by Autumn Hays
Considered to be one of the most renowned performance artists, Ron Athey began his works in the 80s. They are notorious for including aspects of S&M culture and itâ€™s relation to the AIDS crisis. Atheyâ€™s iconic pieces focus on a wide range of subjects including sexuality, religiosity, trauma, gay identity, loss, illness and ritualism. Raised with the expectation that he would become a Pentecostal minister, and after running away to L.A. and coming of age in the milieu of the punk rock underground, Atheyâ€™s work grew out of a complex performativity that still informs his art practice today. In 2013 Ronâ€™s first book dedicated to his work was published entitled Â Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performance of Ron Athey,Â edited by Dominic Johnson. The book includes writings by peers and scholars such as Guillermo Gomez-Pena,Â Antony Hegarty,Â Robert Wilson,Â Lydia Lunch,Â Bruce LaBruce,Â Amelia Jones,Â Jennifer Doyle,Â Homi K. BhabhaÂ and others. At the start of February, Chicago was host a legendary performance artist, Ron Athey visited Chicago. I was lucky enough to attend his performances, lectures and snag him for an interview. Here are some excerpts from our discussion.
AH: How it feels to be back in Chicago?
RA: I think I had more pre-anxiety about coming here, memories of staying here with Lawrence Steger and doing things with him. I was shocked and went into the shivers from the cold when got off the plane, not wearing long underwear. Itâ€™s not like London is warm, itâ€™s moderate and miserable there. Where as here needing many layers, I dig it.
AH: Tell us about he last time you were here and the last performance you did.
RA: I had to look at my own notes, I was here twice in â€™99 doing Solar Anus so at Hot House and at Chris Kellnerâ€™s gallery Hook Torture and I hadnâ€™t realized I havenâ€™t been here since then.
AH: Yeah itâ€™s been a while
RA:Yeah, I mean climates change. Randolph Street Gallery closed and all those places I would have went back to.
AH: Iâ€™ve actually been through the Randolph street archives and have seen videos of your work there and you really could feel its loss once it was gone here. I amÂ interestedÂ as you are here working with Defibrillator a newer performance space what are the correlation and difference between these kinds of spaces in this new kind of art climate?
RA: I think it just takes energy to make things happen. Itâ€™s not really that the climate is any different. A lot of spaces with the same history as Randolph Street that go back to NEA funded times, but really even before that these are artist run spaces and they donâ€™t, move with the times. So there was this gap and it takes someone high energy like Joseph (Ravens) to get people to work together. I mean even for these pieces I am doing this week and that he realized that Defibrillator itself would be a crunch and he found the right place off site, this is another way of working the art space because the space is so important. Some pieces I feel like I donâ€™t want to be in a place that shows work, like you know this site specific thing becomes a more neutral space than that black box or white wall hygiene kind of space.
AH: Your work is very versatile where you can perform in a lot of different kinds of spaces. I mean you can do that black box theater, the white-walled gallery, you can do performance art spaces or even S&M clubs so you have a versatility in where you can perform and also a little bit in your performativity, you engage various kinds of performance. Whatâ€™s the difference in working in these spaces? Is there a benefit to being flexible?
RA: Well, I wish I could still perform in clubs still, but I did evolve out of that scene. That allowed me to workshop before even any idea of funding to make the gig possible came up. For some pieces I think I might be precious about it being there. I tend, since I started doing the self-obliterations, I like being in with the audience. For the most controlling side of me, a perfect black box with the floors freshly painted and super duper lights, because youâ€™re not fighting the white wall sucking the light out from one minimal light that happens to be shining. Itâ€™s a more controlled situation and I do work in lighting illusions and those sorts of things. So thatâ€™s if Iâ€™m being precious but itâ€™s not necessarily the best feeling, the way I feel interactive with the audience or the space. But I think to get away from those white gallery walls I did start staging pieces in the middle of the room so that the people are the frontdrop and backdrop. You know I donâ€™t come out of this tradition of thinking of live art as an extension of gallery, my work doesnâ€™t come from there, I fully understand work that does but Iâ€™m not so keen on thisâ€¦ of course I love the perfect image, the perfect photograph but thatâ€™s not the work. Iâ€™m always concerned with how many cameramen are in there. I thought we were watching a work.
AH: Especially nowadays with camera phones itâ€™s interesting to have that camera lens constantly there.
RA: I think you have to think about what you are not experiencing while looking for that shot and also, do you care about the work, or are you just documenting your own life?
AH: So we touched on your definitions of live art and performance art. There are always different definitions. What are your thoughts on that?
RA: I think you get this polarization. This is the gallery school, and this is the theater school, but actually my background was through the Pentecostal church, particularly woman evangelists who did illustrated sermons starting in the 20s with Amy Semple McPherson, who built Angelus Temple in Echo Park and later Miss Velma (Jaggers) who built the jeweled altar from the Book of Revelations and who would appear as the whore of Babylon swinging in on a crescent moon using all the 70s technology, like the echo box, strobe lights and fog machines. So, performance art is this other type of sacred theater without the belief system in it. In abstract terms I might still use a thing like the audience is the witness, and its not about second guessing what their boundaries are, what they will experience, what they come in the door with. Itâ€™s impossible to know. Itâ€™s a mix of things, which is what it should be.Â Also itâ€™s about what mode you are in. Itâ€™s obviously not acting, so itâ€™s just full of these triggers to go into, not an altered state where you look like your fitting or asleep but some heightened state. I like art that rides a line between art and not art at all.
AH: I was wondering if you could tell us more about your book, â€œPleading in the Bloodâ€, and your process of making it.
RA: To start out with the book, you have to open archives that you didnâ€™t even know existed. And here is where I have to give some kudos to social media. I am very linked in to people in LA, people from the late 70s and early 80s Goth and Punk scenes. So I was able to come up with materials, confirm dates, and stories through there, and then track down the photographers. All I ever had was the newspaper, the tabloids, the rough printed images, Xeroxed and scanned, you know that kind of thing. And then I started getting closer to the source of the original image. It felt like I was perusing someone from a David Lynch movie, youâ€™re in a hotel room with seven 5by7s in a brief case. So you track that down and try to flesh out some of those stories, which is a harder period for me to flesh out. And working with Dominic Johnson who is a young academic at Queen Mary University, London. He was clear about what heavy academics who we liked in common, but I was clear that I didnâ€™t want it to be one of those artist books with three academic essays in it and lots of pictures so that no one ever, except for people in school, ever read the writing because its inaccessible outside the bubble. I wanted to give it a testimonial voice not just an academic one.
AH: Do you have any advice for younger artists attempting to learn the craft of making performance art?
RA: The key element of making work is immersion. Rather than doing research as a strong guide, let it be something you soak up. There is nothing sane about making performance art.
Defibrillator, Hook Torture, and Mana Contemporary pooled their efforts to showcase Ron in Chicago this month. Each night was filled with a wide mix of viewers, from pierced punks and goths, old school Chicago underground, art students, and art academics, many eager to see Ronâ€™s work in person. He performed two works on two separate nights, â€œIncorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remainsâ€ and â€œSebastianâ€ featuring Jon John and Sage Charles.
Messianic Remains is part of Atheyâ€™s Incorruptible Flesh series. The series started in 96â€™ and references the dark reality of living with AIDS. Athey talks about the piece saying it stems from â€œstill living but not living bodiesâ€. 10 years later in Glasgow, Athey did a solo individual piece, 6 hours long. The third part focused on the Mythological. Now this 4th and final chapter, was performed in Chicago at Mana Contemporary on January 31st. The work reveled in a religious grandiosity and explored Ron Atheyâ€™s body as a post-AIDS entity: a survivor. The work also looks at Atheyâ€™s own bodies ageing, and seems to shake hands with notions of death. The choreography is inspired by Kenneth Anger’s short film, Lucifer Rising.Â
The audience came in on to Ron laying down on ladder sitting on two wooden sawhorses with a baseball bat, swollen glands, and his head latched to a series of hooks in a crown of thorns style lining, his head connected to the wall. Though the preparationsÂ for this performance were not part of the audiencesâ€™ viewing, many felt the preparations, though unseen, were a large part of the work. Clear gloves were handed out and the audience dipped their hands in a pale Vaseline before taking turns touching Atheyâ€™s body as he laid on display. The offering of his flesh was both a gift and an obligation as viewers chose to experience the tension and pain up close. Ron than rises for a mythical, almost Egyptian dressing ceremony and moves to a new part of the gallery where he begins to read text from Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet, specifically â€œDivineâ€™s Funeral.â€
The very next day Ron Athey, Jon John and Sage Charles preformed â€œSebastian.â€ While interviewing Ron I had asked him about Working with Jon John and Sage.
â€œWe have this great chemistry where we trust each other, we donâ€™t have to plot out everything. Youâ€™re going to do what you need to do with the goal of making this action happen. Easy directions within a choreographed frame. What is Sebastian? I donâ€™t know. I think thatâ€™s where live work can be surprising. If you know what you want to prove rather than explore something youâ€™re just strong-arming a result. The potential of live experience is so beyond that outlined vision that Iâ€™m doing. It took me a long time to understand that.â€
In this work Athey is taking on the role of St. Sebastian, a saint that has also become a homoerotic icon. The event starts with Sage and Jon John making their way through the crowd in a procession towards Ron, who is already hung up on a ladder, tied with red rope. As Sage drums, Jon John climbs a second ladder to meet Athey and begins piercing him with arrows. Ron begins to scream and chant in performanceâ€™s best ritualistic shamanism. Jon John then fills the role of St Irene and begins to heal Athey, spreading lotion on Atheyâ€™s body, eventually removing the arrows and as Athey bleeds he helps him depose down from ladder and onto a table where they cover him in a white cloth. For the final and perhaps most touching part of the performance, one that had echoes of the NEA controversy, Jon John cuts sections of cloth-covered in Athey’s blood and places them in tiny frames handing them to random audience members.
Ron Atheyâ€™s work certainly isnâ€™t for the squeamish, but despite the inclusion of blood and body modification I didnâ€™t find the shock value of the work to be any kind of crutch or sympathetic tool. Rather is was a means of performativity that outwardly engaged Atheyâ€™s body as a gay, post-AIDS, religicized, performative body. When looking at his work, the dense symbolism and actions, the controversy and the intense metaphoric value, I feel like ending this with one of my favorite quotes from my interview with Ron Athey that I feel addresses his work, process, and in a way the very practice of performance art.
â€œIâ€™m actually at this place in performance art where I think everything is just an entry point. You can say this is about your mother, this is about this accident, this is about AIDS, but itâ€™s actually not what itâ€™s about. You donâ€™t know what itâ€™s about till you do it live, thatâ€™s why itâ€™s live work. I have to bring something to life to make work. There has to be uncertain things within the framework of the piece that allow it to go as it will.â€