Ron Athey preaches and teaches in a temple of transformation

by Evie Ruddy


art-2Ron Athey: Messianic Remains
Artesian On 13th
Saturday 24

Ron Athey was born under a prophecy. While still in his mother’s womb, his Pentecostal aunt predicted with divine authority that Athey had “the Calling.” Someday he would become a powerful minister, she prophesied.

That didn’t happen. Far from it, actually. But you could say that Athey has always had an audience — not only as a renowned performance artist, who is known for engaging in body modification and bloodletting, but even as a child. Raised in Pomona, California — about 50 kilometres east of Los Angeles — Athey attended pop-up evangelical meetings, held in tents or storefronts, which he likens to the vaudeville circuit. At a revival meeting, when Athey was nine years old, a minister carried Athey to the pulpit, wiped his tears with cotton rags and instructed the audience of believers to take the anointed rags home and pray for a miracle. By age 10, living out his prophecy, Athey spoke in tongues.

“That was the beginning of my performing in a way,” he says, over a conversation by Skype from his home in London. Athey will perform at Queer City Cinema’s Performatorium, Jan. 22-24. The festival will showcase work that is both challenging and difficult to perform and watch.

Asked how his work fits into Performatorium’s theme, Making It, Difficult, Athey laughs. “I think it’s pretty made for it.”

Athey’s work sounds sensational. He has penetrated his own skin with hooks, needles, and staples. Bleeding is inevitable. Influenced by his religious upbringing, his performances are ritualistic and ceremonial. He broaches subjects like HIV/AIDS, mortality, sadomasochism and sexuality.

“I never think I’m making shocking work,” he says. “I think I’m making difficult work.”

In 1994, Athey was caught in a media scandal after he performed Four Scenes in a Harsh Life at the Walker Center in Minneapolis. In the piece, he used a scalpel to make incisions on another performer’s back. Athey then patted the bloody incisions with paper towels and sent them over the heads of the audience by way of an apparatus that resembled a clothesline. A journalist who hadn’t been in attendance wrote a scandalous article three weeks after the performance claiming erroneously that audience members had been exposed to Athey’s HIV-positive blood. Republican Senator Jesse Helms seized the opportunity to put forward amendments to reduce funding for the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), including an amendment that would have seen the Endowment’s funding cut by 42 per cent (about $71 million). It was defeated, but Congress did cut the NEA’s budget by 2 per cent ($3.4 million).

It didn’t matter that Athey’s work wasn’t funded by public grants. He was a scapegoat for the religious right to censor art that it deemed obscene. In the end, Athey was blacklisted from performing in the U.S. for about 10 years.

“I hadn’t even taken to calling myself an artist,” says Athey. “But by having to talk so much and defend the [National] Endowment of the Arts and defend the Walker Arts Center, I became an artist spokesperson for something I didn’t really have time to think about. Do I believe in an arts centre that has to live with censorship? And how much censorship before maybe they’re not even useful anymore to my world? And if they’re not useful to my world, maybe it’s okay; they’re useful to the children.

“It was just completely out of my realm. But it made me define myself.”

Athey is charismatic and laughs often. His body is covered in tattoos — on his arms, hands, neck, even his face, with what appears to be a teardrop under his right eye. He describes his upbringing as a “completely dysfunctional Grapes of Wrath family.” In his 2013 book, Pleading In The Blood, edited by Dominic Johnson, Athey writes about having witnessed his schizophrenic mother thrust herself through a glass window and land facedown, convulsing, in a garden. He remembers “an especially thick paste of blood forming in her hair.” His mother was then institutionalized, and Athey was raised by his grandmother and Aunt Vena. His aunt channeled spirits and got word from a saint that she would bear the second coming of Christ through immaculate conception, marry Elvis Presley and have twins.

Athey left home in his teens after coming to the realization that he wasn’t a believer.

“I was out of my mind,” he says. Queer and using hard drugs, he turned to Patti Smith, William Burroughs and French existentialists to understand his angst. He felt reassured that others, like himself, didn’t fit with dominant culture.

In the early ’80s, Athey saw the start to his performance art in the music scene. His first boyfriend was in a death rock band, and Athey began performing at small underground clubs, opening for bands. “That’s how I started making work, as opposed to in the academy,” says Athey. He describes his early work as “trancey and loud” and “more teenager.” But even in the beginning, “there was blood and there was violence,” he says.

Athey says he was influenced by the work of Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch, whose ritualistic blood orgies were accompanied by punk orchestras.

“I think that turned me on more to form,” says Athey. “That might be what’s different about my work than a lot of live artists. I do have more of a marriage to theatre and creating a moving image. And then, within that, I can tell you anything I want about the context, but I’m juxtaposing things together and trying to create a third thing.”

At Performatorium, Athey will present Messianic Remains — the fourth and final part of his Incorruptible Flesh series, which he started in 1996. Incorruptibility is the Catholic belief that divine intervention halts the decomposition process of dead bodies belonging to saints. Once the body stops decomposing it’s encased in wax. In Messianic Remains, Athey applies this Catholic miracle to his own body. In 1985, he tested positive for HIV. For 12 years, Athey believed he was going to die from AIDS. But today, at 53, after losing many of his friends to AIDS-related illnesses, he isn’t sick. Athey belongs to a rare group of HIV positive people, referred to as elite controllers, who don’t need medicine to keep AIDS at bay. In the past 30 years, he has both been forced to confront his mortality and accept the loss of his death sentence. He likens it to “the wound that won’t heal,” or “the flesh that won’t rot.”

In Messianic Remains, which Athey refers to as the post-AIDS chapter to Incorruptible Flesh, his naked body lies on a metal bed. Hooks in his face pull back his skin and distort his appearance. An Egyptian beard is pierced into his chin. The audience can then dip their hands in petroleum jelly and rub it on Athey’s body. In the second half, Athey rises and, donning a cape, moves around a ritual circle.

Asked what’s challenging about performing Messianic Remains, Athey doesn’t respond with enduring the pain of hooks gouged into his face or the discomfort of having a baseball bat lodged up his ass. Instead he responds with, “the challenge was somehow doing half durational installation and half theatre within one piece.”

In fact, he says, the real challenge to performing is when there isn’t pain. “I find pain during performance actually makes me trancier,” he says.

Audience response to Athey’s work has been varied. Some have fainted at his shows while others have been more blasé or responded with intellect.

“Everybody has their own life experience,” says Athey. “To some people, what’s abject or pornography is another person’s thrill.”

Ron Athey will perform Messianic Remains at the Artesian on 13th, at 2627 13th Ave. The evening also includes Anya Liftig’s performance Consider The Lobster. Doors at 7:30 p.m., performances 8:00 – 10:30.