Photo: Messianic Vestiges (2014) (c) Manuel Vason
Performance artist Ron Athey, 56, is still best known for his mid-90s work “Four Scenes in a Difficult Life” in which he, who has been HIV-positive since the 1980s, would cut patterns into the skin of another (HIV-negative) performer on stage, blot the cuts with paper towels, then send the paper towels (no, they were emphatically do not dripping) onto the audience on clothesline-shaped pulleys. Athey has been accused of exposing his audience to HIV, when in fact he was only exposing them to an idea, not a virus. At the height of the culture wars at the height of the AIDS crisis, it was vilified by the late right-wing Senator Jesse Helms on the floor of Congress for receiving small amounts of public funds.
But beyond the scandals, Athey’s work for decades focused intensely on the ritual mortification of the body (via cutting, puncturing, penetration and tattooing) as an avenue to the divine or the ecstatic in an increasingly atheistic world in which queer and transgressive people are often excluded and alienated from organized religion. Athey grew up in a Pentecostal family, adored by his congregation for speaking in tongues from an early age. (Not that it would have made much difference for Helms.)
More recently, Athey has slowed down the testing of her own body in her work, which has become a little more intellectual and textual. (In 2013, at the Lower East Side of Lia Gangitano Participant Inc. gallery, he led a course in automatic writing.) He moved to London for a few years, but is now back in Los Angeles, where he is from. From November 14-17 (with a post-show talk on November 16 with Cynthia Carr), at Performance Space New York (formerly known as PS 122), he creates “Headless Monster” a live performance and a video work based on the Acephalus, the figure of the Headless Man, who inspired French writer George Bataille’s secret society of the same name to combat nihilism and fascism in pre-World War II France. We stopped by PSNY on Saturday to see some of the beautiful (and often sexually graphic) new video that accompanies the piece and to speak with the heavily tattooed and good-natured Athey about what got him to this (relatively tamed) in his performing career.
Hi Ron! Welcome to New York and the former PS 122 space.
Thank you. It’s great to be previewing here instead of just showing old work like I used to. I have never lived in New York. Now LA is an art city and it’s exciting and a crime at the same time. Everyone from New York and San Francisco has flooded LA over the past 20 years, and now there’s no more affordable space to live or have a studio. I just got kicked out of my rent-controlled apartment.
It’s getting as bad as here. So where did the idea for “Acephalous Monster” come from?
This is the secret society that Bataille created. He postulated that they were entering the Age of God’s Death, which Nietzsche imagined to be 1,000 years of chaos. Now Christians have aligned themselves with Trump’s Republican Party. I never thought they would go this low. George W. Bush at least gave a nod to decency even as he destroyed the Middle East.
True. How did this piece evolve?
With writing notes on Bataille and this period. Can you imagine being a French intellectual and having these weird fights and squabbles and then suddenly you’re under Nazi occupation? It’s not even your own fascists taking power, like here in the United States right now, but someone else’s. So they were looking for a ritual, saying, “Okay, if it’s the death of God, Dionysus versus the crucified, then our job is to create new celebrations and rituals.” Now we are in a post-God moment. People have embraced fascism in recent years. They don’t want to vote or think for themselves. I guess I felt this desperation of going more and more into a right-wing world in my late 50s, wondering how far it could go before I died. Me and everyone I know had a stomach ache, feeling stuck. So, just like in the days of Battle, we need to create new ceremonial feasts as part of our spiritual practice.
In this era of Resistance, is this a form of resistance?
I think it’s a form of mind creation — I don’t know if it’s resistance per se. These days, millions of people protesting peacefully don’t even matter anymore. I think only disruption is effective. Things need to be shut down, highways and bridges, the way ACT UP closes the Stock Exchange during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Just going to the little place where you have the right to be no longer has an impact.
Do you want the piece to be stimulating, uplifting, energizing?
I don’t know if I work exactly like that. I’m not a big fan of pedantic political work. I would never mention Trump in my work. It would lower the tone. My work is also very queer, and I am an embodiment of the queer body. I go through a lot of wigs and costumes for a 40 minute play.
You really made a name for yourself in the 1990s as an HIV-positive artist in the era of pre-treatment, doing all kinds of extreme things with your body on stage. What is different in our current moment compared to the 90s?
It will never be as intense for me personally as during the AIDS crisis. This work has been done. I watched rational people go to Arizona to boil their blood or get stung with living typhus; they were so desperate for a cure. In many ways, I think things are uglier now because you can’t appeal to the leaders’ sense of shame anymore.
I’ve found a video of you in the mid-90s where you say, “What am I going to leave behind? Was I just a stupid fag who died of AIDS? A damaged boy who rebelled and took it out on himself? I always felt this frenzy to make it bigger, to make it more, to give it meaning. Do you still feel that urgency and desperation in your work?
Not now that I’m turning 60! Back then, people who thought they would never reach 20, 30, or 40 felt the same way. There are things I would have done differently in my life if I had gone to school instead of feeling like I was going to die any minute. Now I’ve lived twice as long as I thought. I haven’t done this extreme body work in a while. I expressed it fully. And I think performance art has changed a lot as it has become more academic. I organize a lot of works and I really like artists like Narcissister who come out of another form, like cabaret. It used to be that people were burning inside to do their jobs because of sexual oppression or AIDS, and now you’re in an MFA program with 18 people giving you feedback.
So in this new show, there is still something very graphic — and beautifully shot! — video with other artists like your longtime friend Fudge Divinityand younger people like Nacho Nava, who makes LA Mustache Mondays Partyy, and Lucifer in latex. And it looks like they’re the ones taking large objects, like a peacock feather butt plug, up their orifices these days for you.
Yeah, grandpa don’t bleed and stick stuff up his ass for once! I mostly do stuff on stage, I read Bataille with the videos behind me. What they call at the opera “park and bark”. I also play Louis XVI being beheaded, a “fascist dandy”, and Dracula.
I wanted to ask you about your many tattoos. What’s the first and newest you have?
These woodcarving ocean designs on my legs are about five years old. I had them in England. I would have more, but these days soccer mums get tattoos. It’s no longer a way to stand out from the pack. One of the oldest is this spider on my forehead that I got in Los Angeles in 1982. At the time, I thought, Well, I’ll never work in a bank. Today I probably could. But the absolute oldest is this crucifix on my left ring finger from 1979.
I know you also have one in a certain place of a very intense 1998 room you did called “Solar Anus”, also based on Bataille. How does this one hold up?
Better than you think. There is no sun, so that helps.