Natural born pervert. Mystical atheist. Dysfunctional 53-year-old.
Ron Athey, an American body performance artist takes the idea of pain and turns it into art. Following the third part of his ‘Incorruptible Flesh’ series, Messianic Remains, at the Arches, Thursday 13th November saw him discuss his practice at Glasgow University.
Agreeing that sadomasochism is both completely real and completely theatrical, Athey’s work attempts to aestheticise pain into something legible in a theatrical context. He was one of very few men who were open about being HIV positive at a time when many homosexual members of the American artistic community were dying of HIV/AIDs as there was no cure. He says that at one point he felt as if ‘all the interesting people were dead’ (leaving those present feel vaguely guilty at being the ‘lame’ people this allowed to step forward). He was supposed to be one of them, he says; he never expected to keep living as the three therapy cocktail, the treatment, was not discovered until 1996. This highly impacted his life as he lived in the moment and didn’t plan for the future and now the future is here.
His theatre centres around dying people and holds up archetypes of the dying body. In multiple pieces of his work he imitates a sexualised corpse and invites the audience to anoint the dead body. The corpse is not ‘the strategy of shock but of generosity’ he explains. In this he relinquishes control of the performance to the audience. This can lead him to hallucinate during performances, a concept which he has named a ‘dissociative sparkle’.
Athey talks a lot about the divine in his performances; he describes it as ‘cosmic neurology out of the body’ and calls himself a mystical atheist. He was raised in a pentecostal church and learned to speak in tongues and this upbringing highly influences his performances. Often his work clashes the perverse with sacredness and this is where he finds his most interesting pieces. This allows him to question where vitality and life force come from, beyond cheap shots at religious faith.