Flashing needles and literal crowns of thorn mark the work — and the body — of performance artist Ron Athey
Modern primitives don’t get quite the respect they used to. Body modifications are as common as strip malls as the millennium creaks to its conclusion. And you don’t have to live in San Francisco or New York to find them. Tabloid TV is brimming with angst-ridden teens from the heartland sporting rings on noses, tongues, even penises. Tattoos have so run their course that removing them seems to be as popular lately as applying them.
Still, it’s possible to make a career, if a halting one, out of a willingness not only to modify the body but to do it onstage, where the world can watch. Performance artist Ron Athey (pronounced like the first two syllables of “atheism”) has achieved considerable success, and perhaps a living, creating elaborate performance art that features needles, literal crowns of thorns, razors, knives, and plenty of blood. Like many artists working in controversial niche areas, Athey uses these events partly as personal therapy, exorcising the particular demons one might expect to occupy the mind of a man raised by religious fanatics to think he was the reincarnated Baby Jesus.
Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance (1998), directed by Catherine Gund Saalfield, powerfully explores Athey’s life and work through interviews and excerpted performances. Born in 1961, Athey spent his early years with a family he describes as “poor people using fantastic religion to elevate their self.” He says he was speaking in tongues by the age of 10, groomed for a career as a fundamentalist minister. By 17, the pressures of Pentecostalism exacted a price: Athey became a heroin addict. A few years later he began to turn much of his religion’s negativity about the body and, particularly, his homosexuality and HIV-positive status, to better use as a performance artist.
Athey’s art draws viscerally on his life, with the intention, he says, “to overcome a bad memory, to portray it in art.” In one four-minute piece, he sticks 30 hypodermics into his arm to resurrect his days as a junkie. In “Nurses’ Penance,” he re-creates the institutional terror of a hospital setting, with a patient brutalized by huge drag-queen nurses with sewn-together lips. In another piece he’s writhing naked, on one end of a double-headed dildo. His richest source for material, though, is the church. Most of his pieces have religious names like “Martyrs and Saints” and “Deliverance,” along with characters like St. Sebastian, who’s martyred with a literal crown of thorns that causes blood to rain onto his face and the floor. Much of his work is driven by a sense of martyrdom and, arguably, a self-hate instilled on him from childhood. The body in these striking tableaux is the target of endless assaults — cut, pierced, slashed — as if in tearing open the flesh he might free the secrets within.
He’s motivated in his work by some of the same fanaticism he must have observed as a child. “I have trouble living on Earth,” he says, “My brain wants to live in this psychic mumbo-jumbo. That’s how I was raised.” His vision is carried out by a faithful troupe of queer performers — “blacktress” Vaginal Davis and Divinity Fudge among others — who feed on what Athey calls his “frenzy to make it bigger, make it more.” Bigger and more means pushing to some uncomfortable extremes, a strategy that’s made it impossible for him to perform in the U.S. Europe, South America, and Latin America proved much more receptive after a scandal at the Walker Art Center in which it was claimed that he was hurling HIV-tainted blood at a hysterical audience. The panic around blood and HIV issues is one of his subjects, but footage of the controversial performance shows Athey and his minions were making bloody block prints and passing them out to audience members willing to accept them — hardly the assault described. Presumably anyone who attends a Ron Athey performance knows not to expect the sedate.
Hallelujah! immerses the viewer in Athey’s world, but in so doing exposes a weakness. The focus here is entirely on the artist and his acolytes, who without exception love, revere, and suffer for him. While this strategy is legitimate enough in giving us a close-up view of a world far outside the mainstream, the lack of dissident or critical voices tends to marginalize him. The fact that Athey is in fact an important modern artist and not merely an intriguing leader of a minor body-modification cult may be lost in the din of his supporters’ — and the film’s — too-approving voices.