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September 16 - October 18, 2006 at Western Project, Culver City

by John O'Brien

Ron Athey, still from "The Judas Cradle",
2006, with Ron Athey and Julia Snapper

Ron Athey, still from "The
Judas Cradle", 2006.

Ron Athey, still from "The
Judas Cradle", 2006


Ron Athey, still from
"Saint Sebastian," 1997.

Performance artist Ron Athey has long been known for his challenging, sexually explicit and very extreme art work.  Through performances that combine pomp, ritual, duration and physical action, Athey lays open the vulnerability of the human body with a--sometimes literally--surgical precision.  He accomplishes this in ways unlike any other artist working within this context.  His actions contain some of the same visceral qualities and the direct transformation of bodily flesh seen in the works of such artists as Bob Flanagan, Gina Pane, and Rudolph Swartzkogler.  But his staging is of a different, more ornate and elaborate order.  Hermann Nitsch's orgiastic group performances are somewhat closer in spirit to the presentational device which Athey favors.  The decidedly theatrical and operatic qualities differentiate Athey’s work from these precedents.  It is only in the context of the crossbred, hybrid art form he has fashioned that his exclusion from the exhibition “Into me / Out of Me,” at PS1 in New York, is understandable.  Is it possible to be an outsider's outsider?  Certainly, in an exhibition described as being an exhaustive survey of "how artists have explored the physical and psychological boundaries of their bodies and those of others creating images of fragility and strength, illness and suffering, tenderness and violence," his absence from that New York venue is glaring.

The current exhibition features video still images taken from his duodrama, “Judas Cradle.”  The actual Judas Cradle device, inspired by the original design, is a pyramid cast in resin on which Athey performs (literally embedded).  Next to him on a podium is the opera singer Juliana Snapper, who acts as his interrogator throughout.  Together, they use the body and their voices, as well as projected images and elaborate costumes, to explore the history of torture and personal suffering.  Their multilingual libretto is built from disparate sources, including the transcripts of Inquisition hearings, opera quotes and the author Jean Genet.  Their vocal techniques include high-pitched duets and speaking in tongues.

In performance, the sequence of actions he works upon his body are often derived from torture or other painful and controlling methods.  The sounds of the actions can go well beyond most viewers' ability to withstand them.  The tension and the duration of these extreme actions make them hard to follow without turning away.  The unbearable intensity of this is redistributed and, to some degree, reduced by the distancing effect exerted by photographic stills.  A further advantage—setting aside the aforementioned observations--is that this permits a clearer view of how Athey sets up the hard-to-imagine scenes of his stories.

Sumptuously framed against a backdrop of black or dark blue cloth, his naked and tattooed body stands out as a vulnerable and physically fragile construct within a world of restraints and constraints.  His performances reveal how the body functions as an interface between a spirit and the world.  He underlines just how fragile the body is: a naked and easily breakable thing.  Photography also allows him to freeze-frame his almost entirely tattooed body, which is an integral and regular part of his artwork.  His “Solar Anus” (I suspect so named as an homage to the surrealist writer Georges Bataille) consists of black sunrays pouring out in streams of black light and triangles.  It is featured prominently in all of his images.  This, along with the arrowed perforations of his heavily muscled torso, both relate to his own artistic narcissism and to the history of painting with its abundance of images of beautiful dying saints and martyrs from medieval times to the present.

It has been written that from within his experience of it, the body is a kind of prison, the outmost limits of which he seeks to know, right up to the definitive transformation of death.  This is also a theme from the history of opera.  Often, the main characters in the librettos die, or are soon to be taken away by Death.  The long soaring voices, which distort the phonetic value of the spoken words, give opera its distinctive aural qualities.  Athey has found another dimension in which to express this cry, this frailty and mourning.