Ron Athey: The masochist who puts writers under his spell

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The performance artist's recital of his memoirs will be most unusual, says Matilda Battersby

American performance artist Ron Athey is famous for masochism. It is impossible to describe his work without it sounding sensationalist. He pierces himself with spikes and needles, cuts himself with scalpels, allowing blood to spurt wildly forth from his head. He quite literally rubs his open wounds with salt.  Not having braved an Athey performance myself, but having read the reviews, it is clear that his terrifying self-violence is so compelling that the audience doesn’t cover their eyes from the spectacle, as you might expect, but are transfixed.

It is this talent for finding the borderline between horror and desire, harnessing the fear/curiosity paradox and our innate morbidity, which characterises Athey’s art. It is an ability borne out of the contrast in his own life: a polarisation of strict fundamentalist childhood and reckless abandon in adulthood.  He is a striking individual in many ways. When he arrives at The Independent’s offices for this interview the receptionist whispers to me: “Your guest is the man over there. The one covered in tattoos with the teardrop drawn under his eye.” At 50 he has the energy of a much younger man, talking quickly, full of gesture, his eyes a magnetic pale blue.

Athey was born in 1961 into a “Southern Fried gospel” Pentecostal household, where speaking in tongues and falling into ecstatic raptures was normal. Within his community he was hailed as a child born under a prophecy. When he shed ecstatic tears they were passed out on rags in church and venerated as blessings. As a small boy the spirit entered his mouth, a phenomenon known as glossolalia, and he spoke in tongues – which, you could say, gave him his first audience.

If the congregation who afforded him such high status had known then that two decades later Athey would be one of America’s most controversial artists, they would probably have been horrified. In 1994 he achieved widespread notoriety after a Los Angeles newspaper published a story claiming (quite wrongly) that audience members had been exposed to HIV-infected blood during one of his performances at a Minnesota cabaret. Athey, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, became embroiled in the debate at a time when AIDS paranoia was at its height. Small ‘c’ conservatives used the drama as an excuse to petition against the use of federal funds to support artwork with “gay” content. Although only some $150 from the National Endowment for the Arts had been used to support this particular performance by Athey, his name was often invoked as a criticism of the NEA.

The terrible burden of having been diagnosed with HIV as a 26-year-old, but having lived nearly the same amount of life since then, informs his latest work. The despair of being “a living corpse”, diagnosed at a time when there was no treatment and people were dying everywhere, manifests in his artistic abuse of his body. “I just turned 50.  It’s like a cruel joke,” he says, laughing gruffly. “Suddenly I’m an old man and I thought I was going to die when I was in my twenties.”

Due to perform at Birmingham’s Fierce Festival this Saturday, his next piece is something of a departure for Athey. It is called Gifts of the Spirit: Automatic Writing and will be a “séance machine” made up of 30 people. The Old Science Museum, a cavernous warehouse space, will be taken over by Athey for the event. Two huge bolts of paper will be unfurled in a cross shape on the floor with writers scattered at either end, pens poised. Down the sides there will be rows of typists on old fashioned manual typewriters who will write up and edit what is being scrawled on the paper. Athey will sit at the séance table, with a hypnotist and other “readers”, and will recite extracts from his memoirs to the waiting scribes, all of whom have been hypnotised.

Athey wrote his memoirs at 18. Few people have had interesting enough lives to write about them at such a tender age, but Athey had. He became socialised at 15 after living in extreme, familial isolation. His new friends’ bewilderment to the “insane stories” of his grandmother talking in “God’s voice” and his own glossolalia, led to the loss of his faith. “I wasn’t a dumb child, I had suspicions,” he says. “But when suddenly I had a witness to my insanity the glass shattered on the spot.” He waited out the two years before he could escape the fold.  But having done so, it suddenly became important to Athey to write everything down.

“My memoir was problem solving. It had a question, which was: If there’s a prophecy on your life and you’re an atheist - and there are elements of this which are true, but the source, the God of it, dissolves - is it all false? Does it all go away?” he says. “At that age I would still become glossolaliac if I got very excited. The spirit language comes back into my mouth sometimes still. But where does it come from?”

Athey’s séance idea takes the one psychic gift associated with Evangelism that he struggled with as a child and uses it to digest his own experiences. “At first the writers are focused entirely on the memoirs that I’m reading to them. But suddenly something unhinges them. Anything can happen: some start drawing, others go ambidextrous and start writing with both hands. The results are quite different depending on a person’s suggestibility [...] With hindsight I can see what I'm doing: I'm dissolving my memoir by running it through a collective unconscious.”

Automatic writing is not something you hear about very often. When I suggest to Athey that although it was embraced by hippies in the seventies it has since been largely forgotten, he laughs. “Oh no, you said the H word! Hippie, ha! That’s my California complex,” he says, still giggling. “I don’t believe that dead spirits are working through the writers. Although I wouldn't discourage them from making it an entry point.”

I enquire as to how his Pentecostal family feel about the séance. “I’m not very family connected,” he says. “My father is cool. He didn't raise me, he’s not on the Evangelical side. Let’s just say I don’t answer to them. Being very aware of what’s considered blasphemous, I would say that his is very non-blasphemous. I think the image of the séance, the circle, the puppetry of ectoplasm and knocking on tables is a kind of spiritual vaudeville.”

The obsession with death, even if he doesn’t believe the writers are engaging with spirits, remains strong. Another project he’s working on continues in the Self Obliteration (2009) vein. It will be called Saint Sebastian 50 and is both a tribute to his age and his HIV status. “Historically, every time there was an outbreak of plague in Europe they would print Sebastian coins. I’d seen the prime of the AIDS pandemic and much of my work responded, at least emotionally, to the political identity of AIDS, as well as the issue of being in a dying culture,” he says.

“Because I tested HIV positive in 1986 it meant I was going to die. But I never got sick until 1996. Then the antiretroviral therapy set in and I stopped going to funerals. This work is acknowledging the old, dying body that didn’t die. I am the embodiment of a living corpse.”

Ron Athey’s Gifts of the Spirit: Automatic Writing runs as part of Fierce Festival, taking place across Birmingham from 29 March-8 April. www.wearefierce.org

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