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.
Melanie Flood Projects is proud to present I Won’t Last A Day Without You, a solo exhibition of photographs by New York based artist Pacifico Silano curated by Yaelle S. Amir. The exhibition will open on Friday October 3, 2020 and will run through November 14, 2020.
In I Won’t Last A Day Without You, Pacifico Silano presents new work from his ongoing series of photo collages that draw from gay erotica magazines published after the Stonewall riots (1969) and through the height of the AIDS epidemic (late 1980s). Layering snippets of desert views with forest flora, tulle with roses, a face, an arm, a shadow—these fragments serve to soften the outlandish performative aspects of male desire commonly found in their source material, and offer instead a tender, quiet and fragile expression of masculinity. The resulting works communicate poetic moments that are embedded with a deep sense of melancholy reflective of the era from which the images were derived. Rather than fantasy and satisfaction, the onlooker now contends with feelings of emptiness and sorrow.
The purpose and materiality of Silano’s work stems from a highly personal position. Born during the peak of the AIDS crisis to a family who ran an adult novelty store, Silano lost his uncle due to complications from HIV. Yet the shame associated with his uncle’s sexuality and the stigma surrounding the disease led to his family’s erasure of his memory. With that experience serving as a catalyst, Silano has created these works as stand-in memorials for the individuals depicted upon the pages of the sourced magazines, as well as for those who consumed their image. As contemporary interpretations of archival materials, the works candidly hold within them the past and future—demonstrating acutely how a photograph can evolve its meaning and context as culture gains new understanding of history.