LOS ANGELES — Twenty years after his Walker Art Center–sponsored performance at a Minneapolis cabaret, Ron Athey has come a long way from art world pariah to celebrated performance artist. The political outrage in 1994 against Athey’s extreme body-based performance is well-documented as one of many battles waged by the conservative right against the arts. A recent performance at the Hammer Museum of Athey’s “Sebastiane” elicited a markedly different response, although the fact that it took 20 years for an American museum to stage a piece by Athey betrays the extent of the institutional fear wrought by the culture wars.
“Sebastiane” is a section of Athey’s Martyrs and Saints (1992) and a piece he has revisited many times over the years. It reenacts the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, who survived execution by the Roman emperor’s archers, was nursed back to health by St. Irene of Rome, and suffered a second and final execution by the emperor. Renaissance painters began the tradition of depicting the saint as a handsome youth, a beautiful body pierced through with arrows. During the 19th and 20th centuries, artists further embraced Sebastian as a gay icon.
The latest performance of “Sebastiane” was emotionally charged by the history of Athey’s practice and the physical health of Athey’s body. HIV-positive in a “post-AIDS” world, Athey has suffered many losses of friends and colleagues to AIDS, although he himself is whom doctors call an “elite controller,” someone who keeps the virus at bay without the use of drugs. Athey’s survival of the disease and his continued practice of very physically demanding performance make Sebastian all the more germane as the patron saint of plagues and athletes.
As a ritual of the sacred and profane, the performance began with a drum procession led by Athey’s collaborators Jon John, Sage Charles, and Divinity Fudge. Half-naked in nun habits, they weaved through the museum courtyard and guided the audience to an annex where Athey was tied to a post on a raised platform, his face beguiling and defiant under a crown of needles. The drumming by Sage Charles and musical accompaniment by producer David Harrow swelled and waned to the actions on stage.
Jon John climbed up the platform to pierce arrows through Athey’s body—here, the screams of pain, whether performed or real, jarred me into full attention. The screams turned into meditative prayer as Athey began speaking in tongues, an ability he maintained from his childhood growing up in a family of Pentecostals. The peculiar speech and his trancelike state seemed to create a world outside of the stage, annex, or museum.
Watching Athey was an exercise in bodily empathy taken to its extremes, with blood dripping from his forehead, arrows penetrating his flesh, his genitals swollen and filled with fluid as to render the rest of his body sexless or gender-neutral. Amidst all of the pain, the performance contained moments of tenderness, with the bejeweled and sparkling Divinity Fudge, in the role of St. Zoe, rubbing lotion on Athey and Jon John, as St. Irene, nursing his wounds with white cloth.
After descending the platform, Athey lay on his back as the others cut pieces of the blood-soaked cloth and placed them inside tiny frames to be passed out to select audience members as reliquaries. Cutting through the harsh scenes of bodily pain and bloodletting, the performers then stood up on stage and bowed to an appreciative audience, although some were likely perplexed or shaken by the spectacle.
Subjecting his body to extremes, Athey offers himself as a living sacrament, a body positioned between life and death, vigor and illness. The wounds on his face and torso are plainly visible as he performs the miracle of resurrection, recovery, and resilience. With each successive piece, Athey’s body repeats the sacrament of the body’s impalement and renewal.
In the nearby gallery, the Hammer’s Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology features a piece by another artist who performs a similar act of bodily renewal. Félix González-Torres’ “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” (1991) is a mound of cellophane-wrapped candy that approximates the weight of the artist’s partner Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS. Museum visitors are welcome to take a piece of candy as a form of communion; as the supply diminishes, so does the weight of the pile. Laycock’s body, represented by the pile of candy, is renewed when the candy is replenished. It is a portrait that signifies the possibility of life after death, after AIDS.
After the performance, John Killacky, curator of the Walker Art Center from 1988 to 1996, presented a lecture recounting the nineties and the artists embattled by the conservative right. Bookending his time at the Walker were the years in which grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) were at their peak ($8.4 million in 1989) and at their terminus. In 1990, the federal government withdrew grant funding from the NEA Four, comprising artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller, for works not complying with decency standards.
“By 95, Reza Abdoh died of AIDS, and that was the last year grants were given to individual artists by the NEA. They still have literature, jazz, and folk arts, but all the others, they dropped. So in a way, art, love, and politics collapsed, and what I think was an extraordinary epic was over,” Killacky said.
The period comprising the culture wars also emboldened many artists to challenge the institutions that sought to censor them. “Artists were very angry; artists were very afraid. There was a very politicized, sexualized fierceness that was happening. At that time, there was hysteria—around body fluids. The more people were afraid, the more people pushed, as artists do.”
More startling to Killacky than the antagonism of conservative opponents were the silence and complicity of fellow institutions. Recalling the Athey controversy at the Walker, Killacky said, “What was amazing about when we were involved with the Athey issues: Not one museum director in this country called Kathy Halbreich, the director, to show support. Not one. I saw the same thing play out with a lot of the other controversies. Very few museums support each other. Around Serrano, around Mapplethorpe, around Witkin or Feeley, so many directors and boards ran for cover until it was their museum.”
Assessing the effects of institutional inaction, Killacky said, “I think the art world got tricked up and confused, supporting only things we like… We in the art world were not very clear about our moral imperative around freedom of expression. When I think about it, nobody won that culture war. But we lost it… Last year, the NEA Four were in residence at the New Museum in New York… I’ve been thinking about why is it now—Are the body fluids dry enough? Is the blood purged enough?—that 20 years later, suddenly people are looking back at these artists?”
Ron Athey performed at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles) on March 13 at 7:30 pm.
Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology continues at the Hammer Museum through May 18.
Correction, 3/21: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that Ron Athey’s controversial 1994 performance took place at the Walker Art Center.