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THE ART ISSUE

Ron Athey

In extremis and in my life

January 28, 2007|Kateri Butler | Kateri Butler has written for Details and L'Uono Vogue.

Petty crime and short jail stints followed. Friends he was using with were going to prison for armed robberies. And he was never going to get as high as he wanted to be with low-paying jobs. He was tired. He could see the trap. It took time, but he kicked in 1986. There's a kind of psychic hole here, from 1986 to 1990, which was just about recovery.

And then, a club with an unprintable name. "It's cheesy, but go-go dancing at [the club] brought me out of my skin. That's the launch into the performance that I do now. It's still on this trajectory that started in [the club] when I was wearing military boots and a codpiece."

The club brought together a group of people who had been getting tattooed and pierced over the past decade and were ready to show it off. A gathering of modern primitives, a celebration of body modification.

"I think a lot of why I did Premature Ejaculation was the energy of the scene--a real scene that was completely transformative, a scene that changed who you were by being in it. [The club] was another scene like that. It doesn't happen that often, a scene that deeply affects everyone who's involved."

A cashmere coat discovered in a thrift shop in Italy. Helmut Lang shirts. Clear vinyl hot pants--for day! Always the right outfit for the occasion. Dialed into style. A fashion dish, that's Ron.

A poster boy for bullshit. That's how Ron describes his part in the aftermath of a 1994 performance of "Four Scenes In a Harsh Life" at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Catapulted into the heart of the culture wars. Denounced from the floor of the U.S. Senate. Blacklisted by the art world. All over the "Human Printing Press" scene--in which Ron cut the back of Darryl Carlton (a.k.a. Divinity Fudge) and made impressions of the wound on paper towels, which were then sent by a clothesline pulley out over the audience. It was erroneously reported, by a writer who had not attended the performance, that the audience had been exposed to HIV-positive blood. (Ron has lived with HIV for the past 20 years; Carlton is not positive.) And with that, the religious right was off and fulminating, and the media dutifully fanning the flames. Because $150 from the National Endowment for the Arts had been used in support of the performance via the Walker Art Center, Ron found himself defending a concept--public funding--that he didn't really even understand, never having then or to this day applied for a public grant in the United States.

"To have to become a spokesmodel for this was a weird role to take on. Being primed by the NEA and the Walker about what to say to the media, who to talk to, who not." And he was conflicted. If venues were willing to stop programming work that might be considered problematic to keep their NEA funding, then maybe they should lose that funding. But he talked the party line. Not that it mattered. For years the only art spaces in this country willing to give him a show were in L.A. and New York. And at New York's P.S. 122 that turned into what Ron calls pay-to-play. He ended up losing a few thousand dollars after a five-night sold-out run of "Four Scenes." Worst of all were the freeloading media. "There'd be 35 people from the press on the list and I'd think, why do I have to pay for them to come see it? It was as if I was on trial and was going to have to pay for my exhibit."

But he didn't go up in smoke. He had a relationship with the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and that opened up Europe. France, Germany, Holland, Croatia, Portugal, Italy, Slovenia. European audiences continue to see performances that Angeleno audiences don't. "L.A.," Ron says, "doesn't invest in me." (In fact, his local performances have never been reviewed by this paper.) But over there, his works are fully produced, he dines with ministers of culture, he's asked for autographs like a rock star while walking down the street. "You can't be at the same level everywhere," he says. "I think that was really what made me not eat up in bitterness after the NEA thing."

Ron is one of those people who has many circles of friends--around town, around the world, overlapping and never-mets. Show up at one of his parties, back when you could still find parking near his house, and you might find yourself chipping-and-dipping with costume designer Susan Matheson, actors Juan Fernandez or Udo Kier, writer Lisa Teasley, composer David Harrow, artist Skot Armstrong. Professors and film programmers, divas and curators, musicians and tattoo artists, and almost always a visitor from abroad. Maybe artist Cyril Kuhn's mom, Rosina, from Switzerland. His Grand Guignol trilogy--"Martyrs & Saints," "Four Scenes In a Harsh Life," "Deliverance"--often featured more than a dozen performers onstage, friends conversant with extreme body play. After all, it wasn't like he could hold a casting call.

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