Staged to coincide with Glasgay! 2014, I recently chaired a public conversation with the internationally renowned performance artist Ron Athey. My research centres on the intersection of contemporary performance and queer theory, and I’m currently working on a monograph on the cultural politics of solo performance – so I was eager to take the opportunity to talk with Ron, in public, about his work. Ron has been a key figure in the development of performance and visual art since the early 1990s, producing performances that have provoked, challenged, and, I think, seduced audiences. Engaging with questions of sexuality, faith, ritual, history and outsider culture, Ron’s art practice often refuses an easy distinction between pleasure and pain, offering a body of work that invites us to think about the materiality of our own lives. It may be relational work in the truest sense. In a 2008 article titled ‘Blood Work and Art Criminals’, Jennifer Doyle suggested ‘People are anxious about what is going to ‘happen’ at an Athey performance – not to him, but to them’. Through taboo-testing works including the Torture Trilogy (1992-5), Solar Anus (1998), Judas Cradle (2005) and the ongoing Self-Obliteration solos (2008-), Ron’s work invites us to think about fragile persistence of the human body.
Centred on his Incorruptible Flesh sequence – begun at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts in 1996 – our conversation explored the collaborations and contexts of his work. One of the challenges of talking about Ron’s work is the incredibly rich history of art, history and performance that runs through it. Though many of the audience had seen his performance Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains at the Arches earlier in the week, few of us had experienced his earlier works first hand. Our solution was to talk about Ron’s work through its documentation alongside imagery and texts which had informed its development – most strikingly, the ‘Egyptology’ of Messianic Remains. Luckily for me, Ron is also a natural conversationalist who has written beautifully and insightfully about his own work.
One of the ideas that we explored together was the ‘post-AIDS’ body, a phrase that Ron began using before the development of combination drug therapies in the late 1990s which – in developed and wealthy nations – have led HIV to become a chronic condition in which progression to AIDS has become increasingly rare. Rather than describing a moment somehow ‘after’ AIDS, Ron articulated the desire to challenge dominant narratives of people living with AIDS as either virtuous or guilty – in his terms, ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls’. Through discussion of the development of the Incorruptible Flesh sequence, then, we explored how Ron’s interest in the cultural meaning of HIV was part of a larger project exploring the terms of the ‘sovereign body’ and its limits.
For more on Ron’s work, see the recently released Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey, edited by Dominic Johnson and published by intellect with the Live Art Development Agency.
Written By: Stephen Greer, Lecturer in Theatre Practices