Blood, Christ, and shock value: the gospel according to Ron Athey

The underground performance artist talks to Slava Mogutin about penetration, catharsis, and spirituality for Document S/S 2019.

This conversation appears in Document No. 14, available for order online now

Ron Athey grew up in a fervently religious household—a beginning that plays a fundamental role in his singularly visceral performance art. Athey incorporates aspects of religious iconography and ritual into his 30-year practice of bloody, masochistic spectacles. He has slashed and pierced his flesh and even injected his scrotum with saline in pursuit of epitomizing a struggle with sex, death, and resilience deeply colored by the AIDS crisis and his H.I.V.-positive status. In 1994, while the AIDS epidemic hung heavily in the air, he sent paper towels blotted with the blood of another performer over the audience. False, inflammatory rumors swirled that he had risked infecting audience members with H.I.V. As Athey found himself persona non grata in American art centers, he looked to Europe, where he lived and exhibited until 2015 when he moved back to Los Angeles.

Now, amid new national controversies, Athey’s work has taken on fresh resonance. His 2018 performance piece Acephalous Monster takes its name from the French intellectual Georges Bataille’s Acéphale, a public review and secret society that critiqued the percolating anti-Semitism and fascism in pre-WWII Europe, and was itself derived from the Greek word for “headless.” With excruciating urgency, Acephalous Monster, performed last November at Performance Space New York, examines the loss of individual coherence following the contemporary resurgence of fascism and the decline of organized religion.

Slava Mogutin, an acclaimed author and multimedia artist, also got off to an unlikely start. Born in a remote town in Siberia, at 14, Mogutin moved to Moscow, where he worked as a journalist. As a rare openly gay media figure, Mogutin’s high profile and bold writing against homophobic policies drew the ire of the government, and in 1995, he became the first Russian to be granted United States asylum for homosexual persecution. Mogutin began to produce visual art when he arrived in New York. His photography and video practice draws upon his experience of violent alienation and erasure, sexual defiance, and censorship.

Despite arriving to the avant-garde from vastly different origins, Athey and Mogutin have each married their subversive practices to political activism, disrupting the mainstream art world, as well as their governments, with their unapologetically radical work. The artists found time to catch up about their past transgressions, the place of performance art, and finding purpose in America’s spiritual void.

Slava Mogutin—You come from a hardcore religious background. Were your parents snake charmers? Were they speaking in tongues?

Ron Athey—They were early, turn-of-the-century Pentecostals but also spiritualists. So, as well as speaking in tongues, we had our dreams interpreted every morning—we didn’t have snakes. Psychic things were very trendy in the ’60s and ’70s in California. That, mixed in with the fundamentalism of Pentecostalism—everyone who didn’t believe this exact way was going to fucking hell.

Slava—You started out as kind of a club kid.

Ron—I guess because we were rockers. ‘Club kid’ would be a bad word. My first boyfriend was Rozz Williams, who was in [the band] Christian Death. Deathrock proceeded goth. His side project, the band Nervous Gender, played a lot with issues of butch homosexuality and fascism. There’s one video from 1983 called ‘Cardinal Newman’ that I’m in.

Slava—Let’s talk about your latest production, Acephalous Monster. It’s quite an impressive cut up of various appropriated texts.

Ron—I always go back to the writings of Georges Bataille, particularly the essays in Visions of Excess. Also, Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography by Michel Surya. What the book left me with was this feeling that as WWII was approaching, people were still having these little bitch fights and separating into their little intellectual pockets. Sometimes you’re eclipsed by the reality that you’re living in, and all of that becomes meaningless. Being someone from religion, I relate to this idea that Bataille is leaning on—from the Nietzsche prophecy—that after the death of God there will be 1,000 years of chaos. This feels sensitive to me having what I call ‘a godhole,’ [which relates to] walking away from the fundamentalist belief system of my childhood.

Coming out of that, there’s a vacuum—and I feel like there’s one in America—where things don’t make sense. No one knows what they believe in anymore. So rather than just reading today’s news and freaking out, you find a parallel line. You start new rituals—or new ‘celebrations,’ to use Bataille’s word. This was what Acéphale was trying to do. It’s a continuation of that…of breaking down the wall of tradition. Then what are you left with? Just chaos? Of course the chaos has to take form. I think that was a starting point for Acephalous Monster.

Slava—Would it be fair to say that, in some ways, this headless warrior is a perfect metaphor for Trump’s America? Was it intended as a political satire of sorts?

Ron—Yes. There’s an ‘eat the rich’ section to celebrate the beheading of Louis XVI, who also happens to be a vampire.

Slava—I’ve seen you perform at many different venues over the last 20-plus years and I would say that Acephalous Monster is perhaps your most polished and sleek production.

Ron—That’s an interesting point, because I’m not one of those artists that ever separated actionism from theater. I kind of roll my eyes at that—the sincerity of actionism. I did reference my earlier work, but there’s always been a dimensional layer of channeling versus performing versus choreography. This is a departure in a way that is less physical and it can be repeated.

“I love working caricatures: going through all these wigs, trying to manipulate my body with different looks, being fatter or skinnier, more feminine. I still play with padding and corsets and things. But to me it’s just normal that someone gets penetrated.”

Slava—How do you react to people who are willing to dismiss a lot of your work as too hardcore and sexually explicit? Too gory, or too violent, or too bloody?

Ron—It is such a different era from when I was doing that work in the early ’90s. I think people have lowered the tone by having celebrity sex tapes and stuff, but I actually think we’re in an era of extreme normal. Remember what a revelation it was when it was reported that Princess Diana was a self-harmer? Things are way open now in the way of taboos. The way they’re presented isn’t necessarily so evolved, but it’s a much more graphic world, even [compared to] ten years ago.

Slava—Shortly after we met in 2001, you curated that incredible performance festival at the Coral Sands Motel, which was essentially a bordello. I remember how the fire department and the cops came in the middle of the night, and we were all rolling on ecstasy. Now you perform in a performance space in New York.

Ron—I think the central energy can still make a happening happen, it just can’t be prescribed. Sex has powers other than just to arouse. It can be confrontational as well. I think using it in performance, it often is defiant.

Slava—One of your more controversial performances is the one with the baseball bat up your ass, at Artists Space. That was quite a statement.

Ron—For six hours. I was surprised they could pull me off of it.

Slava—In a way, this performance is more about challenging your audience, as opposed to challenging your own limits.

Ron—It’s also a little slapstick. It’s bizarre. But I like that. I do have a goofy side to me.

Slava—That’s what I find fascinating about you and your work: It’s not at all dark. You’re very warm and welcoming. In most of the Q and A’s I see, there’s a lot of ranting, bitching, and moaning, but yours [the one given after Acephalous Monster] was very cheerful. You were laughing, and you seemed like a genuinely fulfilled artist.

Ron—I’m 57. What kind of work do I want to do? What have I not already said? I don’t want to always give people what they want. I want to keep learning. I love working caricatures: going through all these wigs, trying to manipulate my body with different looks, being fatter or skinnier, more feminine. I still play with padding and corsets and things. But to me it’s just normal that someone gets penetrated.

Slava—Some casual fisting.

Ron—I’m a researcher. That’s what turns me on. The image of the Minotaur, which stands in for Dionysus, is gorgeous. If you read about the conception of the Minotaur, [you find that] Queen Pasiphaë of Crete had a wooden cow built and enchanted so that this bull would fuck it, with her inside. It’s like the first glory hole.

Slava—I feel like there is this strange movement, rejecting anything ritualistic. And your work is actually based around rituals and the call for some kind of new spirituality that is going back to pagan roots.

Ron—I feel the same. I guess Eastern things don’t call to me. I’m not a Buddhist. I don’t follow a guru. None of that floats my boat. I guess in a category I already considered myself Christian. I’m against nihilism. That was also a premise of making this—what does that mean? If you’re going to get rid of God and religion, you don’t just walk in the freedom—you walk in the emptiness.

Slava—I witnessed several people faint during your performances. What were your best and worst experiences as far as audience reactions go?

Ron—There’s been some fainting. Especially if they completely overcrowd a space until it’s about ready to blow up. Like the Obliteration ones, which is so much blood spread out that you can taste it. And then it’s with some kind of arrhythmic, minimal soundtrack. I think I play with the psycho-neuro system. I’ve had 14 people faint, especially in tight club situations, and they’re all dragged out on the sidewalk. I don’t know about it until afterward, or when I hear a thump somewhere in the room. It’s hard to move context around. Sometimes, in my earlier work [amid the AIDS crisis], when everyone was going to the hospital and going to funerals all the time, you could see someone profusely bleeding in this kind of lush context and use it as church. You can use it as a memorial service, or as an existential tuning fork. I think it stands in for different things at different times. What is the real definition of the word ‘healing’ in a time where everyone is sick and dying? Is healing being restored to what you were when you were 23? Or is healing becoming a kind of monster on the other side that survived it? Those are philosophical questions that [arose with the] AIDS work, particularly.

“What I love about social media is the exhibitionism. I love someone feeling themselves in their panties in their room for the first time. I love that real spirit of being cheeky, across ages and sizes.

Slava—You talk about being sex positive, and your H.I.V. status being one of the big themes of your work for the last 30 years. How do you feel your work translates into the sex-panic context of today’s America, where censorship is a huge issue for most of the queer artists I know?

Ron—I think censorship is a big issue, but it has never gotten out there the way it has now. It’s our own fault for playing in those forums. We make our own prisons. Yes, Tumblr was different because it was fully there, but it wasn’t a very interesting interface. And it’s gone now. Facebook is like a child’s game that shouldn’t be paid any mind. Instagram plays a line; they try not to do too much. It’s a freer world now more than ever. What I love about social media is the exhibitionism. I love someone feeling themselves in their panties in their room for the first time. I love that real spirit of being cheeky, across ages and sizes. I do feel a generation gap, though. I’m not teaching now, but I visit CalArts, Roski at U.S.C., and other different schools. And now my references aren’t just far away—they’re not even there.

Slava—It’s important to know the tradition if nothing else.

Ron—And I like collaborating with younger artists. There’s always somebody who is exciting me, and hopefully I’m a good sounding board for their own practice. We make up weird rules about how serious performance art has to be, or how minimal it has to be. Why does it have to be minimal? Why do you have to come with what’s in your pocket? Maybe take your clothes off, or not, and not have anything prepared.

Slava—A few years ago I interviewed Marina Abramović before her MoMA retrospective. At the end, I asked about you. She just shrugged and said, ‘Oh those crazy boys.’ It’s probably easy for a lot of established figures and institutions to dismiss the kind of work you do as something too crazy and too sexually explicit.

Ron—The important thing about my work is that I’ve been blacklisted in the U.S. They don’t have that much power over me. I know how to self-produce. I know how to get on a plane and go somewhere else. If you have the conviction, the calling to make work, you don’t stop doing it because you didn’t get an Arts Council grant, or some boring-ass museum doesn’t find you relevant. They find some boring, retrograde ’60s or ’70s performance art valid. They’ll spend $200,000 on a piece moving a chair around, or someone sleeping in a cot. Like, big fucking deal. Piss on yourself, whatever. And this populism thing…this statement that it has to be Lady Gaga as the greatest living artist…is just fucking rubbish. It’s just for the moment. It’s coloration. It’s a mood. I believe in evolution and that ideas and culture have to move forward.

Slava—What was it like when you came back to L.A.? It doesn’t seem to be the same scene or the same city anymore.

Ron—I think L.A. came up to speed while I was gone. Sometimes it is too young, like naïve young. But now it is a properly diverse art scene. There are a lot more spaces, and they’re not all institutional spaces. You don’t have to go to a weird billionaire to do something. I think the museums themselves have gotten more updated in the last ten years. Remember how boring everything used to be at museums? Maybe there are too many New Yorkers here now; they kind of pollute things. They don’t know how to not do civic pride. That’s the key to L.A.: to not have pride. It’s somewhere that’s always burned and shook and didn’t have much of a history to look at. I consider myself part of that freedom—of the Wild West vibe.