To describe a performance by Ron Athey is, at least in part, to sensationalize it. Double-headed dildos, "castration" by tuck with surgical staples, a crown of steel thorns, suspension by hooks through the back, a baseball bat. Blood flows. But a sacredness infuses. Ritual. Exorcism. Taboo. Transcendence. The body invaded. The body politic. AIDS, homophobia, addiction. Religious fanaticism, identity, oppression. Scenes from a harsh life. Pain as transformation, as a way to an altered state.
He's not necessarily trying to shock anyone, but of course he does. What you see, how you react, depends on your own experiences. I've seen people faint and vomit at his shows, I've seen people weep with recognition, I've seen people walk out. The artist's body chemistry changes, the audience's chemistry changes. Watching the unwatchable. You can't be jaded. It's real pain. Yet there's beauty shining out of the horror. And hope. There's love.
Joyous day. I show up at Ron's and he has the massage table out. Ron lives in one of those Silver Lake treehouses, a tucked-away bungalow in a small complex with a storied past. In the 1980s, just next door, artist Lari Pittman was shot by a startled intruder. Of course, property values have increased considerably since then.
Ron has magic hands, strong, healing, intuitive. He's got me through more than one deadline. And life-giving hands, earth-transforming hands, coaxing a lush garden of Vietnamese and Japanese grasses from inhospitable soil.
Part of what defines Ron as a performer is his willingness to give: "I believe in generosity in performance." And that's part of what defines him as a friend. His tattoo-tough exterior belies a tender heart. "It hurt my feelings," he will sometimes say about a mean thing someone has done--and not necessarily to him. He's "Daddy" to many of his friends.
Gracious and charming. Manners any mom would praise. And so sensitive, eyes clear but heart open. His laugh, an impish chuckle. Cigarettes and gossip. Fashion. Bitch sessions. Lunches. This is the Ron I've known for almost 20 years.
He was raised with the calling, "a little prophet angel of doom." He would be a minister--more than a regular minister, a John the Baptist. Even showed signs of being an ecstatic at a tender age, started speaking in tongues when he was 9 or 10 at Sister Crow's service, feeling a vibration in his mouth, a yearning to pull the spirit down into the room. The spirit. He believed in it, loved the faith-healing, the shamanism. The entertainment.
His mother was mostly institutionalized, a schizophrenic. She divorced his father, a career Navy man, when Ron was still a baby. So he and his brother and two sisters lived with his grandmother, grandfather and aunt in a three-bedroom tract house in Pomona--somewhere around the intersection of Flannery O'Connor and J.T. LeRoy (a.k.a. Laura Albert). There were four generations of Pentecostal women on his grandmother's side. And there were family prophecies. The main one held that his aunt would bear the second coming of Christ through immaculate conception, then marry Elvis Presley and have twins. He stayed on this path of righteousness until he was about 15. Elvis died. None of the prophecies had come true. And he was starting to make friends, get socialized, get sexualized. And there was the meanness of the tent preachers, the storefront evangelicals, their envy of the big TV ministers, their epiphanies that Oral Roberts was the antichrist, or Billy Graham was. Suddenly he had nothing to pray to.
Ron is fearless in his work. The only true darkness is that which comes out of the hidden and misunderstood. He doesn't flinch. Oh, but I do. Especially when I see him the day after a performance, blotches of yellow and purple where hooks had pulled his face into a garish mask, or barely formed scabs where he had cut himself. I admit I'm one of those people who shivers and turns away during such scenes--yet one of the most powerful parts of a Ron Athey performance is the collective physical reaction that sizzles through the audience when he impales himself on a Judas cradle, say, or teases a rope of pearls out of his ass. Which is critically acclaimed, by the way. "Ron Athey's asshole," Amelia Jones declares in the spring issue of TDR: The Drama Review, "has its own place in the history of contemporary performance art."
Let us discuss said anatomy briefly. I--like you, no doubt--never expected to exalt over someone's asshole. And yet after watching "The Solar Anus" performed at Action=Space downtown in 1998--in which Ron channeled a creature out of Bataille and Molinier and rumors of Dietrich--I burbled with wonder upon gazing at Ron's sunburst-tattooed anus. Revelatory, I swear, but I couldn't tell you exactly why. A kind of abject intimacy, a provocative happiness. And a weird realness.