Ron Athey Literally Bleeds for His Art

We spoke to the controversial performance artist about self-mutilation, audience members who faint on him, and surviving the AIDS epidemic as an HIV-positive man.

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Sep 24 2014, 3:35pm

Solar Anus (2006) at the Hayward Gallery, in London. Photo by Regis Hertrich

It's not easy to comprehend why someone would want to penetrate his scalp with a metal hook, infuse his scrotum with saline solution, and invite a live audience to watch. But Ron Athey's not a simple guy.

Over the last 20 years the experimental body artist has been dubbed a masochist and a sensationalist for his extreme practice-a kind of queer performance art that deals with themes of trauma, ritual, and resistance through the mutilation of the body. Always challenging, always underground, his work has been heavily influenced by his upbringing in a Pentecostal household and by living the past 28 years of his life as HIV-positive.

Pleading in the Blood, a new book on Ron's life and work, features contributions from the likes of Anthony Hegarty, Bruce LaBruce, and Lydia Lunch. When he invited me to his North London studio to chat about it, I wondered if I was about to walk into a torture chamber. Instead, I found a neat apartment with an enviable bookshelf of queer literature and a guy whose field of knowledge seemed to match.

Talking to Ron assured me that he doesn't create work for his audience, and that he certainly doesn't torture himself for the press. He's working through his own experience-the experience of outliving your friends in an epidemic, and not quite understanding why you're alive.

Martyrs & Saints (photo by Elyse Regehr) and Premature Ejaculation, 1981, with Rozz Williams (photo courtesy of the artist)

VICE: Your work often involves some kind of self-mutilation. Can you explain the kind of stuff you do?
Ron Athey: Well, there was an earlier work called St. Sebastian, which I still redo, where I make arrows out of very long medical needles and insert the metal into the head, which causes a lot of bleeding. So really it's a sort of bloodletting performance. Some longer performances from the 90s, like the Torture Trilogy, included scarification, flesh hooks, branding, anal penetration, surgical staplers-an entire palette of things, some of which I still use. I guess I always play either with flesh or with fluid or blood in my work.

I'm very squeamish and would probably faint if I saw that in the flesh. Do you find your audience transfixed or horrified?
I think it's harder to watch a video because you lose the context and the rhythm of the piece. It's not relentless blood and gore, but people have really different boundaries around the body, yes, so I've had a number of fainters at shows-people who didn't think they were particularly squeamish. There are things that some people maybe didn't bargain for in close proximity if it's an intimate performance [laughs].

Do you enjoy those reactions?
I don't really notice them. I think it surprises me, because I'm not one of those people. I'd like to be an emergency room doctor.

St. Sebastian,1999. Video still via YouTube

You've been described as a "masochist" by the media. How do you feel about that?
I worked for LA Weekly and Village Voice for a long time, so I'm not un-savvy-I do understand how the long table works: exploitative headlines, or being assigned to write a headline that's an attention-grabber, even though sometimes it makes you cringe or you wouldn't have used it. So even serious journalists-you know, people I respect-they'll talk about the physical action [in the work], but I think over time you can begin to see the other layers. 

But are you trying to play with the boundaries of shock or horror a little bit? It feels like your work might be to do with looking-like you're challenging people not to look away.
For me it was activism to be who I am, and to represent it in a performance it has to be upped to a hyperreality. So in a way it's really honest, and in another way, it's really manipulative. In the beginning, a lot of the symbols were didactic around HIV iconography; later, they sometimes don't mean anything, or a successful performance is just one where I have some kind of transformation. For example, in the Self Obliteration series with the blond wig and the glass, they don't mean anything, and the needles hidden underneath the wig are a kind of masquerade to do with my turning fifty.

Self Obliteration I & II in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2011. Photo by Miha Fras

Your parents were quite devout Pentecostals-how did you move away from that into what was essentially a queer performance environment? Did you speak to them again after you left home?
Not those ones, no. I just waited for them to die, one at a time. My first boyfriend, Ros, had a rock band called Christian Death. That was kind of my entry into that scene-taking acid, reading Patti Smith... Imagine being a teenager in a pre-internet era, locked in a house in suburbia; you have a very small idea of the history of the world. I needed to read backwards through Jean Genet and Charles Baudelaire, and Patti Smith points the way over and over again in different songs.

How did the AIDS epidemic shape your work back in the 1980s?
I always refer back to AIDS because I had a cloud of death over me from 1985, until I trusted that the drug cocktail was working. I'm an outwardly very expressive person, and with the intense conditions of the time-real scenes, real activism, real death, real loss-I effortlessly made all of that into work because of the way the pressure was. I wasn't performing therapy or catharsis with my work, but I was just completely observing and trying things out while I had a fire under my ass because there was this black cloud over my head.

My work always has a philosophical question, a thesis. I think that came about after surviving an apocalypse with everyone dying rapidly and everyone being sick and choosing whom you need to visit at the hospital as priority. This was a time to live through. We're definitely in a different era now. You have to adapt somehow to that change, stop having a tantrum that everyone died and it was so bleak. It was really bleak for a time, but a whole other generation has come through.

In 1994 a newspaper claimed that audience members had been put at risk of contact with HIV-infected blood at one of your performances, and although it wasn't your blood, there was a media outcry. What happened?
It was a really enthusiastic audience somewhere small, so the performance sold out a month ahead of time and everyone had waited for it and everything went fine. And then it was this front-page story that blood was spilling and people were running around knocking over chairs. It was very carefully written, attributing everything to a quote from a different audience person so it wasn't actually libelous. It was a front-page news story and went on the wire to, like, 200 newspapers, the Weekly World News, and even chat shows. I have to admit it was something bigger than me, bigger than my performance art.

I was essentially blacklisted in the US, and nobody had the money or a way of showing my work without the specter of a scandal over his or her head. I didn't do anything but works in progress in LA, because I lived there, or at European festivals, and tried to ignore the political bullshit. Now, so much time has gone that I can see that it's something that probably bent me in a different direction. It was almost like a world event happened to me [laughs].

What direction did it bend you in? 
That was a particularly prolific period for me. I just started taking myself a bit more seriously. I could handle the word "artist" after my name without cringing. I didn't really relate to anyone else's work so much, except for writers, and kind of scolded myself. I'm not naive, but I don't come from the academy either, and I do a lot of innocent visiting lectureship stuff, but I don't teach anywhere. I couldn't imagine going to a staff meeting.

Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains. Photo by Maneul Vason.

Is it tough to make a living as a performance artist? You don't really produce any tangible work as such.
There's a structural problem with performance art, not having anything for sale. OK, so there's ephemera, but that's not considered high art-you'll never sell ephemera for anything significant. Although, you can go to the other extreme, like Marina Abramović, where you make amazing work to then go the lowbrow celebrity route. But you have to get paid from somewhere. It's like there's Marina and Tin Sehgal, and then there's no more money left. 

It must be nice to archive everything in Pleading in the Blood then. Are most of the contributors friends?
They were all people I asked. Friends on different levels, yeah. Lydia Lunch has been one of my mentors since the late 80s. It's always been part of her practice to kick everyone's ass to make them work. She's like the motivator saying, "Start a fucking band or do spoken word instead of daydreaming about it." She knew I'd done performance and worked with bands in the early 80s, and when I was waffling about kicking it back up she was instrumental.

It was an honor to get quotes from Genesis P-Orridge, because their work's been so important to me; Throbbing Gristle, COUM Transmissions, etc. It was a smaller scene and a different time then, so it was easier to infiltrate everyone. There was a small 400-person punk club called Club Lingerie in LA. It was where Diamanda Galás performed on her first tour. It was like everyone wanted to see who this bitch was with the screaming voice [laughs]. She topped the room in a sequin opera gown.

What are you working on at the moment? What's your most recent work?
Further ahead projects work more with ecstatic voice, glossolalia, and operatic theater. I'm kind of leaning back in a theatrical direction. So Messianic Remains-which is what I just showed in Hackney Wick-has some nods to Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising and addresses the ritual circle as performance space. It starts out interactive, so people touch me as I'm suspended in a state of trauma, and then the second part is a text from Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers and it's about Divine's funeral-a drag queen's funeral. I have a phobia of being the last suburban goth chick [laughs]. I'm always wrestling with that.

Ron Athey will be presenting his new performance Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains in the UK this autumn. The first-ever monograph on Athey's work, Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey, edited by Dominic Johnson, is published for Intellect Live by Intellect and Live Art Development Agency. It's available here.

Follow Amelia Abraham on Twitter.

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