The 'Incorruptible Flesh' of Ron Athey

"Divine Divinity," Ron Athey.
"Divine Divinity" | Photo: Catherine Opie.

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A lot of us know our art history through Catholic saints -- paintings of Saint Sebastian, Agatha, Cecilia, Bartholomew, Thomas, showing them pierced, cut and wounded. The performance art of Ron Athey mirrors that tradition; his archives are rich with scenarios lifted right from those beautiful yet frightening images. But there's a millenialism to his practice that is more Pentecostal than Catholic. He can be over the top and stark at the same time -- not in the manner of a solemn cathedral choir, but of the excited crowd that speaks in tongues under a tent or by a storefront church.

Athey grew up in Pomona, just down the road from Riverside, and cut his teeth into the performing arts world by working with Rozz Williams in 1981, when he was still a teenager. Those early performances are the stuff of hardcore legend. There's a whole zone of performance art that comes from places art history doesn't -- and perhaps can't -- acknowledge. These are the noisy clubs, the queer clubs -- spaces that express a lived politics and a commitment to each other.

Athey's performance roots are in the pageantry of charismatic preachers like Aimee Semple McPhereson, founder of The Foursquare Church. His own papers include a letter from the great Miss Velma Jaggers, who sent her best wishes to Athey after he wrote a feature for the L.A. Weekly on the evangelical leader. He was introduced to Miss Velma through his grandmother. He writes, "My grandmother searched continually for new religious experiences, and her pilgrimages to find them regularly took us from our home in Pomona to Chino, Ontario, San Bernadino, San Jacinto, Indio, Lancaster, Rosemead, and to Los Angeles, where Miss Velma had her Universal World Church."1 Ron and his grandmother returned to the church again and again. "[Miss Velma] could appear as an angel, or the Whore of Babylon, and she always used the current technology of the moment: strobe lights, vocal echo boxes, holograms, and flyrigging."2 She was a healer and an entertainer -- saving your soul by capturing your imagination.

Letter from Miss Velma Jaggers.
Letter from Miss Velma Jaggers.

Ron Athey performs "Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains" on July 10th at Human Resources in Chinatown, Los Angeles. "Incorruptible Flesh" is a the latest in a long-running series of his performances, which began in the mid 1990s. His first work, "Incorruptible Flesh (A Work in Progress)," was a collaboration with artist Lawrence Steger, who later died of AIDS in 1999. "Incorruptible Flesh" was shaped by scenarios of nursing, healing practices (like psychic surgery), and grief ritual. The performance was filled with darkly stunning images: one body looking after another, a body beautiful in decay, the miraculous corpse that never decays. "Incorruptible Flesh" was originally commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Glasgow. Athey's work has been consistently supported in the UK and in Europe, and until recently, it had rarely been staged in the US.

Mary Brennan responded to Athey's 1997 performance of "Incorruptible Flesh" for Scotland's Herald eloquently:


"They've contemplated castration in the service of religion and art, looked at how different cultures ritualise mourning, and at how various creeds represent the process of death and its aftermath to faithful believers. To this mesh of research they have also brought their own creative dynamics and personal performance styles -- the outcome, so far, is a work-in-progress that is heady with plangent iconography and... celebrates the mysteries we keep at arm's length... until we need them.

Verbally, visually, musically, this is a stream of carefully conceived, exquisitely presented, atmospherically lit images. Steger, in his sheer robes, is like some priest of shadows officiating at Athey's transfiguration and rebirth from one totemic state to another -- from primitive votive Venus to pouting kupie doll to Holy Eunuch.

It's a process that sees Athey's tattooed limbs slowly emerge from a mummy-like cocoon like some exotic insect. And like the crackly recording of Moreschi (done when the last-surviving castrato was already 80) that runs beneath Athey's eunuch text, it's a process that draws history into the heart of the current moment. The closing image -- Athey's anointed body glistening, Steger's sonorous evocation of enlightenment and release -- is poignant and affirming, a profound meeting of two very intense talents, this."3


Ten years later, the organizers of the original commission asked Athey to revisit "Incorruptible Flesh," leaving him with the question of how to return to the work after the death of his collaborator. He began with "Incorruptible Flesh: Dissociated Sparkle." This updated work extends the original performance's closing image into a durational performance. Athey positioned himself on a bed of metal bars, impaled on a baseball bat, with his face fixed into a grimace by hooks tied to the bed's frame. For five hours, visitors came to watch and were invited to touch him.

"Incorruptible Flesh: Dissociated Sparkle," Ron Athey.
"Incorruptible Flesh: Dissociated Sparkle," Ron Athey.

A collaboration with Dominic Johnson followed: "Incorruptible Flesh: Perpetual Wound." It took its inspiration from a Sophocles play about a disgraced warrior, exiled and cursed with a wound that never heals. A boy warrior is sent to steal the old, exiled man's magic bow, but is overcome by feeling for the elder warrior and heals him. In Athey and Johnson's collaboration, however, the wound is not healed but passed on to the boy.

"Messianic Remains," Athey's most recent installment of the "Incorruptible Flesh" series, returns to the scenario of his earlier "Dissociative Sparkle." It revisits the situation of remaining here, in the world of living Gods and the merely (and devastatingly) mortal.

Athey's performance is sponsored by Queer Lab, a project at UC Riverside which I direct. The Lab has been a three-year effort to raise awareness and foster queer reasearch at UCR. I was inspired to start that project after I saw Athey teach a one-week workshop in 2009 and perform in downtown Riverside with Julie Tolentino, Heather Cassils, and Zackary Drucker. A large, enthusiastic crowd gathered to watch, wrapped in the intense heights and depths of Athey's art: "the beauty and decay, abjection and ecstasy... the body in the grip of ecstasy and sorrow of death."


"Ron Athey, Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains" premieres on Wednesday, July 10 at Human Resources LA

Athey will present his new book, "Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performance of Ron Athey" at Redcat Theater on Sunday, July 14 at 2:00 p.m. as a part of Outfest's Platinum program. Sunday's event is free.

Jennifer Doyle's recent publication "Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion In Contemporary Art" was inspired by the challenge of Ron Athey's work.



1 Ron Athey,"Raised in the Lord," LA Weekly 30 June-6 July 1995, 20-25, 21.

2 Ron Athey, "The Holiest of the Holies" in Contemporary Theater Review 23:1 2013, p. 69-70, 69.

3 Mary Brennan, review of Incorruptible Flesh (A Work in Progress), The Herald (Glasgow), 10 February 1996.


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