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There’s a danger in writing about performance art: something will be lost and something added in each retelling of the event. Liveness is swapped for the nostalgia of not being there still, or for never being there. The written word or the photograph, or even the video, will never capture the moment, will never stand in for being there. In the case of extreme performers such as Ron Athey no archive can replicate the audience’s thumping hearts at the sight of his flowing blood or the smell of his bodily fluids just feet away.
Ron Athey, now in his fifties, is still the enfant terrible of performance. He pushes his body to the extremes: he cuts himself on stage; sits upon a pyramid with its point inside him; pulls out endless strings of glittering pearls from his anus; remains motionless for hours while hooks pierce the skin around his eyes so tightly it’s impossible for him to blink.
Pleading in the Blood (Live Art Development Agency/Intellect) is the first full-length book on Athey and its editor, Dominic Johnson, quickly locates Athey not as a member of the punk and queer cultures of the 1980s and 90s (though these, of course, are crucial), but as the narrator of his own life. His bloody performances are rooted in his up-bringing in a Pentecostal family who thought him a prophet , in his addiction to drugs, and his HIV infection. Indeed, AIDS is pivotal to his performances: by forcing his body to endure, Athey seeks to regain control over the virus inside him while other tableaux memorialize friends and colleagues who have died in the epidemic. One of these performances has mythic status. In 1994 Athey and his cast performed scenes from his production 4 Scenes from a Harsh Life in Minneapolis. In one scene, “The Human Printing Press,” Athey cuts patterns into the back of performer Divinity P. Fudge. Blood quickly seeps out, but Athey places absorbent towels over these fresh wounds. These towels are then pegged on lines and winched above the audience. When this scene was later reported in the US media the audience were said to have panicked as they struggled to escape the HIV-infected blood which was dripping upon them. The National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) came under attack from Jessie Helms for its supposed funding of Athey’s performances. Johnson’s detailed examination of video footage of the performance is the first account which attempts to extract the facts from the myth and is long overdue: the audience calmly remained seated as there was no blood dripping from the towels, and Divinity was HIV negative so the blood was not infected.
Johnson’s essay along with those by performance critics Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield add academic weight to the other essays, written by Athey’s collaborators from over the years. While Johnson alludes to Athey’s biography, the performance artist is given space to tell his own childhood which is fitting as both now literary image and visual image are under Athey’s control. The whole book appears a lesson in discipline. It seeks to dispel myth. It wants to get the record straight. The majority of the contributors in this volume shy away from overly performative writing, refusing, in a sense, to mirror Athey’s own performances. It’s impossible to recapture the Dionysian excess of Athey’s work in words and describe how the audience is pushed beyond its limits, and so most essays here eschew this burden. The one essay which does attempt to remythologise Athey is ‘By Word of Mouth’ by Tim Etchells who revels in the fact that performance is driven by rumor and anecdote. Etchells admits that Athey’s performances are “unsolvable, unresolvable image-facts” and their “meaning lies always in abeyance.” This lack of meaning allows a myth spiral: the story mutates and changes, and perhaps becomes more real than the performance itself and so, Etchells suggests, you didn’t need to be there at all. Likewise Athey’s story, and his art cannot be contained in Pleading in the Blood: excess, like blood, runs through these pages and into my hands.
Ron Athey News
Dominic Johnson’s website
Live Art Development Agency
Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey
Edited by Dominic Johnson
Live Art Development Agency/Intellect
Hardcover, 97817832003514, 248 pp.