On ViewPARTICIPANT INC.
February 14 – April 4, 2021
The fact that the world has had to wait until 2021 to see a Ron Athey retrospective is a tragedy. A queer icon who indisputably helped shape the role of the body in performance art, Athey has only recently started to receive long-overdue art historical recognition. Many know him as a recurring figure in Catherine Opie’s portrait photographs, where the heavily tattooed artist usually appears engaging in some form of masochistic ritual. Yet these are frozen moments, and few platforms have been provided for viewers to engage with the complexities of Athey’s body in truly performative motion. This is largely, if not entirely, due to censorship the artist has faced since 1994, when he was accused of spilling HIV-infected blood on the audience attending his performance 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life at Patrick’s Cabaret in Minneapolis, an event partially sponsored by the Walker Art Center using NEA funds—Athey staged a live-streamed re-iteration of this performance on February 16th in conjunction with the exhibition currently on view at Participant Inc.
The original performance featured Athey making small incisions on Daryl Carlton’s (aka Divinity Fudge) back, then absorbing the blood with pieces of paper towels to create intricate drawings, which he then hoisted into the air. The inaccurate claim that the audience was exposed to AIDS infection, made by a reporter who didn’t even stick around for the full performance, exposed both the homophobic paranoia often associated with queer blood and the public’s blatant ignorance as to how HIV is transmitted. Conservative politicians such as Jesse Helms seized this juicy opportunity to target Athey, labeling him as representative of a corruptive threat the queer community posed against the heteronormative nuclear family. This unsurprisingly made it difficult for the artist to receive any institutional support for his work going forward. Yet it did not stop Athey from remaining dedicated to his practice, and the exhibition at Participant Inc. is a testament to his commitment and devotion.
Curated by art historian and performance studies professor Amelia Jones, Queer Communion offers a scholarly approach to exhibition making and excels in highlighting archival materials as art objects worthy of aesthetic consideration. Spanning from the late 1970s to the present, the exhibition is divided into five sections: Religion/Family, Music/Clubs, Literature/Tattoo/BDSM, Art/Performance/Politics, and New Work/Community. These “zones,” as they are described in the press release, refer to the different communities that Athey has been part of throughout his life. Starting with his upbringing in an extreme Pentecostal family, Athey moved through various underground and alternative subcultures as he explored his queer identity, but his practice always remained underpinned by his religious background, the iconography of which is often manifested in his work. At Participant Inc., rare video footage of key performances is juxtaposed with photographic documentation, sketches, and writings, as well as striking performance props that take on a sculptural quality in the exhibition space. A yellow-red religious dress designed by Susan Matheson for Athey’s 2002 performance Joyce hangs on the wall at the beginning of the exhibition with arms wide open, like a cross welcoming the audience into a church. On the left wall, three beautifully adorned crowns rest on shelves—these were worn by Athey and his performance collaborators, and recall Arch Connelly’s pearl objects. These garments speak to the important and underestimated role that masquerade plays in Athey’s practice. Several vitrines in the exhibition hold precious sketches, photographs, and writings. Most noteworthy perhaps, are excerpts from Rozz Williams’s diary, the vocalist of Christian Death and Athey’s first boyfriend. Williams’s rather disturbing written accounts of his journey with Athey read like hallucinatory passages from a dystopian novel. An austere reconstruction of a Judas Cradle, a medieval torture device that Athey has utilized in various performances, functions as the centerpiece of the exhibition. The structure makes one consider the body as porous, something that can both be invaded and expel, a vessel capable of absorbing and leaking, shrinking or expanding.
When I meet Athey on opening day, I want to ask him: “Does it hurt?” But instead I get flustered and murmur something inconsequential. It seems like a silly question to ask. We’re queer, of course it hurts. As Heather Love once wrote: “For groups constituted by historical injury, the challenge is to engage with the past without being destroyed by it.”1 I have always viewed Athey’s work as doing exactly that: engaging with acts of bodily injury, without being undone by them. Staging the queer body in crisis, Athey practices the shattering of self without ever actually breaking. His work negates the strict binary between ecstasy and suffering, and can as easily evoke disgust as tenderness, depending on the audience. While Athey’s work is often discussed in the context of the culture wars and the AIDS crisis, it deserves art historical consideration beyond contemporary shock factor. Deeply informed by Surrealism and writers such as Georges Bataille, Athey builds on a longer tradition that conflates pleasure and pain, desire and disgust, and sex and death—all of which, of course, took on new meaning during the AIDS crisis.
Queer Communion provides an intimate portrait of a life lived in devotion to queer rituals that are easily dismissed as filthy or deviant by anyone not willing to consider why Athey’s work arouses this kind of response. Despite censorship, Athey has thrived, and established a solid cult following in the queer art community. When I was teaching a seminar on “Art of the AIDS Crisis” at Cooper Union in the fall of 2018, I was pleasantly surprised that many of my queer students knew more about Athey than, for example, Peter Hujar or Paul Thek. Towards the end of the exhibition, we encounter a digital slideshow of Athey posing with various friends, many of the images plucked directly from his social media accounts. Jones herself appears in a number of photographs, demonstrating that the curatorial project can be a gesture of friendship and mutual interest as much as a purely scholarly endeavor.
- Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard University Press: 2009), p. 1