Studio Visit: Ron Athey, Undoing the Morbid Body of Christian Guilt

Studio visit with Ron Athey. Photo credit: Gary Brewer.

Studio Visit: Ron Athey, Undoing the Morbid Body of Christian Guilt

By Gary Brewer

“…I am nothing but love all my branches burn if I darken the day then the shadow recoils within me…” -Jean Genet, Funeral March


Dionysian pleasure – a world freed from the sins of the father – awakening in the poetic rapture of the body in extremis. Epiphanies arise from the trickster transforming the universe; a rupture in the flesh becomes a channel to give birth to new worlds. Tantric practices of sex magic in which the moment of arousal and orgasm create an opening through which the transubstantiation of the spirit and the flesh arise. Eros the world begetter, giving form to the formless. We live in a world where our shopworn actions can be spirit numbing; it is through ritual celebrations of the body exulting in ecstatic states – both extreme and joyful, that we can shed the histories that have demonized physical pleasure.

Ron Athey uses performance: his body, automatic writing, hypnosis and other forms of Art to explore ways to redeem our wholeness of being and to release the world from the history of guilt. In many of his theatrical performances, the power of shock is displayed as he is pierced with needles and uses other forms of extreme endurance and rituals to achieve altered states of consciousness in order to penetrate and affect the audience.

It was a family prophecy that Ron Athey would become a Pentecostal Pastor. Raised in Pomona by his conservative religious grandparents, his early life was filled with euphoric epiphanies of the Holy Spirit channeling itself through his body – falling to the floor in an ecstatic state and speaking in tongues. The Pentecostal congregation would use the body and its bile as a conduit to preach and experience the rapture of God. For those resisting the spirit, vomiting would be a consequence and a form of purification.

At the age of 18, Ron left the Church and his family to explore and experience another form of rapture in the punk music and gay scene of Los Angeles and the OC in the 1980’s. There was something in the Dionysian intensity that married these experiences back into the world that he grew up in. It was the writers William Burroughs, Jean Genet and Georges Battaille that would awaken the world of sex magic and would help shape his artistic expression. “I was drawn to finding a way to express myself that reflected the religious intensity that I grew up within. I would watch early television evangelical preachers, Katherine Kuhlman and others. I was drawn to the power of their sermons, speaking with a fiery righteous rage; it was the theatrical intensity that affected me and helped shape my form of performance art.”

As we talked, we sat in his home/studio surrounded by his library and works of art by friends. We spoke about the history of performance art and of mutual friends who come out of the same world of ritual and magic; Carolee Schneemann, Genesis P-Orridge, and Kembra Pfahler. Ron has upcoming performances in the Posthuman Series at Performance Space in New York and at Biosphere 2 in Arizona. He was just able to fit me in between other interviews and appointments. His history in the world of performance is a long and rich one that has spawned a genre of art as a form of magic and transformation. Ron and Nacho Nava recently created an experimental theater piece, Dolores: Our Lady of the 7 Sorrows, at the Vortex, an industrial warehouse in DTLA. There were powerful performances by several artists; MisSa Blue, San Cha, Little Annie, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Arishia Fatima Haq and Austyn Rich. The crowd was young and they were completely entranced by the performance-art-ritual.

Ron has an encyclopedic knowledge of arcane religious histories that fuel his deconstruction of religious guilt and his quest to replace it with the pleasure principle. It is in part the writings of Nietzsche and the mythic narratives of Dionysus – the God of Wine, ritual madness, religious ecstasy and theatre that inspires and informs his work. He said of his performances, “They are poetry, theater and ritual celebration. I am seeking a form of enlightenment in these performances, and in that pursuit to have the audience experience it with me. I am trying to undo the morbid body of Christian guilt that affects our world.”

I asked him about the piercing of his body in his performance Sebastiane, which I saw at the Hammer Museum a few years ago. I was curious if he felt pain and how he overcame it, and if this practice was connected to ideas from Eastern traditions of the fakirs, who expressed religious faith through the mortification of the flesh, and the transcendence over the body with spirit. He said of this, “ There is a connection to many religious practices in which transcending pain is an expression of spirit overcoming the flesh, and pain as a form of purification. Pain is something you can put into a corner, you can find a space for it to exist.”

2014 performance of Sebastiane by Ron Athey at the Hammer, photo by Barbara Katz; courtesy of the Hammer Museum.

The performance of Sebatiane was a powerful experience. Ron was tied to a post on an elevated stage, his body expressing a posture of surrender and acceptance to forces both spiritual and historical – Saint Sebastian yielding to his martyrdom. The image of Saint Sebastian is a highly eroticized work of art from the Middle Ages to the present. The writer Yukio Mishima created a series of homoerotic images of himself photographed as Saint Sebastian. Ron has used this ecstatic image in performance before, presenting the sexualized pain of the body willfully embracing torture as a form of transformation and rebirth into a new and eternal life. During the performance of Sebastiane the pace was slow and deliberate, the movements and actions of the performers are carefully choreographed. It had the ritualized cadence of a passion play or the Orphic Mysteries. Each time a needle was pieced through his flesh, a shudder went through Ron’s body, his eyes lifting upwards in rapture and supplication to the sacrifice of the flesh for spiritual renewal. There was a rapt attention in the audience as we witnessed this spectacle of endurance and pain. The experience was transformed into metaphor and poetry. The artist’s state of consciousness became the material aspect of his art that entered our consciousness through psychic and physical empathy; the audience was deeply affected from engaging with his experience. “In my work I want to experience a state of freedom and I want my audience to experience it with me.”

In Ron’s performances there is a mytho-erotic aspect; in the violence done to his body by piercing, we wince in response. The intensity of this spectacle is a form of psychic penetration. The work does not exist passively as an object like a sculpture or a painting, where you can choose to look at or not. Ron’s ritual performances hold you in their spell or send you running, unwilling to participate and be witness to the spectacle. He is the lover and we are his brides; the Dionysian coupling of consciousness as a sexual act; it is sex-magic as metaphor and action, and to take part in it is to be taken.

Art is erotic. It is a force that penetrates our psychic sphere. We want to be moved and affected. To be shaken to our core through a catharsis or a state of rapturous joy, and experience a form of renewal. It is a form of magic in which the artist transforms matter to become a vehicle in which our subjective universe is connected to another, and through which we experience the deep currents of metaphor and myth, the ancient archetypes that shape and inform our consciousness.

Ron Athey is an artist whose early life experiences shaped his work. From the prophecy that he would become a Pentecostal preacher and the ecstatic states of speaking in tongues, to the transformation of these into Dionysian ritual is a history of birth, death and renewal. His journey as an artist is an expression of the currents of ancient thought that flow through our veins; the blood of the Minotaur mixed with the blood of the martyred saints. His art is a form of sermon, it is ritual and celebration to transform the world and reunite our spirituality to the body and to Dionysian pleasure principle as and act of rebirth and liberation.

Upcoming performances, “Sacred Conspiracy” at Performance Space in NYC, NY November 14-17, 2018

Cyclic: New Performance by Cassils, Ron Athey, and Arshia Haq in “Lung” Biosphere 2, December 1st, Tuson, Arizona


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