Self-mutilation, soul searching and body politics come to the CCA in a controversial show by Ron Athey. Jane Cornwell needles him for the facts.
Ron Athey lifts up his T-shirt to reveal some scariﬁcation he‘s prepared earlier. Intricate welts criss-cross with artistic precision on either side of his stomach. providing direct contrast to an angry vertical line snaking up the middle. His HIV complications dictated the latter: a surgeon recently removed his spleen. The National Endowment for the Arts has described this LA-based performer’s work as ‘a study in modern day martyrdom as it relates to AIDS'. although Athey is more shaman than saint.
Tattooed. pierced. scarer and queer. Ron Athey has evolved a personal pain- and-death trip which has its roots in self-destruction. Modern Prirnitivisrn. body manipulation and. ultimately. a quest for truth. His latest work. l’nur Scenes in a Harsh Life. is a powerful and controversial interrogation of what is sexual. political and aesthetic. Modiﬁed because of British legislation. Athey presents excerpts as part of the CCA's Bad Times season.
Spinal tap needles are inserted into his scalp in a subversion of the Crown of Thorns.
A former Pentecostal preacher and teenage junkie. Athey’s ritualistic performance revolves around images of suffering and transformation. Spinal tap needles are inserted into his scalp in a subversion of the Crown of Thorns: as blood runs down his face. the meaning of the piece lies beyond its immediate graphic nature. Qualiﬁed nurses will be on standby to assist the queasy (although. ironically. the only person to faint when Athey performed in London was a member of the Operation Spanner team). Inserting hypodermic needles into his tattooed arm as he intones the depths of his private hell — including his numerous suicide attempts — we are told of a vision in which he saw himself covered in black tribal designs. facing a man as tattooed as himself. Ron Athey has decided that body modiﬁcation and masochism are the path to salvation.
He has created a foundation from being disenfranchised. For him. obsessions, fetishes and Modern Primitivism represent a contemporary craving for ritual. ‘It's spiritual-based} he says. ‘In a modern context, no one wants to talk about the anti-social aspects oftattooing your face. people want to see it as a “new tribe" or as something out of National Geographic.‘
A darling of LA‘s Club Fuckl. where he‘s done piercing demos. turned patrons into mummies and has club kids lined up for ﬁoggings. Athey maintains he is still a sexual outlaw. ‘There‘s a lot of weird rules to do with being queer.‘ he says with a grin. ‘I still have sex in public places and do the odd bit of prostitution. Some of my best friends are prostitutes. and if a trick of theirs sees a picture of me and wants to have a double date. then I‘ll do that too.‘ Fora price? ‘Not necessarily. although I once got a hundred for a half-hour — boys are cheap! Recently I did a spread for the leather magazine Drummer where I wrote the script and directed how it was to be shot. They did a gay skinhead issue and l was a skinhead daddy; I tattooed the inside of this guy‘s mouth with the word “pig”. You know. cliches like that.‘
All this. some pending short stories and working full-time as executive secretary on LA Weekly — where does he get the time and. given his HIV status. the energy? ‘l‘m like a horse.' he laughs. ‘I don't drink. smoke or take
Four Scenes in a Harsh lite: ‘A study in modern day martyrdom as it relates to AIDS'
drugs. Puncture wounds heal really quickly and anyway. I'm magniﬁcently healthy.‘ Perhaps his body-modiﬁcation philosophies are slightly at odds with California’s health ethos? ‘The consciousness we go through in LA around AIDS is very strange. The strongest thing was to take responsibility for your disease. but to be up. up. up all the time is ridiculous.
‘I still have sex in public places and do the odd bit of prostitution. Some of my best friends are prostitutes, and it a trick of theirs sees a picture at me and wants to have a double date, then I’ll do that too.’
Everyone feels dark in their own way, and whenever I've heard a group of long term survivors speak. they have nothing whatsoever in common. I've moved away from the mind over matter stuff.‘
For all the hype. Ron Athey maintains his work isn’t particularly sexual. ‘I get annoyed when my work is described as pornographic. People might be nude. but they‘re bleeding — so it's not alluring in the same way.‘ Athey prefers Los Angles to anywhere on the east coast ofthe USA. ‘The whole piercing/tattoo scene -- and public SM demonstrations — originated on the west coast. I work really well in LA — there‘s a thriving nightclub scene going on there. It‘s like this rich city on one hand and a barren landscape on the other.‘
Four Scenes in A Harsh Life isn‘t as cathartic for Athey as it can be for his audience. ‘lt's more like I'm holding a public catharsis, with me as the centrepiece. It‘s not personal except when I create it. I’m blessed with a lust for life. Even when I tried to kill myself I came through knowing I could sort things out. I'm sure doing performance work is good for me because I‘m really therapeutic. I've just chosen a life of insanity.’
Four Scenes in a Harsh Life. C(‘A. Glasgow, Fri 3—Sat 4 Mai:
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