lot of the shibari positions are created to elicit a sense of shame in a female captive. And even the smallest gestures or poses can be very humiliating for a Japanese woman, like showing her tongue or her teeth. Sometimes you tie a tongue, and they find that very embarrassing. Or if you tie an arm and have the armpit exposed. So, shibari does revolve a lot around vulnerability, exposure, and shame. And these motions have been eroticized and brought into the kinky sexual world.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you think a woman like you brings to this domain?
MARIE SAUVAGE — Women in general inherently have a more sensitive approach to sexuality. And my philosophical approach to shibari differs from most men’s in the way that I view my power dynamic with my partner in an egalitarian way. For me, it’s about providing a space to create pleasure and sensuality with my partner. They’re entrusting me with their body, and I’m giving them my art and my ropes. It’s more about a communication between me and my partner.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are there any female shibari experts or masters in Japan?
MARIE SAUVAGE — Very few. I could count on one hand the women who specialize in shibari, and they’re not very well-known. I’ve been tied by female and male shibari artists, and there’s a difference in that the women seem to be more interested in the sensuality and the aesthetics of the rope, whereas the men are more interested in pushing the boundary of their partner, in terms of how intense the session could be.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s about control. So, doing a session for you means giving pleasure?
MARIE SAUVAGE — For me, it’s about giving pleasure to a man or a woman, and also in a sense worshipping their body by elevating them in the air with my ropes and sculpting them into a beautiful shape.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you say that they become living sculptures?
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes, it’s like an ephemeral, living sculpture.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Could you describe the kind of pleasure that people experience when they’re tied?
MARIE SAUVAGE — My rope partners and I share a similar perspective on the experience of shibari, and it’s not just psychological — it’s also physical. When you’re tied by someone, there’s this almost hypnotic quality to it, and you find yourself in a trance by the touch of the person and the feeling of the rope. As you get more and more constricted, you regress into this lucid state. And once you’re lifted up into the air by the ropes, that’s when you feel the tension of the ropes most acutely, and they bite into the skin. That’s where you feel the pain because the gravity is weighing on your body, and the ropes are pulling you up. But this is the most interesting part of the shibari session, when it involves suspension, because there’s this moment when you have to consciously submit to the experience. At first, your body tenses up, and then you let go into these biting ropes, and you have an endorphin rush. It’s this chemical flood that goes through your body, and you feel like you’re floating. It’s a euphoric feeling.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I noticed that you caress the person. Is that new, or is it part of the shibari tradition?
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes, touch is most definitely a part of the tradition of shibari. The rope is an extension of your hands.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you touch the whole body or just the genitals?
MARIE SAUVAGE — It’s up to you and your partner, at your discretion, but you can touch anywhere. What I’ve witnessed in Japan was a more sophisticated approach to touch. I’d seen some Japanese masters — one named Rem Yagami — incorporate martial arts pressure points with shibari practice. He’d use this hypnotic rhythm of tying mixed with the pressure points in the body, and light touches on the skin, and he’d create this system where it would start to short-circuit in your brain. Pain for pleasure, pleasure for pain, and the intensity builds until you get into this orgasmic rhythm where you can’t stop climaxing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you can come during a shibari session?
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes, and he can do this. And I’ve seen other people do this as well, without touching genitals or any sort of sexual stimulation. They’ll be trembling hard. At first, I was thinking, “This has to be fake.” Then I asked him to do it to me, and I was thinking: “Wow, I’m like this girl. This is happening, I can’t stop it.” And then, a year later, I went with my best friend, and she tried it, and then she was thinking the same thing, “Oh, I can’t stop coming.” [Laughs] She’s like, “I’m like those girls on his Instagram.” I said, “Yes, it’s real.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s not just about submission or emotion — there’s also real sexual pleasure. Do you make people come every time?
MARIE SAUVAGE — It depends on how receptive the person is to shibari. It’s almost like when you’re having regular sex, when someone is succumbing to the experience and being present in their body. They have to be open to it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s very beautiful about your performance, when you do it in public, is how you’re totally emotionally connected with the person you are tying.
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes, it’s like a fusion of two souls. It’s a very profound experience to connect with someone deeply with shibari, and it’s the Zen nature of a Japanese art practice. And particularly with shibari because shibari’s a very intricate and extremely dangerous practice. It requires you to be very focused on every detail, on every tie that you do on this person. And not only focused on the safety of your tie, but also focused on the well-being of the person you’re tying. This rapt attention on the person is what makes you have this really deep connection because you’re looking into their eyes, at their face, body, breathing, everything. You’re taking in their essence. So, how do I do that when I’m in a nightclub or some loud place? I think it’s the commitment to making sure the person feels safe when they’re at their most vulnerable that creates that fusion.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When you do a public performance, you seem to be in a bubble. Do you have a plan for the kind of position you’ll do with each person?
MARIE SAUVAGE — Every time I tie, and especially in performances, I improvise because I want the expression of the person and my relation to them to be authentic. When I approach my muse, I take in their mood and emotions, and I tie according to their emotion — or to bring out a new emotion that I want them to feel. So, each time it’s different. It’s a little nerve-wracking, in a sense, because you don’t know what you’re going to do. But, for me, there’s a kind of surrender to the present. And I go into this mental state… You’re not thinking anymore, you’re feeling, so I go into a feeling. I don’t know where I’ll start from. And I like to tie according to how I want them to feel. Each tie has a different emotion because each expression of the body has a different feeling.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is there some figure that you’re better at tying than others? Because I guess there are some that are more complicated or more comfortable than others.
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes. When you’re tying, especially with a new partner, you have to make sure you don’t cross their boundary because there are some ties that can be very strenuous on the body. And sometimes, the more beautiful and more twisted it is, the more it’s going to put pressure on their internal organs or their chest. You have to take it slow and keep building their endurance.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, there’s also the possibility of evolution with a single partner. And the more they see you, the more they want to…
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yeah, the more intense it can go, the deeper it can go.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it could be an addiction?
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes, because the more intense the position, the more endorphin rushes you have. So, when you come down from the suspension, you can feel the flood even more.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I think there’s a connection, or a parallel, with love — because you give pleasure and have this intense communication with the person, even maybe because the rope itself is a metaphor for this connection between two people. But also maybe it’s because love requires extreme trust, and you put your partner in danger, right?
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes, physically and even psychologically. If the person feels in danger, it can be terrifying for them. They won’t want to be put in ropes again. So, psychologically, you can put them in danger. It’s happened to me before, actually. There was a guy who does rope suspension, and he’d put me in the air, and there was one point where I could feel… Here [she indicates] there’s this nerve that comes from the arm, and he put it too low. And I was saying, “Hey, my arm really hurts.” He said, “Trust in my process.” I said: “Dude, my arm hurts. Let me go.” And he wouldn’t. That was scary. When you’re stuck, and the person won’t let you go. Sometimes it can be really scary if the person’s more about their ego than about the connection. I got nerve damage in my arm for six months after that. I’ve never damaged anyone I’ve tied, and I always tie people who’ve never been tied. But I always tell people that if something’s too much for them, then I’ll let them go immediately — so they feel safe that they can explore without having to be pushed beyond what they can do.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, extreme trust is part of love.
MARIE SAUVAGE — It is. There’s no love without trust.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s explore the aesthetic of it because shibari’s an art form. What kind of rope do you like?
MARIE SAUVAGE — I only like to work with hemp ropes from Japan.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They’re more beautiful, or they’re technically more advanced?MARIE SAUVAGE — Japanese people are very meticulous about their manufacturing and production, so yes, they’re very uniform and perfect. But it’s also the best for suspension because of the friction. The fibers of the hemp have this friction that keeps the knots from slipping. You have exact tension in each wrap that you do on the body.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you describe the aesthetic of the way the rope goes around the body?
MARIE SAUVAGE — What I found really fascinating when I studied shibari with my master Kinoko was that he studied ikebana very seriously. They take flower arrangement very seriously, and even the compositions have different names and meanings. You can transpose these same aesthetic concepts to shibari. So, in Japan they do have rules — the same way you have rules of painting or graphic design — that they apply to the rope.
OLIVIER ZAHM — These are aesthetic rules?
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes. Especially coming from a minimalist aesthetic in Japan: less is more, a lot of times. It can be the rule of thirds. Or sometimes they’ll focus on symmetry or a balance of asymmetry in the body, but it’s always very calculated. So, maybe you have a cluster of rope on one shoulder, and then you have the same but at the hip because you want to keep the hourglass shape balanced.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s like designing a dress on the body.
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes, it is like that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It has to incorporate the movement, the weight of the body. And the way the body will be suspended is also very important. It must be a beautiful movement.
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes. This is the most challenging aspect of tying, and particularly in performance, because to lift someone in the air safely and make it look graceful as you pull their body or their limbs up and to make the ropes look elegant is an all-encompassing practice. But that’s what’s so mesmerizing about it. It’s so complicated, and you have to make it look effortless, like you’re pouring a glass of water.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you look at pictures of old shibari masters to get inspiration or to get ideas?
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes, of course. I do like to respect the traditions of shibari because I think there’s an inherent or universal understanding of aesthetics with the ropes. But then, I like to deviate and do my own thing, too.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because there’s room for your own interpretation?
MARIE SAUVAGE — There’s as much possibility within the constraints of safety. “Safety” — I use this word a lot, but in shibari, it’s the most important part. Safety first, sensuality second, aesthetics last.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you do it in a very beautiful way. Are the marks left on the body part of the beauty of it, too?
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes. Rope muses really enjoy seeing rope marks on their body because the nature of shibari is this ephemeral process. After the ropes are gone, the only thing that remains is the marks on the skin. It’s like having a souvenir of what happened. And the prints are very beautiful on the skin. They last about an hour or so.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, every session and every person you work with is unique. It’s like having sex — there’s a different emotion involved, right? It’s much more than a technique.
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes, it’s a technique to create a unique connection. You shouldn’t tie people just to put a pattern on the body.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, maybe this is your take on shibari — making it a form of love. Not just a fetish.
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yeah, my vision of shibari is that it’s a place where you can create this utopian vision of a deep connection with someone. A place where you have this beautiful understanding and this delicate sensuality, and a place where someone is heard and seen. I think that’s very loving.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And I’ve seen your success. Young girls on Instagram or around you — they come to you.
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes. I do have a lot of female muses and fans. Actually, I have more women in my DMs than I ever have men, which really blows me away. Maybe men are scared. They’re like, “Oh, this is cool,” but they’re afraid of me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why are they more scared than women?
MARIE SAUVAGE — I think because of the nature of being tied. It puts you in a vulnerable position, and for men it’s not common to be vulnerable in such a way. It will take a lot more for a man to be tied by a woman, than a woman to be tied by a woman.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You mean they are afraid to lose their phallic position?
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yeah, I think so. Their dominant position.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You mention vulnerability. That also connects with love.
MARIE SAUVAGE — Yes. For me, it’s more about allowing people to feel safe in their vulnerability and accept this aspect of themselves, rather than to control them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you explain these very young girls coming to you? What’s the reason for this attraction?
MARIE SAUVAGE — I think that young women are interested in the experience of shibari with someone whom they find to be approachable. Not just approachable — I’m not a dangerous-looking person. Even in my style, I’m not a particularly alternative person. I don’t have a harsh look, and I think that it gives a totally different perspective on bondage and rope because they’re like, “Oh, this really normal-looking girl does this crazy, kinky thing — I want to try that.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you see as the future of shibari? Do you think more women will realize that it’s something they could really integrate into their intimate life?
MARIE SAUVAGE — I think that my work has inspired a lot of young women to learn rope and to incorporate it into their sex life as something regular and habitual for them. It’s very exciting to see. I didn’t like the idea of it being seen as something dark. Because when I saw it, I saw it as something very beautiful and connected — even tantric.