Beyond the Cutting Edge

Ron Athey: Performer, provocateur, pariah

ON AN OTHERWISE ORDINARY night in March of 1993, performance artist Ron Athey sliced open a man's back, blotted it with paper, and hung the resulting prints on a clothes line that was then cranked above the heads of a Minneapolis audience. It was all in a day's work for Athey, a man whose physical brand of theater often blurs the line between the hospital ward and the proscenium. For one member of his audience that day, however, a more distinct line had been crossed. To that spectator, Athey's HIV-positive status meant that other people's safety had been threatened. The Strib picked up the story, and soon it became national news. Athey had joined the ranks of artists like Karen Finley and Robert Mapplethorpe as national symbols of provocation. For Jesse Helms and other congressional conservatives, he was a sign that the NEA had gone too far in its support of the arts. To other artists working with novel media or risky themes, these transgressors became martyrs for artistic freedom--overshadowing the art itself.

This episode of Athey's career passes by rather quickly in Catherine Gund Saalfield's 1998 documentary about the performer, Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance, which will be screening Wednesday and Thursday, May 19 and 20 at the Oak Street Cinema. The 90-minute film spends no more than five minutes on the incident, although it was, in Athey's words, "the end of my career in America." Instead, the film focuses on footage from Athey's more recent performances in Mexico and Croatia as well as commentary from Athey and his cast about the meaning of their work. Shot in 35mm and presented in the style of a concert/backstage documentary, the film is formally unremarkable. Yet it is nonetheless a surprisingly satisfying movie--a riveting trip into a recent past, when the AIDS crisis occupied a prime position in the public consciousness.

Part of Hallelujah!'s appeal has to do with the ringside seating it offers for Athey's transfixing physical rituals. Part passion play, part vaudeville, Athey's performances mix up religious iconography, S/M practices, and medical horrors to suggest that pain is the darkest kind of shared experience--and, at the same time, one we encounter alone. His work is undeniably difficult, including as it does lots of bloodletting, self-flagellation, and genital transmogrification (such as a performer's testicles being inflated to grapefruit size with a saline infusion). It ain't pretty.

At the same time, the material is often profoundly moving, although it isn't always clear why. "Everyone in the cast identifies with a demonstration of pain to represent how they feel in this life," Athey explains at one point. It's the kind of theory that goes a long way toward understanding why his performances affect the audiences as deeply as they do. For an artist who works primarily within a grammar of dance and nonverbal movements, he can be tremendously eloquent--a holdover, perhaps, from a childhood spent as a Pentecostal preacher.

Ironically, it is the political spokesmen of Christian fundamentalism who helped spell the end for much explicit and experimental performance art. Yet, while watching Athey's graphic work today, the viewer can't help but wonder whether such material wouldn't eventually have proven too raw for late-'90s audiences. Ultimately, this doc offers a look back at a fragile moment that at the time was drowned out by noisy rhetoric--a moment you may not have noticed had slipped into the past.


Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance is playing at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, May 19 and 20 at Oak Street Cinema; (612) 331-3134.

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