Performance artist Ron Athey, 56, is still best known for his mid-’90s work “Four Scenes in a Harsh Life,” in which he, who has been HIV-positive since the 1980s, would cut patterns into the skin of another (HIV-negative) performer onstage, blot the cuts with paper towels, then send the paper towels (no they were emphatically not dripping) over the audience on clothesline-like pulleys. Athey was accused of exposing his audiences to HIV, when he was in fact only exposing them to an idea, not a virus. At the height of the culture wars during the height of the AIDS crisis, he was vilified by the late, right-wing senator Jesse Helms on the floor of Congress for receiving some small amounts of public funds.
But beyond the scandals, Athey’s body of work has for decades focused intensely on the ritualistic mortification of the body (via cutting, puncturing, penetration, and tattooing) as an avenue toward the divine or the ecstatic in an increasingly atheistic world in which queer and transgressive people are often shut out and alienated from organized religion. Athey grew up in a Pentecostal family, worshipped by his church congregation for speaking in tongues at an early age. (Not that that would have made much difference to Helms.)
More recently, Athey has slowed down putting his own body through the paces in his work, which has become somewhat more intellectual and text-based. (In 2013, at Lia Gangitano’s Lower East Side Participant Inc. gallery, he led a course in automatic writing.) He moved to London for a few years, but is now back in L.A., where he’s from. November 14 to 17 (with a postshow talk November 16 with Cynthia Carr), at Performance Space New York (formerly known as P.S. 122), he premieres “Acephalous Monster,” a live performance and video work based on the Acéphale, the figure of the headless man, which inspired French writer George Bataille’s secret society of the same name to combat nihilism and fascism in pre-WWII France. We stopped in to PSNY Saturday to see some of the beautiful new (and often sexually graphic) video that accompanies the piece and to talk with the highly tattooed and good-natured Athey about what has brought him to this (relatively tame) juncture in his performance career.
Hi, Ron! Welcome back to New York and to the old P.S. 122 space.
Thanks. It’s great to be premiering a piece here instead of just showing old work like I used to. I’ve never lived in New York. Now L.A. is an art city and it’s exciting and a crime at the same time. Everyone from New York and San Francisco has flooded L.A. in the last 20 years, and now there’s no affordable space to live or have a studio. I was just evicted from my rent-controlled apartment.
It’s getting as bad as here. So where did the idea for “Acephalous Monster” come from?
It’s the secret society that Bataille started. He posited that they were entering the death-of-God era, which Nietzsche imagined to be 1,000 years of chaos. Now Christians have aligned with Trump’s Republican Party. I never thought they’d go that low. George W. Bush at least nodded to decency even while he was destroying the Middle East.
True. How did this piece evolve?
With writing notes about Bataille and that period. Can you imagine being a French intellectual and having these weird fights and feuds and then suddenly you’re under Nazi occupation? It’s not even your own fascists taking over, like here in the U.S. right now, but somebody else’s. So they were looking for a ritual, saying, “Okay, if this is the death of God, Dionysus versus the crucified one, then our job is to create new celebrations and rituals.” Now we’re in a post-God moment. People have been embracing fascism the last few years. They don’t want to vote or think for themselves. I guess I’ve felt this despair of going more and more into a right-wing world in my late 50s, wondering how far this could go before I die. I and everyone I know have been sick to our stomachs, feeling cornered. So just like in Bataille’s era, we have to create new ceremonial festivals as part of our spiritual practice.
In this era of the Resistance, is that a form of resistance?
I think it’s a form of creating spirit — I don’t know if it’s resistance in and of itself. These days, millions of people peacefully protesting doesn’t even matter anymore. I think only disruption is effective. Things have to be shut down, highways and bridges, the way that ACT UP shut down the stock market during the 1980s AIDS crisis. Just going to the little square you’re allowed to be in has no impact anymore.
Do you want the piece to be empowering, uplifting, energizing?
I don’t know if I work that way exactly. I’m not a huge fan of pedantic political work. I would never mention Trump in my work. It would lower the tone. My work’s also very queer, and I’m an embodiment of the queer body. I go through a lot of wigs and costumes for a 40-minute piece.
You really made a name for yourself in the 1990s as an HIV-positive artist in the pretreatment era, doing all sorts of extreme things to your body onstage. What’s different about our current moment versus the ’90s?
It’ll never be as personally intense for me as it was during the AIDS crisis. That work made itself. I was watching rational people go to Arizona to have their blood boiled or be shot up with live typhus; they were so desperate for a cure. In a lot of ways, I think things are uglier now because you can’t appeal to leaders’ sense of shame anymore.
I found a video of you in the mid-’90s where you say, “What am I going to leave behind? Was I just some stupid fag who died of AIDS? A damaged boy who rebelled and lashed out at himself? I’ve always felt this frenzy to make it bigger, to make it more, to make it mean something.” Do you still feel that urgency and desperation in your work?
Not now that I’m coming up on 60! Back then, people who thought they’d never reach 20, 30, or 40 felt that way. There are things I would’ve done differently in my life if I’d gone to school instead of feeling like I was going to die any minute. Now I’ve lived twice as long as I thought I would. I haven’t done that extreme body work in a while. I fully expressed it. And I think performance art changed a lot as it got academicized. I curate a lot of work, and I really like artists like Narcissister who come out of some other form, like cabaret. People were once burning up inside to make their work because of gender oppression or AIDS, and now you’re in an MFA program with 18 people giving you feedback.
So in this new show, there is still some very graphic — and beautifully shot! — video with other artists like your longtime friend Divinity Fudge, and younger ones like Nacho Nava, who does L.A.’s Moustache Mondays party, and Latex Lucifer. And it looks like they’re the ones taking big objects, like a peacock-feathered butt plug, up their orifices these days instead of you.
Yeah, Grandpa isn’t bleeding or sticking things inside his ass for once! I’m mostly doing stuff onstage, reading Bataille with the videos behind me. What they call in opera “park and bark.” I also play Louis XVI being beheaded, a “dandy fascist,” and Dracula.
I did want to ask you about your many, many tattoos. What’s the first one and the most recent one you’ve got?
These oceanic woodcarving designs on my lower legs are about five years old. I got them in England. I’d get more, but these days, soccer moms get tattoos. It’s no longer a way of marking yourself away from the pack. One of the oldest is this spider on my forehead that I got in L.A. in 1982. At the time I thought, Well, I’ll never work in a bank. Today, I probably could. But the absolute oldest is this crucifix on my left third finger from 1979.
I know you also have one in a certain place from a very intense 1998 piece you made called “Solar Anus,” also based on Bataille. How’s that one holding up?
Better than you’d think. It doesn’t get any sunshine, so that helps.