It is almost hard to comprehend, in this time of screaming redtop headlines about the Ebola virus, just how much impact the AIDS virus had in the early eighties. The illness may have been sidelined by the media in the twenty first century, but for an estimated 2.3 million people worldwide, they live with its effects every single day.
Legendary US Performance artist Ron Athey is one such man, an HIV positive artist who uses his body as a canvas. Much of his performance deals in identities of masochistic catharsis, pushing his body through extremes close to spiritual ecstasy, such as his fascination with the martyred St Sebastian whom he has often referenced since 1992, in pieces which displayed his body stuck with arrows.
So there was much trepidation around this, the next instalment of his Incorruptible Flesh series. Would there be much letting of blood here? Squeamishness was rife, with talk of blood flying and hitting glass, as with previous work such as SelfObliteration. Not so. Tonight is a consecration of Athey’s body, an immersive piece which is a sacred rite and performative confrontation of a man facing his own mortality.
And it is profoundly moving.
To a droning soundscape, Athey’s naked body lies on a table, strapped down, wearing a transparent headpiece reminiscent of a great Pharaoh. He looks like a majestic leader lying in a funereal chamber. Two blackclad manservants flank him, carrying bowls of lubricant treated with a special UV filter. One by one, members of the audience, who wear a rubber glove on one hand, go towards him and smear embalming grease onto his body. As I go to him, I marvel at his physical control (he wears hooks to either side of his head and is completely still) his gorgeous tribal tattoos, and the almost blissful state he seems to be in. One woman does faint from the intensity.
The lights dim, and we are briefly left with the image of a Tutankhamun lit up, lying in state, ready to pass into the next world. It is both eerie and tear-inducing, leaving our own personal interpretations of death and those we have loved and lost. Athey is let down, towelled down by his manservants, and dressed in a black robe and headpiece. A clapping dance leads to a whirling dance of life, as Athey chants ”Divine is dead”, to which his lackeys respond with a catty shrug of the shoulders and a ”Yo’ Mama” indifference. It punctures the solemnity of what has gone before, and becomes a gesture of absolute defiance, a flipping of the bird and a ”fuck you” to the terrible disease.
In this Athey has created a beautiful celebration of life, ritual and acceptance of his own death. It is a privilege to be part of, wonderful to witness when so much art does not dare to confront the ultimate reality of the transient nature of all things. As a young David Bowie once sang in Quicksand, ”Knowledge comes with death’s release.”