During my tenure as curator of performing arts at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, from 1988 to 1996, the aesthetic zeitgeist was bursting with artists creating fierce and politicized bodies of work. Some of them became entangled with the culture wars that were being waged in the media and in the halls of the U.S. Congress.
In 1994, I presented Ron Athey’s Four Scenes in a Harsh Life. Athey’s backstory was compelling. He was raised by three schizophrenic women in a fundamentalist Pentecostal household, and, he writes, “By the age of nine, I spoke in tongues, danced in the spirit, and was prone to visions and ecstatic catatonic states.” His first artistic forays emerged out of the Los Angeles punk, sex-club and modern-primitives scenes of the late 1970s and ’80s. A decade of drug addiction followed.
In the early ’90s, Athey returned to performing, amalgamating his experiences into shamanistic rituals of extreme corporeality. It was the height of the AIDS plague years, and naked sexuality and bodily fluids were scary, but necessary for some artists to witness, as a tactic to survive overwhelming sadness, anger and despair. Athey aspired to create “a perfectly depicted apocalypse” by breaking taboos and confronting people’s fear “of the body…diseases…mortifications of the flesh.”
Four Scenes in a Harsh Life opened with a campy burlesque dance by an African-American man covered in balloons. Athey burst the balloons with a cigar, then transitioned to a scene in which he raised the tattoos on the man’s back by cutting stylized marks, patting them with paper towels and sending these blood-marked prints along pulleys toward the audience.
In another section, Athey inserted hypodermic needles into his own arm as his voice-over talked about overcoming addiction and suicide attempts. The iconography of Jesus’s Passion was then evoked with a crown of thorns pierced into Athey’s scalp. The evening culminated with two women being pierced and ecstatically dancing in a queer wedding ceremony officiated by Athey, now clothed in a business suit, exhorting in a booming revivalist voice, “There are so many ways to say ‘Hallelujah!’”
The sold-out performance was well received by an audience of about 100. Post-show discussions with the artist, attended by 80 people, were thoughtful and engaging. Theatre and dance critics had been invited; none chose to attend.
Three weeks after the event, a visual art critic from the Minneapolis Star Tribune called, wanting to verify someone’s distorted, fantastical version of the performance. She did not want to meet in person, and warned me to look for her lead story on the front page the next morning.
This was the first of more than 20 articles the newspaper published about a performance its critic had not seen. Vituperative arguments about Athey’s work escalated into that summer’s fodder in the National Endowment for the Arts’s reappropriation battle, since the Walker had received a grant to subsidize the full season of performances, including Athey’s.
When Jane Alexander, the head of the NEA at the time, defended the Walker from the “erroneously reported” and “inaccurate coverage,” the local critic fueled the fires by writing directly to Alexander and to Congress, “Your attempts to blame the press for criticism of your agency merely trivializes the issue and obscures the facts.”
Senator Jesse Helms called Athey “a cockroach” on the Senate floor. Representative Dornan termed him a “porno jerk,” and Senator Clifford Stearns ranted about how Athey endangered the audience’s life by the “slopping around of AIDS-infected blood.” (Minnesota’s Senator Paul Wellstone supported the Walker, as did Congressman Martin Sabo in the House, and Senator David Durenberger criticized the “highly inflammatory reporting.”)
Televangelist Pat Robertson tarnished the Walker’s good name, and the American Family Association’s fundraising exploited Athey for financial gain. The volume of hate mail and hostile phone messages I received was astounding. Example: “We got the abortion doctor, you’re next!” Blood-red graffiti was painted on the glass doors of the Walker.
My mother telephoned after watching Rush Limbaugh. “Buckets of AIDS-tainted blood were intentionally thrown at the audience,” he snidely commented, and “the audience ran for their lives.” When I told my mother Limbaugh was a liar, she responded, “But it was on television.”
That summer, Athey joined an elite group of modern-day provocateurs, including Joel-Peter Witkin, Karen Finley, Andres Serrano, Holly Hughes, Robert Mapple-thorpe, Cheryl Dunye, David Wojnarowicz and Marlon Riggs, who were demonized by indignant, malformed outrage and became flashpoints in the culture wars of the ’90s. But, unlike many of his cultural infidel colleagues, Athey found his performing career in America essentially ended by the controversy. In the two decades since, he has managed to continue to create critically esteemed work in Europe and South America.
A new publication distributed by University of Chicago Press brings us up to date with this important artist. Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey is a beautifully illustrated catalogue raisonné in which Athey’s extensive oeuvre is analyzed, placing him alongside Jean Genet, Antonin Artaud and Yukio Mishima, as well as contemporary art-world figures Chris Burden and Bob Flanagan.
Athey’s thoughtful biographical writing is interspersed with essays and texts by artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Lydia Lunch, Catherine Opie, Bruce LaBruce, Antony Hegarty, Robert Wilson and leading academics. They articulate the enduring value of Athey’s seminal work in identity-based art and the critical discourse on the body and sexuality. Filmmaker Catherine Gund captures his gestalt when she writes, “He is mystical, mysterious, deeply intellectual, practical and fanciful, all at once.”
Sadly, while this compendium affirms Athey’s importance, his career remains emblematic of a perverse trend: another American artist exiled because of the fierceness of his or her talent. Athey’s vision, while harsh and unrelenting, is ultimately about transcendence and redemption—necessary commodities, I contend, in our profane world. Experiencing his work, we learn more about ourselves. In our differences, the common ground of shared humanity is revealed.
John R. Killacky is executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vt.