RON ATHEY is without question an exhortation, an inspiration, he is also a conduit. He says he is programmed to carry a message. The message itself is not programmed within, he is a vehicle for the channeling of a message.

Is it still possible to use your body to make an artistic statement in these alternative times we live in? Is it possible to throw it right out there and ask questions? To “break free from the shackles placed upon the individual by society, family, religion and gender (to quote his own biog) through the catharsis of performance, and ritual, to be able to lay to rest the demons who’ve sent us in search of the respite only a knife or a needle could at one time provide” 

Marcia X goes in search of answers

Who is this guy we keep hearing about?  Just another one of those look-at-me tattooed and pieced modern day sideshow circus freaks?

Performance artist Ron Athey (pronounced like the first two syllables of  "atheism") has achieved a considerable reputation with his elaborate challenging intriguing disturbing stimulating and rather stunning (shocking) art. His performance is in large part, personal therapy - exorcising those particular demons one might expect to occupy the mind of a man raised by a family of religious fanatics to think he was the reincarnated Baby Jesus. 

Groomed by his family for a life as a fundamentalist minister from a very early age, young Ronnie Lee was (to quote his own biog again) “sainted as young prophet messiah who proselytized in tongues, and whose tears were coveted by the entire congregation. The adoration bestowed upon him in the revival tent the daily nightmares heaped upon him as unwitting victim of his mother’s schizophrenia, his aunt’s hyper-sexualized insanity and his grandmother’s channeling of other worldly specters” 

Speaking in tongues by age ten, the pressures of Pentecostal fanaticism took a serious toll: by seventeen Athey was a serious heroin addict trying to find himself.  It’s not clear just how he escaped his family and because that teenage addict or more importantly how he escaped that addiction to turn his life around and in to the inspiringly creative positive it is now. 

Ron Athey was born in Groton Connecticut in 1961, his family moved to LA when he was just two years old – the escape route was right there on his doorstop. His escape was in to heroin and in to the extremes of the Los Angeles gay club/underground art/performance scene. 

Athey’s first performance was in 1981. Premature Ejaculation, a collaboration with Christian Death’s Rozz Williams. There were performances at the legendary Club Fuck!, an integral part of the early 80’s queer scene in L.A. Performances fused with practices taken from the Bondage-Domination-Sado-Masochism (BDSM) scene, performances that involved the staging of piercings, hypodermic injections, lacerations... Performances that turned his previous encountered religious negativity towards the body and, particularly, towards sexuality, into a set of artistic statements and positive questions. Drawing heavily on his own life experiences, his first intention was "to overcome a bad memory, and to do that by portraying it in art." 

The performances and the reputation grew... Thirty hypodermics stuck into his arm to resurrect his days as a junkie... A piece called "Nurses' Penance" in which he re-created the institutional terror of a hospital, with a patient brutalized by a huge drag-queen and  nurses with sewn-together lips... Another piece (captured in a documentary, more of which in a moment) where he's writhing naked, on one end of a double-headed dildo. His richest source for material, though, was (and still is) the church. Most of his pieces revolve around religious themes - "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 on to the floor. Much of his work is driven by a sense of martyrdom and all those other things instilled in him from that childhood of his. In most of his pieces the body is the target of endless assaults - cut, pierced, slashed, as if by tearing open the flesh he might free the things within. 

"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 very colourful queer performers. "Blacktress" Vaginal Davis and Divinity Fudge among others, a troupe who feed on what Athey calls his "frenzy to make it bigger, make it more." 

Making it bigger and making it more, meant more pushing at the uncomfortable extremes. A strategy that's made it almost impossible for him to perform in the U.S for a number of years - Europe, South America, and Latin America have proved much more receptive, especially after a scandal at the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis) in which it was claimed that he was hurling HIV-tainted blood at a hysterical audience. The panic around blood and the issues of HIV is one of his big subjects. Footage of the controversial performance shows Athey and his minions were making bloody block prints from the open wounds of the back of one of the other performers (Vaginal Davis) and stringing them out on a washing line — hardly the assault that had the US press up in arms and questions about arts funding being asked in Congress. 

Bigger indeed, In 1992, Athey ambitiously set out with his biggest work to-date - his torture trilogy: Martyrs & Saints, 4 Scenes In A Harsh Life, and Deliverance. Although the appearance of Athey's productions in the 90’s had not abandoned the aesthetic of the BDSM scene from which it came, the performances more than anything continue to reflect Athey's religious background and to tap into traditions of religious performance and iconography in which the devout gain transcendence through physical suffering, often self-inflicted. 

There’s quite an Athey insight to be found via an extremely well put together documentary film (by activist filmmaker Catherine Gund Saalfield). Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance (1998) is a powerful document that explores Athey's life and work through interviews and stunning excerpts from his performances. It’s a film that will immerse you in to Athey's world. The one major draw back with the film is that the focus is entirely on the artist and his acolytes, who without exception, love, revere, and really want to suffer for/with him. While the film does give us an excellent insight (and includes an amazing episode where they’re actually invited to perform in an elaborate Mexican church)   the lack of a critical questioning or a challenging voice is frustrating – there are so many questions that need to be asked, points that need to be put - Why? Where? What does that prove? Did you really need to go there? I’d love to hear what he’s have to say if respectfully pushed and challenged just a little.  The danger is that with all this adoration, Athey is in danger of being marginalized as just some leader of a strange Californian religious body modification cult or something. Athey is in fact an important modern artist who deserves to be questioned, challenged, pushed and explored a lot more.  Something that may be lost in the positive enthusiasm of his colourful supporters' (and the film's) too-approving voices.

In 2005, Ron Athey, joined by Juliana Snapper, performed in LA for the first time in 10 years. The live performance took place at the 23rd Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. A premiere of The Judas Cradle, that featured soprano/musicologist Juliana Snapper. This multimedia operatic drama used body and voice, as well as projected image and elaborate costumes, to explore the history of torture and personal suffering.  Athey performed with a barbaric torture device, also named the Judas Cradle, while undergoing an operatic inquisition from Snapper. “Forcing his body to transcend its confines, Athey pushes the limits of endurance through artistic expression”. As the opera unfolds, “Athey's voice spins around my taut string, greasing it up, defining its space and pulling light in,“ describes Snapper, ‘our trilling, nuzzling, beating phonography is a struggle between one body disciplined, and one body stretching to capacity.” The multilingual libretto built from disparate sources, including the transcripts of Inquisition hearings, opera quotes, and Jean Genet's closing statement of the witness from Prisoner of Love. Vocal techniques include high-pitched duets, Mae West-inspired Debussy and spirit-induced speaking in tongues. Conceived and performed by Ron Athey and Juliana Snapper, with sound design by Amanda Piaseki and costume design by Susan Mattheson. (Incidentally The Judas Cradle originally was commissioned by the Fierce! Festival with support from Arts Council of England, makes you swell with pride don’t it).

Is it still possible to use your body make an artistic statement in these alternative times we live in? Is it possible to throw it right out there and ask questions?

Forthcoming Ron Athey performances: 

Chelsea Theatre, London: Tuesday 24 April - Wednesday 2 - Ron Athey Incorruptible Flesh (Inner Pig)

22nd Torino GLBT Film Festival: 19-26 April 2007 TURIN, ITALY 
**The Festival also offers three non-competitive sections including the most recent and interesting film and video productions: a retrospective dedicated to Kenneth Anger, three tributes respectively to American performer Ron Athey, American director, critic and archivist Jenni Olson and finally to French director Philippe Vallois.** 

Fierce! Festival: 30 May 2007 in BIRMINGHAM at the Custard Factory Theatre - "Incorruptible Flesh" In a collaborative performance, Ron Athey and Dominic Johnson explore violation, self obliteration and mysticism in a performance involving ritual, transubstantiation and excess. 

Arnolfini Gallery: Saturday 9 June 2007, Bristol, UK/ Solo Performance by Ron Athey. MANUEL VASON SYMPOSIUM PERFORMANCE, PHOTOGRAPHY, COLLABORATION, AUDITORIUM 

Ron Athey’s My Space page is here, best place to go for up-to-date information and links to latest events, his website is here