In the first four years of studying body-based performance, I had not had the chance to engage directly with Ron Athey’s live performance work. Of course, the stories, images and analyses associated with his performances helped to shape my understanding of him in relation to the lineage of male body-based practitioners I was studying. For, as Tim Etchells notes in his chapter in Pleading the Blood, Athey’s ‘material unfolding provides the spot from which account in all forms – rumours, stories, anecdotes, lay speculations, as well as academic theorisations – will proceed’ (Etchells, 2013, p. 226).
Even in absentia then I found the heteroglossic narratives of Athey’s performances to be well suited to discussions around the theme of identity in body-based performance art. Furthermore the usefulness of these discussions allowed me to conclude that his endurance of the abject destabilised representations of masculinity, but at the same time reinscribed the coherence of normative masculine traits, behaviours and characteristics into the performance space.
The absence of Athey’s corporality was halted though in November 2014 where on the last night of SPILL Festival I was stood in the foyer of Ipswich Town Hall waiting to see Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains (2014). Eager to see the work I arrived forty-five minutes early and stood at the bottom of the stair well against a red rope that stopped me from climbing the stairs and prematurely entering the space.
As the foyer slowly started to swell with bodies, tension began to resonate in mine, I felt nervous and sick with the images that I had seen, the stories that I had heard and the analyses that I had made of his work. I was fraught with concern, what would happen if I fainted, what happens if there is so much blood that the smell of iron becomes overwhelming? What happens if I become sick at the violence depicted in the work? As the rope was released and I made my way up the stairs that fuzzy feeling threatened to take more of my body over.
On entering the space I immediately chose not to ascend the stairs on to the stage where Athey lay on a metal table in quasi-ritualistic clothing, a plastic mask pinned to his face, and a beard, similar to those found on statues of Pharaohs, pinned to his chin. I chose to remove myself from the same space where he lay with a baseball bat hanging below the table and jutting out of his anus.
Instead I chose to sit on the raked seating some distance away from the stage watching the majority of the audience queue up to rub, what I assumed to be lubricant, over his body. Like the foyer downstairs the stage began to swell as more and more participants gathered around him, caressing, touching and rubbing his body. Struggling to find a position some simply touched his foot. No one though made this a fleeting moment, no one walked up, touched and left, at least from what I remember, instead people took their time. Most simply allowed time for a connection to be made.
At some point during this first section of the performance, it occurred to me that I had stopped thinking of Athey as a person, for me in that moment he had become an object, something to be touched and admired, like precious metal. In an interview with Dominic Johnson, Athey states that the performances that he creates are not about shocking his audience, rather they are about enacting a sense of generosity (Athey & Johnson, 2015). Amelia Jones echoes this sentiment when she notes that Athey’s work ‘opens up circuits of intersubjective identification and desire that are fundamentally social and thus potentially political (Jones, 2013, p. 152). She goes onto note, in reference to Solar Anus (2006), that his art can be seen as potentially socially transformative.
‘This transformation is not mystical. To the contrary it is textured, tied to embodiment that is brute and immanent, and highly politicized. Performing his own tattooed ‘solar anus in public – and as an orifice rather than as a sealed or completed fetish or picture of the body – is Athey’s way of using the frame of the aesthetic to pull us back into social/erotic relation with one another’ (Jones, 2013, p. 157).
It occurred to me whilst in the presence of Athey’s corporeality that he does endure the abject, but not to secure the coherence of masculinity as I have previously ascertained from the safety of my books. In her chapter Visions of Xs: experiencing La dels Baus's XXX and Ron Athey's Solar Anus, Roberta Mock suggests that works such as Athey's and La dels Baus's have been interpreted based on critics assumptions rather than signposts erected by the company (Mock, 2010: 190). In hindsight my reading of Athey's work as being indicative of muscular masculinity did just this and reveals more about me than it does about the work itself. It is me, and not Athey, that feels the need to endure the abject for the sake of a coherent identity. It is me, and not Athey, that was I and not not-I.
Instead Athey endures the abject as a way of facing the free play of signification at the margins and in doing so he removes the mastery of meaning and undermines the security of categorisation (Etchells, 2013). His work then ‘exists in the fraught twin spaces of the theatrical/factual, imaginary/actual, the body/fantastical [...]’ (Etchells, 2013, pp. 227–230). As such he is not subject, but also not not-subject, and therefore we might see Athey’s endurance of the abject as a self-obliteration.
Yet to completely destroy one’s identity and become object is to reinscribe binary opposition, self-obliteration then is not a metaphor for destroying the ego, it is a suspended state (Athey & Johnson, 2015, p. 210). Athey’s endured performances of the abject are generous then because they are deep and intimate, they are 'performed on behalf of himself, on my behalf, on behalf of everyone present' (Mock, 2010: 197). In doing this his performances create a deep dilemma through the construction of ambiguity, that in turn gives way to questions about how social laws, constructed for the sake of normativity, violently suppress one’s agency over their body. Furthermore, they are a calling to abandon convention, emotional safeguarding, and complacency (Athey & Johnson, 2015, p. 209). In short they are acts that bring the body back into the discourse of politics.
Athey, R. & Johnson, D. (2015) Perverse Martyrologies: An Interview with Ron Athey. In: Johnson, D. ed. The Art of Living: An Oral History of Performance Art. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 195–218.
Etchells, T. (2013) By Word of Mouth: Ron Athey’s Self-Obliteration. In: Johnson, D. ed. Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey. London and Bristol: Live Art Development Agency, pp. 226–233.
Jones, A. (2013) How Ron Athey Makes Me Feel: The Political Potential of Upsetting Art. In: Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey. London and Bristol: Intellect and Live Art Development Agency, pp. 152–179.
Mock, R. (2010) visions of Xs: experiencing La Furs dels Baus's XXX and Ron Athey's Solar Anus. In: Gritzner, K (ed) Eroticism and Death in Theatre and Performance. Hertfordshire, University of Hertfordshrire Press, pp. 178-201