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Ron Athey’s “Messianic Remains”. A Performance Experience

Witnessing Ron Athey’s live performance “Messianic Remains”,
the fourth chapter installation of his “Incorruptible Flesh” series,
as the final event of Spill Festival 2014 at Ipswich Corn Exchange.

 A Performance Experience | About “Incorruptible Flesh”


Incorruptible Flesh.Messianic Remains.Ron Athey by Manuel Vason

Ron-Athey, “Messianic Remains”, Spill Festival 2014 (ph. Manuel Vason © 2014)

AP Dark room. A single spotlight illuminates the naked body of Ron Athey on the stage: exposed, vulnerable, and immobilized by strings on a metal rack. Hooks are surgically embedded in his eyelids and cheeks, and pull his skin. A transparent mask profiled as a tiara on his face, and a cuneiform beard of Egyptian priestly memory applied to his chin, seem to make his physical suffering almost icy due to the condition that forces the artist to resist. The living sculpture of a body in torture is implemented by a baseball bat screwed under the rack and stuck in his anus. However, here violence and desecration are rarefied: the composition is not merely iconoclastic, rather it exudes a reminiscence of pagan sanctity. At first, a sequence of images rapidly came to my mind: the iconography of the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence on the grid-iron (as in the paintings by Titian and Tintoretto), the tribulation and agony of the impalement (a practice of death used routinely in the dark years of the Holy Roman Empire and later by the Ottomans), but also the punitive rapes, which often remain untold, and that still today happen in several prisons around the world.

LN In a 1947 letter to Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet wrote, “To watch our heroes live and to pity them is not enough. We must take their sins upon ourselves and suffer the consequences.” To merely observe is not to witness or embody, and Athey repeatedly enforces this difference in his art.
The parallels between Athey and Genet, as well as Athey and his audiences, became evident to me as I watched him perform “Messianic Remains”. Genet found love and beauty in the exclusion of abject, as translated in the stories of gorgeous misfits and taboo identities in his plays and novels. Empowered by his own abjectness, he found the voice to translate these otherwise hidden lives—and deaths—to others through his writing. Genet’s street saints, the royalty of the prisons, and the divinity found only in impermanence are all echoed in Athey’s own stories.
Athey’s appropriation of Genet’s words in “Our Lady of the Flowers” both honoured and showed allegiance to the author. Through cutting-and-pasting as needed, those Genet’s words became Athey’s language to contextualize “Messianic Remains” and reference the ethos of the “Incorruptible Flesh” series, Athey’s continued survival and the death of his original collaborator in the series, Lawrence Steger, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1999.
The pastiche of images and narrative that is brought together in the performance tells of the death and funeral of Divine in the Genet novel, though many critics and audience members have drawn parallels to the life and death of the Divine of John Waters‘ films. Being familiar with both, each of these interpretations brings a related resonance to the performance.


Incorruptible Flesh.Messianic Remains.Ron Athey by Manuel Vason.Spill Festival 2014

 “Messianic Remains”, Spill Festival 2014 (ph. Manuel Vason © 2014). Lisa Newman: “In his frequently bloody portrayals of life, death, crisis, and fortitude in the time of AIDS, Athey calls into question the limits of artistic practice. These limits enable him to explore key themes including gender, sexuality, radical sex, queer activism, postpunk and industrial culture, tattooing and body modification, ritual, and religion” 

AP Athey’s scene collaborators invite the audience who has been disposed in a queue to get on stage, one after another, and wear disposable latex gloves to take a substance similar to grease or vaseline from bowls with which to rub, touch, and caress the artist’s body. I settle into a corner of the stage that allows me a point of view where I can see the different reactions and facial expressions of the public involved in this ritual while touching Athey’s body, suffering and still. Some bystanders seem to actually honour it, some others almost morbidly worshipping it. There are those who are hesitant and shy, or sceptical, and who show discretely committed affection and dedicated compassion.
The overall view reminds me of an ancestral washing ritual of the bodies of the dead, or the embalming of the Pharaohs performed by the Ut priests thousands of years ago.
While lying as such, Athey’s body seems to ask our body’s questions: commiseration, idolatry, mercy, consuming love, and intensity through the ephemerality of an artistic act. But there’s more to me, much deeper, feeling welcome to share his revived suffering, the tension that emanates from his shaking legs and his face pearled by sweat from the exertion and fatigue of bearing that condition. It is this precise artistic act that confirms in me that the soul depends on the body, that through the body it maintains contact with all that is living, and because of the body and all that is living, it aspires—if anything—to survive.

LN Though we had met several times in previous years, I first came to know Ron through producing his solo performance “Self-Obliteration” in 2008, in Portland, Oregon. In car rides around town, over drinks, and in the various other spaces that surround an event, we talked about life and love. He told me stories about his first boyfriend, Rozz Williams, as if the relationship had only ended a day or a week before, rather than more than three decades.
Williams hanged himself on April Fools’ Day, 1998. Many people might never recover from one loss such as this, and Ron has endured dozens of similar deaths; of lovers, friends and heroes never met. Though I would never presume to know how he processes these absences, or carries them within him, in the few years that I have known him I have been awed by the way he is able to love others completely, to enter into new relationships with his full body and spirit, and the nervousness and excited glow of a teenager every time. With so many lives compressed into one body, it would appear that Athey bleeds in order to reduce the pressure. This ability to not only survive, but also thrive—fervently and joyously—is powerful medicine for anyone.


Incorruptible Flesh.Messianic Remains.Ron Athey by Manuel Vason.Spill Festival 2014.3

 “Messianic Remains”, Spill Festival 2014 (ph. Manuel Vason © 2014)

AP The change of scene and climax is progressive. The initial participatory funeral procession is dispersed to make way for the awakening and redemption, and activate the messianic impulse of an imminent prophecy, which yet is still roaming invisibly in the realm of pure poetry.
From the ashes of a laid-in-state-sexualized corpse scene, his flesh still suffering, the artist’s body—survivor’s body—arises from the chambers of sacrifice.
The audience leaves the stage, and gathers in the large hall, as if waiting for something that has yet to happen, which somehow has already actually happened.
The lights become dim. Athey’s assistants help him to get rid of the various trappings: metal hooks, needles, and strings that kept him pinned to the rack. The artist gets up. Lazarus and Christ in one. The music has changed. The ambient religious soundtrack that accompanied the procession leaves room for rave rhythms. And as in a rave, to help the temperature of drugs to rise in the body, the assistants invite the audience to clap rhythmically, while Athey hopping to the music, awakens his muscles, nerves and tendons, and makes his way through the crowd like a knife sinking repeatedly in a block of fat. Now the music fades away. Athey is dripping blood from the wounds in his face. The two assistants gently clean these liquid remains with towels, then reach the centre of the room. Balancing at a distance with each other at the ends of a long rope, they draw a large circle on the floor of the hall with white chalk.
The artist is distanced from the martyrized and sanctified, leaving behind the scattered symbols of a powerful, yet pagan, liturgy and progresses towards a new holiness proper to a stoic philosopher.
He removes the needles and hooks, blood drips from his skin, red puddles mark his steps, for what he has lived, he will never forget.

LN Evident in all of Athey’s performances is his generosity. In “Self-Obliteration”, he literally turns himself inside out, completely coating himself in his own blood. In “Dissociative Sparkle” (an earlier work in the “Incorruptible Flesh” series in 2006) and again in the first half of “Messianic Remains”, he invites viewers to touch him, as he stays immobile and affixed to a platform. His life stories, as those related through spoken narratives and targeted imagery in the “Torture Trilogy” of the 1990s, are both violent and bittersweet. Though there is a sense of catharsis in these works, they do not create distance between Athey and his audience, but rather communicate a desire to leave the isolation of one’s own psyche.
Though these physical actions and encounters lend to the believability of his martyr imagery, they are tempered by his overwhelming humanity. His sense of humour, Southern California drawl, sharp wit and unmistakeable laugh illuminate the dark elements of his art, and the contrast gives depth to his writing and performances.


DIVINE'S FUNERAL MONOLOGUE. Ron Athey by Manuel Vason.Spill Festival 2014

“Messianic Remains, Spill Festival 2014 (ph. Manuel Vason © 2014). Lydia Lunch: “Ron Athey forces the body to transcend its confines. His brilliance manifests as exorcism not only of, and for, the cauterizing of his own pain, but by pushing the boundaries of endurance through artistic expression, he shares his compassionate epiphany: We all need to break free from the shackles placed upon the individual by society, family, religion and gender. And possibly through the catharsis of performance, and ritual, we might finally be able to lay to rest the demons who’ve sent us in search of the respite only a knife or needle could at one time provide” 

AP Finally the audience is disposed neatly around the edge of the circle marked on the floor. An almost unconscious cathartic movement for what is about to happen. Athey enters the circle, now dressed in a long dark cloak and wearing a leather cap that recalls slightly those worn by Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin priest of the temple in “Jesus Christ Superstar”, or even certain proto-Renaissance depictions of Hermes Trismegistus.
If in the first part of the performance the artist’s body was a live sculptural tool to generate reflection and empathy, now Athey embodies the messenger, the prophet, or in a more laic way an artist accurately dressed in symbolic garments who carries a message, a story to be told, spoken by a man of truth. The monologue of “Our Lady of the Flowers” by Jean Genet re-written by Athey, in his mouth becomes the elegy to the divine itself. Moving inside the circle, forward and backward as if enraptured in a peripatetic walking meditation or a lucid dream-state, soon the monologue becomes likewise an epiphanic crescendo, while the two assistants, stomping over the circle, looming and each holding a kind of sceptre, strengthen the elegy with the same words spoken by Athey, whenever he utters, “Poor Divine”.
From the wounds in his face the blood continues to drop on the floor. Now Athey moves almost in a dance, his cloak floating in the air, his voice resonating—hoarse but firm. The monologue ends with a genuine, authentic laugh of liberation and acknowledgment.
After all, after having seeing this admirable live art piece, I wonder if our destiny, the destiny that unites us all, is that of beings looking for a centre somewhere in the world, or rather refusing any centre of a world that is not here, nor anywhere else, without escaping, never giving up to the end, like a Miura bull in the arena, as Ron does with his art.

LN The Egyptian mysticism via Alesteir Crowley and Kenneth Anger‘s film “Lucifer Rising” inspired the stage lighting and costuming in the performance. Additionally, the planchettes used by the assistant performers to draw and consecrate the circle in the final scene were handmade using reclaimed wood from Presbyterian Church tables by Yorkshire psychic, Peter Leckie. There is magic in theatre, and vice versa. In “Messianic Remains”, there are obvious theatrical tools used, even elements of Camp, and in this context give the work definition and a clear voice. In this sense, these echo the same uses of spectacle to bridge art and magic as employed by Anger and Crowley. Together with the visceral reality of the facial piercings and blood in the piece, the performance is a cohesive invocation—and something entirely and unmistakeably Athey.


AP What “Messianic Remains” has left me is that only the face of death may probably reveal what we called “enlightenment”, being it even a grandiose or elusive myth. When a man survives and begins to guard the doors of his senses, possessed of mindfulness and alertness, he can proceed through life bringing with him even only his barest necessities, the wealth of experience, and the acknowledgment of it.
“Messianic Remains” showed me that when man abandons the taking of life, he can abstain from the taking of life, and by abandoning the taking of what is not given, he can abstain from taking what is not given to accept only what is given: life not by stealth but by means of a self that has become pure, inwardly sensitive to the pleasure of being blameless.
Going forward and returning, looking toward and looking away, bending, extending, by feeling pleasure and not stress, even though across grief and pain, the mind, the spirit, the body become concentrated to permeate the entire being with a renovated bright awareness. Unblemished, free, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, the being directs and inclines itself to the realm of visions, the source of the creative life.

LN I recently looked through my copy of “Our Lady of the Flowers” to search for the lines Athey used in “Messianic Remains”. I found them scattered throughout like constellations—bright and bleeding stars embedded in the rich and ornate blackness of Genet’s writing. Athey explains that because of the style of Genet’s language and the complexity of the narrative, it didn’t translate well to read it directly from the page, and so was edited down for clarity and relevance to the ethos of the performance. There is power in brevity, and I read Athey’s translation as a consolidated eulogy acknowledging the past, present and future death of those he has loved and lost, as well as for himself.

Andrea Pagnes is a member of the performance and video art duo VestAndPage. Their projects include “FRAGILE – global performance chain journey” (2010), involving 750 artists from 63 countries, and the trilogy “SIN∞FIN THE MOVIE” (2010-2012) filmed in faraway location such as Antarctica, India, Kashmir, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. He is a regular contributor to Storie magazine since 2007. 

Lisa Newman is an American interdisciplinary artist, curator and writer. She began performing in 1995 while an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, and both her solo and collaborative work with Llewyn Maire have been exhibited in festivals, events and symposia across North America and Europe. With Maire she also co-directs the arts organization 2 Gyrlz Performative Arts, and has curated numerous exhibitions in the UK and US since 2000. She met Athey in Los Angeles in 2002 at Jamie McMurry’s Full Nelson festival of performance art, and has since produced his performances in the US and England. From 2012-2015, she worked with Athey as his manager and tour-booking agent.

Acknowledgements: Lydia Lunch for her words. Manuel Vason for his photographs.
Robert Pacitti, Pacitti Company and Spill Festival.


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