'In certain scenes it's healing, sometimes it's just symbolic of destruction and pain,' says LA-based performance artist Ron Athey about the body piercing and blood rituals which occur in his work, 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life. 'Sometimes it's hateful, and sometimes it's transcendental.'

The son of a pentecostal preacher, a preacher himself by the age of nine, an ex-junkie in his teens, now a Modern Primitive in his early 30s, the scarification and torture Athey undergoes on stage is for real. He reckons to be able to do around four performances in a row before it gets 'too intensive' for his body to endure. At the ICA performances, however, one crucial scene will not be performed live, though not because of Athey's physical limitations. In the light of the 'Spanner' case, which ruled against sado-masochistic acts between consenting adult men, Athey would risk imprisonment if the performance was not adapted. The scene in question can only be shown on video.

'It is an involved story I tell,' says Athey. 'The peak isn't the blood-letting scene. The audience doesn't have to be involved in it. But after there's been some kind of blood ritual in a room, there is a different atmosphere. It's a public catharsis.' Borrowing from many cultures (African scarification, Hindu rituals, his whole body adorned with tattoos based on Maori designs) Athey defines his work as spiritual in a loose way. 'It's encompassing something that's going on all around us. People are involved in tribal practice without any awareness of it. Navel piercing is the 90s answer to anklet-wearing - every preppy girl is doing it. It just hurts a little more.'

'4 Scenes In A Harsh Life' at the ICA tomorrow and Saturday (071-930 3647)

(Photograph omitted)

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