Tavia Nyong’o and Coco Romack on Ron Athey at Participant Inc
IT SHOULD BE ASTONISHING that the artist Ron Athey has received his first retrospective, at New York’s Participant Inc, only now, in 2021. But the steadfast alterity of his aesthetic has made this extreme belatedness, although unacceptable, perhaps understandable. Since his rise to prominence in the early 1990s, Athey has generated a series of unforgettably transgressive tableaux and received backlash and been blacklisted on two continents for his pains. It is always a challenge to curate performance art for gallery and museum spaces, but Athey’s particular stripe of excess has led more than one institution to wince at the idea of showcasing his work. The postmillennial mainstreaming of queerness and the rise of homonormativity did not bring rebels like Athey in from the cold, so his output over the past few decades will be a surprise to anyone who hasn’t been tuning in to the underground aesthetic, even though it is this very underground that has seeded Athey’s relationship to so many young Los Angeles–based artists today (the Participant Inc exhibition, curated by art historian and writer Amelia Jones, will be moving to the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, sometime this summer).
When I first saw Incorruptible Flesh [Dissociated Sparkle] at Artists Space in New York in 2006—a piece in which Athey lay on a bed of steel bars for six hours with a baseball bat inserted in his rectum while his eyelids were held open by hooks attached to the bed’s frame—I must confess that I did not approach this as a performance of agony so much as a passage into ecstasy. I say this having a peculiar attitude toward pain. As the child of two doctors, I grew up with their conception of the body as a sack of gross, profane stuff that we must nonetheless be responsible for patching up along the way, protecting people without judgment from the harmful things they do to themselves. Here was the thrilling inversion of that doctors’ code: following someone into and through their pain in extremis, but at an impersonal remove. That Incorruptible Flesh emerged out of a series of performances of nursing, healing, and rituals of grief made intuitive sense to me, since we were invited, as an audience, to gently rub ointment into Athey’s skin as he lay prone under the hot lights.
As a member of Generation X, I was exposed to all the terrible lies that scoundrels like Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina were telling on the floor of the United States Senate about radical performance artists like Athey and the NEA Four (Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller). For me, touching Athey represented more than a transgression of whatever bullshit taboos that, infuriatingly, still irradiate the HIV-positive body. The act embodied my point of contact with an intergenerational legacy of the arts of survival, my connection with a body that is testing the limits of what it can do—in ways that demand to be seen—through acts of sublime beauty and profound endurance. As we again confront the task of reinventing intimacies in a pandemic, we could do worse than revisit the legacy of the gothic visions Athey painstakingly erected each night in LA venues such as Club Fuck! and Sin-a-Matic, where the artist frequently performed during the ’80s and ’90s.
When I entered Participant Inc, the object I was immediately drawn to was the large wooden pyramid Athey used in his 2004 performance Judas Cradle. That duet, with opera singer Juliana Snapper, involved Athey lowering his anus onto the pointed tip of this torture device, emitting an uncanny voice, thanks to Snapper’s vocal lessons, that grated against his teacher’s own powerful instrument. The use of premeditated pain and bodily stress in this work—and of real blood in others—creates great anxiety and sometimes even revulsion. But the explicit pain and sex in much of Athey’s art, critic Jennifer Doyle has pointed out, is not about “shock value.” It is instead about sacralizing the lives of “lepers” and “perverts” shunned by “proper” society, as Jean Genet, one of Athey’s literary heroes, did in his 1943 novel Our Lady of the Flowers.
The show starts with the miraculous and trauma-laced surroundings of Athey’s birth into a Pentecostal matriarchy that had foretold the arrival of a boy prophet in small-town Connecticut. We get snapshots of a teenage Ron relocated to sunny California, where both mental illness and ecstatic Christianity shaped his upbringing. Some of Athey’s early pieces—done with the musician Rozz Williams via their two-person performance outfit, Premature Ejaculation—would redirect the holy glossolalia of his childhood religion toward darker designs. A treasured relic in the show is a letter Athey received from Miss Velma Jaggers, a charismatic preacher he grew up watching and on whom he partly based his “Holy Woman” character. Their cordial mutual recognition of each other’s gifts of the spirit is one special moment of auratic contact in this document- and artifact-heavy show. Besides the overarching theme of communion, the exhibition is organized into five sections: “Speaking in Tongues,” “LA Clubland,” “Body Art,” “The Culture Wars,” and “Literature, Opera, Theater” (and with references to figures such as Brion Gysin and Georges Bataille, Athey’s scripturalism becomes present in works incorporating automatic writing). To emerge from the ordeals Athey has undergone as a kind of mentor and zaddy to younger artists of all types—including but not limited to those whose work incorporates the same rites and rituals his does—is indeed a miracle of some kind, if not one the pope could approve of.
To emerge from the ordeals Athey has undergone as a kind of mentor and zaddy to younger artists of all types—including but not limited to those whose work incorporates the same rites and rituals his does—is indeed a miracle of some kind.
“Queer Communion” enthralls even as it grapples with the self-consuming nature of Athey’s art. Given its ritualistic nature, much of what remains in his archive and is available to the public is something like a reliquary. His nocturnal creative practice emerges from self-created rites during which bodies are modified and modulated in ways that tend to leave little physical residue at daybreak. The economy of subcultural nightlife is directed toward expenditure, not accumulation, and thus necessarily confounds even the most acquisitive of collectors. Although Athey’s long record of commissioned performance leaves documentary traces, they’re never an acceptable substitute for having been there. This quarantine age and its countless digital mediations have proved how draining living life vicariously can be. Togetherness, proximity, and mutual contagion (of the non-corona variety) matter. Yet this is not to diminish the power of the remnant. Take, for instance, a cloak that was on display, bequeathed to Athey by the performance artist Leigh Bowery—it activated the archival vitrines in the show with the sparkle of another departed divinity.
Your grimoire for this wondrous world of arcana is an exhibition catalogue expertly edited by Jones and fellow art historian Andy Campbell, with copious writings by Athey himself as well as a welter of critical texts, including one from Dominic Johnson, who has edited the other important essay collection on Athey, Pleading in the Blood (2015). Artists in different media—the photographer Catherine Opie in particular—have made Athey their muse, and a huge Opie print from 1995 of Athey as Saint Sebastian is a showstopper. Once seen, this image of Athey in flagrante delicto is not easily forgotten: In it, Saint Irene (played by the artist Julian Carter), accompanied by her maid (actor Stosh Fila, aka Pigpen), tends to Saint Sebastian (Athey) after he has been shot full of arrows, while a grieving Divinity Fudge looks on. In esoteric Christianity, Athey tells me, this scene is considered a resurrection, since Sebastian managed to live through his first martyrdom by arrows (he was later bludgeoned to death). There is an allegorical resonance between Sebastian’s survival and Athey’s own status as an “elite controller” of his HIV infection, as well as the saint’s entourage, all of whom are played by Athey’s chosen kin.
It has long been a terrible irony of Athey’s career that its most notorious moment—specifically, the “human printing press” section from the 1994 performance Four Scenes in a Harsh Life, where the artist created blood prints from incised flesh—involved government funding he never applied for at a museum that hadn’t offered him a platform (the work was originally sponsored by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis but took place at Patrick’s Cabaret, an off-site venue in the city). In 2015, on the twenty-first anniversary of this performance, the Walker convened a panel on Athey. It also featured what was billed as a “Culture Wars Cabaret,” in which a new generation of local queer performance artists tried to shake critics out of their complacency. One of those performers, Elliot Reed, first met Athey at Patrick’s Cabaret and subsequently went on to work with the éminence grise on multiple projects, including a pair of socially distanced live performances that were shown at Participant Inc’s “Participant After Dark” series and New York’s MoMA PS1. Reed is among a group of artists—which includes Cassils, Ms. Vaginal Davis, Zackary Drucker, and Fanaa—with whom Athey collaborates. For the Participant work, Reed helped Athey restage the human printing press for an audience who could only observe the work through the gallery’s windows from outside the space. In the MoMA PS1 piece, Reed wore a cardinal’s cloak while reading out an indictment of the Swarovski family for its alleged complicity with the Nazis during World War II. Athey, bedecked in crystals, punctuated the clown show with his signature cackle. At one point, Ms. Davis entered the goings-on via FaceTime and christened Reed the second coming of Jerry Lewis.
Artistic collaboration as a way to live through collective and ongoing trauma is one of the many gifts Athey’s art provides. Yet it is not always an easy gift to give, or to receive. Take the acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice—the ritual consumption of his body and blood, an acknowledgment of one’s own sin and fallenness. The difference between organized religion and “Atheyism” is that the latter is an acephalous, or “headless,” sect. While cultivating a distinctive oeuvre, the artist has always inspired collaborators whose work diverges in look and feel from his own.
The queer subcultures that Athey continues to sustain, and that also sustain him, are crucial and living instances of the mutual care that so many are now embracing in our present moment of deep alienation from capitalism, patriarchal religion, mainstream politics, and the cultural institutions that frequently hinder work that’s as visceral and uncompromising as Athey’s. Such a legacy of mutual care does not easily lend itself to being summed up in a retrospective. But if the radical love Athey has managed to inspire is visible at all, it won’t need to be encapsulated in a show, however belated and well deserved.
Tavia Nyong’o is William Lampson professor of Theater and Performance Studies at Yale University. His most recent book is Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (New York University Press, 2018).
BLOWN UP and stationed near the entrance of Participant Inc was a ca. 1990 photograph taken by the artist Sheree Rose—the camera’s bright flash has caused the metal grommets on the leather codpiece worn by the photo’s subject, performance artist Ron Athey, to glimmer. The image captures him in the middle of go-go dancing, his arms and chin flung euphorically upward. He is mostly naked, save for his studded pouch and a constellation of exquisite tattoos across his body. The snapshot was taken at Club Fuck!, one of the underground parties in Los Angeles where Athey developed the bloody performances that would make him famous—and infamous. Hanging near this picture were more documents from 1995 that capture Athey playing his Trojan Whore character, his engorged lips pierced by needles. Through-out “Queer Communion,” Athey’s first-ever retrospective, organized by the writer and curator Amelia Jones, we saw many images of the artist like this—vulnerable, in public, and in various states of acute distress or shuddering ecstasy. Frequently, it was difficult to tell the two sensations apart.
These photos and other kinds of ephemera—including writings, props, costumes, and videos—covered more than forty years of the queer artist’s visceral, challenging production. Athey’s ritualistic live performances have incorporated bondage and bloodletting, piercing and penetration, suffering and joy. In stills from the recording of a 2006 performance of Solar Anus, the artist plunges a black dildo strapped to a stiletto heel into his own asshole, which is ringed by an elegantly stylized tattoo of a sun; his white-powdered face is pulled taut by steel hooks, and appears as though it has undergone extreme surgical feminization. Despite Athey’s influence on generations of queer artists, including frequent collaborators Julie Tolentino and Divinity Fudge, the radical nature of this piece—and many others—has left the fifty-nine-year-old artist largely ostracized by most institutions. This indignity was compounded after Athey in 2017 lost the rent-stabilized bungalow in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles where he had lived for twenty-six years. Decades of his art, stored at the house, were nearly tossed to the curb.
Thankfully, his papers were acquired by LA’s J. Paul Getty Museum in 2018. And in this show, parts of that archive were made available to trace the genealogy of Athey’s practice through myriad subcultures and other social contexts. Arranged in a quasi-linear fashion, “Queer Communion” began with reflections on the artist’s upbringing in a fanatically religious household, where he was thought to be a prophet and groomed to become a Pentecostal pastor. Displayed across four screens, the autobiographical installation Joyce, 2002–2003, named after his mother, explores these familial dynamics in brief vignettes. In one part, “Ronnie Lee,” an actor plays a young, self-harming Athey, making many small cuts with a blade across his arms and torso; “Vena Mae,” another section, explores the sexual abuse of his aunt with a vaginal douching and fisting scene. Even as Athey renounced his faith and sought alternative family structures in death rock and BDSM, he wrote in an LA Weekly cover story that he “still felt protective of the church.” Its pageantry and iconography inspired pieces such as Martyrs & Saints, 1992; for one iteration of this performance, arrows pierced his flesh à la Saint Sebastian—the moment was immortalized in a photograph by Catherine Opie.
A black-and-white picture from the Saint Sebastian tableau was displayed during a 1994 hearing that for years clouded Athey’s work with gross misunderstanding and reactionary stupidity. Published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune was a misreported review of a segment from Four Scenes in a Harsh Life—a 1994 performance that was partially sponsored by Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center—in which the artist cut into the back of a collaborator and dabbed the wounds with paper towels to create monoprints. The story falsely asserted that Athey exposed the audience to HIV-positive blood, and this sensationalized account was picked up by national publications, eventually reaching the right-wing and rabidly homophobic Republican senator from North Carolina Jesse Helms. In his congressional plea to disenfranchise public funding for the arts, Helms said, “The media have . . . been obsessed with trying to prove that black is white and white is black, and that disgusting, insulting, revolting garbage produced by obviously sick minds is somehow art, and that this art is worthy of being subsidized and rewarded by and with grants of federal funds.” Alas, the senator’s venom and fearmongering worked: That year, the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget was slashed from $170 million to $161 million, which left the agency, according to a report in the Christian Science Monitor, with its “lowest level of purchasing power since 1985.”
As the scholar Jennifer Doyle put it in her 2013 book Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art, “Controversy invariably simplifies its object,” precluding meaning and real engagement. Athey’s hauntingly beautiful art has on occasion been interpreted as an obscene, violent attack on the audience. But oftentimes beneath the congealed blood and torture is an entreaty for compassion, as we see in the durational piece Incor-ruptible Flesh [Dissociated Sparkle], 2006. For this work, Athey’s body was laid out like a shimmering corpse on a metal table for six hours, his eyes forced open by steel hooks, his genitals swollen thick with injected saline, and the fat end of a baseball bat inserted into his anus. All he asked of the viewer in terms of participation was that they with a modicum of care soothe his thirsty skin with a gently applied layer of Vaseline. “Queer Communion” reveals Athey’s legacy to be less a singular, commodifiable body of work than a nebula of social spaces and bonds forged from pleasure, mutual experience, and community. Perhaps the artist’s retention in his work of some sense of religiosity—itself a transgressive act given the general skepticism regarding religion in alternative spaces and cultural institutions alike—is a means of transforming his suffering into a crucible for redemption. By making the pain public, and allowing his friends, lovers, collaborators, and audience to watch and hurt and feel the ecstasy alongside him, he might save us too.
Coco Romack is a writer and editor based in New York.