The inspired art of masochism

Ron Athey's recital of his memoirs will be most unusual – and not for the faint-hearted – says Matilda Battersby
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The Independent Online

The American performance artist Ron Athey is famous for masochism. He pierces himself with spikes and needles, cuts himself with scalpels and allows blood to spurt wildly from his head. He has a talent for finding the borderline between horror and desire, harnessing the fear/curiosity paradox and our innate morbidity, to compel his audiences without disgusting them.

When he arrives at The Independent for interview the receptionist whispers: "Your guest is the man 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.

Growing up in a "Southern fried gospel", Pentecostal household, where speaking in tongues and falling into ecstatic raptures was normal, Athey was told he was 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.

Little did the congregation know that two decades later Athey would be one of America's most controversial artists. In 1994 he achieved notoriety after a Los Angeles newspaper published a story claiming (quite wrongly) that audience members had been exposed to HIV-infected blood during a Minnesota cabaret. Athey was diagnosed with HIV in 1986. Conservatives used the drama as an excuse to petition against the use of federal funds to support artwork with "gay" content

Being diagnosed with HIV aged 26, at a time when there was no treatment and people were dying everywhere, is manifested in his artistic self-harm. But his next performance, at Birmingham's Fierce Festival next week, 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. Two huge bolts of paper will be unfurled in a cross shape on the floor of the Old Science Museum with writers scattered at either end. 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. He became socialised at 15 after living in extreme familial isolation. His new friends' bewilderment at 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 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.

His next project 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. Much of my work responded emotionally to the political identity of Aids," he says.

"Because I tested HIV positive 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: Gifts of the Spirit – Automatic Writing', Old Science Museum, Birmingham (; 0121 245 4455) 7 April, 9pm