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Ron Athey


by Elisabeth Kley
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Marking his 50th birthday last Friday with his first New York appearance since 2006, London-based extreme performance artist Ron Athey presented Resonate/Obliterate – the final incarnation of a piece created in 2007 and since seen in 18 cities in England, France, Spain, Italy, Poland and Canada.

Lauded in Europe, Athey is still notorious here for being turned into what he calls “a poster boy for bullshit” during the culture wars surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1990s. A 1994 Minneapolis performance involving blood-stained paper towels (funded through the Walker Art Center with a measly $150 of NEA money, which Athey never asked for) was sensationalized by the press, turning Athey into an icon of the right-wing campaign against avant-garde art (and more). In reality, the blood in question did not belong to Athey, who’s been positive since 1991, but to his HIV negative co-star, Divinity P Fudge.

This time, blood really poured out of Athey’s own forehead. His collaborator, Julie Tolentino, bled as well. A performance artist and AIDS activist who’s worked with Athey since 1996, in 1990 Tolentino founded a lesbian club night known as the Clit Club. She also once posed with Madonna for the superstar’s controversial 1992 book, SEX, and co-wrote the first Lesbian Safer Sex Handbook in 1993. Titled The Sky Remains the Same, Tolentino’s contribution to the evening was part of her series of physical recreations of performances by other artists, including Athey, Lovett/Codagnone and Franko B.

An audience of stalwart supporters was on hand, including fellow endurance and transformation expert Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Siberian-born artist, gay activist and writer Slava Mogutin, who calls himself a Pinko Commie Fag, and performer Johanna Constantine. Franklin Furnace founder and artist Martha Wilson also attended the event, which was produced by Participant Inc., Invisible Exports and House of Thought.  “I’m here because I’ve presented Ron Athey’s work on video,” Wilson said, “and Julie Tolentino is a Franklin Furnace Fund winner.”

The action took place in the rear of a darkened floor-through loft on Eldridge Street. Two rectangular chest-high black pedestals were placed about six feet apart, with removable panes of glass rising from the ends of each pedestal. Wearing a long blond wig, nude and covered with extraordinary tattoos (most strikingly a sunburst flaring out from his anus), Athey began by posing on all fours on the pedestal on the left, like a decorated sculpture of an animal displayed in an incomplete vitrine. 

Violently brushing his artificial hair, sometimes banging the brush on the pedestal, Athey moved in time to a futuristic soundtrack. His face was invisible beneath the blond mane reflected before him in the glass until he rose to his knees and began teasing the hair into an impenetrable upward tangle. After he removed the pins attaching the wig to his bare head, blood flowed over his face, like Christ in a crown of thorns.

The references to religion are intentional, as artist and healer AA Bronson explained later. “There’s a real spiritual fire to Ron Athey's performances that we cannot turn away from. The performance is a ritual, and the blood -- his HIV-positive blood -- is the Eucharist that turns this event into communion -- the audience is transformed.”

More streams of blood dripped down Athey's face and torso as he cycled through a series of yoga poses, rubbing the glass on his body and sandwiching himself between the two panes like a gigantic scientific specimen. Lights came on over the pedestal on the left, revealing Tolentino, naked and slightly less tattooed, gracefully repeating Athey’s actions, complete with a wig and a smaller amount of blood.

On his side, Athey mixed lubricant into his blood and massaged the slimy liquid into the wig that was back on his head, meanwhile covering himself with primordial goop as if reenacting his infant emergence from inside his mother’s placenta. Back on all fours, he plunged his fist into his rectum, and then, as the spotlights went out, triumphantly began to laugh.

At the reception that followed, the audience recovered as assistants wearing surgical gloves mopped up the gory residue. “I was blown away!” exclaimed writer and curator Jane Harris. “It was really affirming to see that there are still people willing to go into such a deep place.”

“I feel energized, filled with adrenaline,” said artist Walt Cassidy. “It’s a feat of endurance and rawness – just lifting those plates of glass was amazing, let alone bearing the pain.”

The evening was summed up succinctly by writer, curator and licensed mortician Doug McClemont (who used to be the editor of the Honcho, the legendary gay porn rag where Athey wrote a monthly column), when he said, “For me, the performance is an elegant, bloody little opera about vanity and dying with a bit of old school gender politics thrown in.”

After the performance, Athey came out, cleaned up and glowing with joy and relief. “I’m very thick-skinned," he said. "The cuts will be completely healed in a couple of days.” The wounds on his head had indeed almost disappeared. “I feel a bit dizzy. I need to eat some sweets to get my blood sugar up,” he added. Soon, as if on cue, he was blowing out the candles of a lime green birthday cake.

ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and art writer.