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Athey Lives!

By Daniel Mufson
2 Feb. 2009



Ron Athey. Photo credit unknown.

Ron Athey. Photo credit unknown.


A soft, high-pitched electronic noise comes from loud speakers while the audience shuffles into the Hebbel am Ufer’s second stage (HAU2). The audience moves around a narrow table with glass panes at two ends. Between the panes, a naked man kneels on all fours, his body covered with tattoos and his head obscured by a copious, blonde wig. The man is Ron Athey; the performance is called Self-Obliteration #1 and #2, and these facts alone are enough to create a certain suspense for those who know that Athey’s 1993 Martyrs and Saints involved acts of self-mutilation so disturbing that audience members passed out.

At first motionless behind the glass, Athey evokes one of the animals that Damien Hirst famously encases in vitrines. At 47, Athey has the lithe but muscular body of an athlete. In spite of two decades of living with HIV, he shows no immediately recognizable signs of illness. After the audience has entered the room, he slowly begins to the brush the wig. The motions start out slow but forceful as he encounters knots. Strands of hair fall out as he increases the pace of brushing. He starts to reverse brush the wig, which soon becomes frazzled. As he finally starts to remove the wig, we see that it has actually been pinned into the skin of his head, and he bleeds profusely as he removes the pins. He takes the glass panes out of their holders and starts to drip blood on them. He holds the panes up to the light so we can see the abstract pattern of dripping redness shimmer in the stage light: blood-stained windows. He then struggles to lie down on the table while positioning the panes over his body; his hands and arms and head tremble from the weight of the glass. A pause. He then somehow manages to rise again, placing the panes back in a vertical position, and wraps the bloodied wig around his head until it is entirely obscured. The sound from the speakers evokes rattlesnakes. End of the first “obliteration.”

The second obliteration consists of Athey mixing some type of gelatinous goo with his blood and smearing it all over his body. Once covered, he balls his hand into a fist and sticks it entirely into his ass. He begins to groan and gasp as he moves the fist around. Gradually, the writhing comes to a stop as Athey lowers himself onto his stomach. Fade to black. Silence. The applause begins, mixed with scattered shouts of “Yeah!” Athey raises up his hands like an aged prize fighter thrilled at having made it through the final round, and then two assistants help him off the stage. The entire performance lasts just under thirty minutes.

Ron Athey belongs to a performance tradition with many names—Body Art, masochistic performance, extreme performance art. The tradition includes people such as Chris Burden, whose 1971 Shoot consisted of having a friend shoot him in the left arm, as well as Vito Acconci, Gina Pane, and Marina Abramovic/Ulay. Viennese Actionism is also present. These kinds of works can provoke troubled reflection or immediate revulsion and dismissal. But even if one rejects on principle the idea that non-mimetic violence can have aesthetic qualities, it’s hard to understand how one cannot at least be fascinated by Body Art as a cultural phenomenon.

atheyAthey consistently puts his performances in a religious context: Aside from having portrayed himself as St. Sebastian, his works bear names such as Deliverance, Incorruptible Flesh, and Surgical Stigmata. And yet, for a nonreligious critic such as myself, Athey’s work is somehow less troubling than seeing videos of contemporary Shia Muslims beating themselves bloody during the holiday of Ashura, less troubling than the history of Christian self-flagellation. Religion echoes in Athey’s work, but the suffering occurs in a contemporary context in which God seems absent. Especially in a piece like Self-Obliteration #1 & #2, Athey’s suffering feels lonely; he’s both physically and existentially isolated from his spectators. But Athey’s apparent fearlessness in rendering psychic pain physical, and his attempt to create aesthetic beauty out of the materials of physical suffering—the blood-stained windows, for example—these elements lend a peculiar feeling of secular transcendence to the work. The fascination with Athey’s spectacle goes beyond mere voyeurism, it goes beyond interest in broken taboos. Even in a work titled Self-Obliteration, the compelling thing about Athey is his remarkable display of perseverance not for the sake of competitive sport, not in the name of God, but rather in creating a work of art that says so irrefutably: I can feel hurt—and survive.

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