I met Ron Athey while volunteering at the 2014 performance art group show No Pain, No Gain in London. Athey wasn’t performing, but his presence left me speechless when my teacher introduced us. After that first encounter, I wrote about Athey’s work almost every year, forever returning to the body in pain and all the things it tries to say.
As a site of politics, protest, and fraught histories, of finding a way to live and love in private and public, the queer body exemplifies the fact that the personal is political. Athey’s art was caught up in the 1990s culture war when he performed Four Scenes From a Harsh Life (1994), with blood bags hanging above the audience. It led to a deluge of accusations that Athey exposed his audience to HIV, even though the blood was from an HIV-negative donor. Despite the spectacular nature of his work, its power extends beyond the controversy. His work exists in between discrete, contradictory states: pleasure and pain, good and evil. His St. Sebastian (1999) takes the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and turns into something vital, embodied. He smuggles the image of Sebastian out of paintings, and into the real world, made of flesh and blood.
Athey’s art still feels dangerous. It’s difficult to watch, but harder to look away from. His performances were engulfed by the ’90s conservative panic over the National Endowment for the Arts financially supporting the work of radical queer artists. The dispute was less about rule breaking and more about the politicization of iconoclastic bodies, and the moral panic around HIV. In a way, Athey himself became a saint; a crystallized image of an obsession with the holiness, power, and limits of the queer body.
If I meet him again, I think I’ll know what to say.