A large industrial fan sat like a barrier half way into the gallery space; even without the artist physically present, the gallery visitors were careful not to cross the invisible boundary it created. Julia O. Bianco discreetly entered the gallery space and switched on the fan. With careful fingers she started to unbraid the two tight rows her hair was held in, eyes downcast. Behind her an almost unnoticeable sheet of sheer fabric bounced against the white gallery wall to which it was fixed, creating the effect of linens blowing in the wind on a clothesline. Bianco picked up a comb that was attached to the wall by a thin string, knelt in front of the powerful fan and started pulling the comb through her shoulder-length hair.
My first interpretation was she was performing some sort of ritualistic preparation, but this was quickly replaced by confusion and shock as I realized that flying through the air around her were tufts of her hair. Methodically and meditatively, and progressively more violently, Bianco ran the comb with its hidden razor through her hair. Her head bobbed against the force of her yanking movements, reminding me of being a little girl and having an inexperienced caretaker pulling a brush through my tangled locks–pulling, ripping, jerking.
As she knelt in front of the fan and ran her fingers over her head, I wondered about how she felt about being under our gaze. She had created the skeleton of an intimate space with only a few materials, and her eyes remained unfocused, sometimes closed, and I imagined that being in front of the fan had to completely drown out the sounds of visitors and other performances around her. She continued to pull her fingers and comb through her hair over and over, almost as if she were trying to rush before getting caught.
With most of the length of her hair matted on the floor behind her quivering in the draft of the fan, she slowly stood up, unfolding her body from its hunched posture. Lifting her chin and eyes she slowed her hands, and with more control pulled away at the remaining strands. The floor along the wall behind her slowly collected a mass of her dark hair.
Still not meeting eyes with the visitors who looked on her, she transformed her body from a closed off and protective ball to a long, stretched out and fierce tower, resisting the force of the fan blowing against her. Arms raised over her head she raised her eyes up, she stood strong like a fortress, unswaying, as if liberated from the shackles of her long bound hair. Her chest pushed forward, charging the air around her with a fierce energy that penetrated my body, leaving goosebumps on my arms. I was filled with an urge to release my own body from the unspecific sensation of oppression I felt as I watched her body and spirit lighten before me. The white sheet rolling behind her had its own air of victory and fierce feminine power, recalling a minimalist version of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.
Unbound, unrestricted, and released from the myriad levels of restraint symbolized in her performance, Bianco collected a handful of the hair she had just purged from her scalp, and brought it back to the fan, one last action of empowerment, opening her fingers, and letting the mock gusts of wind scatter the strands once more.
Written by Brittany Snellen.
Brittany Snellen has a master’s degree in art history from the University of Alberta. She’s spent the last five years facilitating collaborative exhibition projects between art historians and artists. In her spare time you can find her photographing births and writing about art.