Friday, March 6, 2009

Ron Athey's Self-Obliteration Solo #1: Ecstatic

Ron Athey's work should be seen as episodic - meaning, each performance belongs to a larger sequence of performance. This is true in several ways. Each performance of Self-Obliteration Solo #1: Ecstatic revises a previous performance, and so, as long as he performs this work, our notion of the work can expand to include each of its iterations.

But also, individual performances grow from previous work - often quite directly. Incorruptible Flesh expanded ten years after its first iteration with Lawrence Steger when Athey developed Incorruptible Flesh: Disassociated Sparkle around its final image and also Incorruptible Flesh: The Perpetual Wound, his recent collaboration with Dominic Johnson (from which the above photo by Regis Hertich was taken). The performance I describe here is part of these performative "threads". Of course, Self-Obliteration Solo #1 is more than enough to contemplate in and of itself.

After Zackary Drucker's piece, the audience instinctively turned to the back room and collected around the platforms. We were given an intermission, which we needed in order to catch our collective breath.

Athey and Tolentino came into the space and climbed on top of the two platforms, which were about eye-level - high enough to give everyone a good sight line, and high enough, too, to feel like more than "stage" and somehow more like "altar". They positioned themselves on their hands and knees. Both were naked but for identical wigs of very long and straight blond hair. (All four artists, in fact, performed in blond wigs.) As the lights came up on Athey, he took a brush in his hand and began to comb the long blond hair which cascaded down over his face and to the surface of the platform. The brush hit the platform's surface hard with each stroke, and the brushing seemed to get increasingly violent as he went on. He then sat backs on his heals to backcomb and teasing the hair into a fright wig.

It was at this point we encountered the performance's "reveal": Athey took the wig off by removing needles which appeared to hold them in place. Nothing odd there, as wigs are normally pinned to the wearer's hair. But of course, he has no hair - these surgical needles pierced the skin on his head. It was at this point the audience realized that there's been a hidden level of violence to the brushing and combing of the wig.
Let me pause here to gesture towards at least two "texts" as points of reference for this first stage of the performance.

While I don't think Athey was in direct conversation with it - those of us who know performance video can't help but think of the artist Marina Abramovic's Art Must Be Beautiful, The Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975) as one context for this part of the performance. In that performance video, Abramovic violently brushes her hair, all the while saying "Art Must Be Beautiful, The Artist Must Be Beautiful." The reference is even more relevant if you listen to Abramovic's commentary about the performance video (click here the mp3 is part of an installation shot of MOCA Los Angeles's WACK! exhibit). She explains that this work was imagined as an intervention against the idea that art must beautiful:
Art should be much more than beautiful. Art should ask tough questions. Art should predict the future. Art should elevate the spirit of the spectator. Performance is one of the most direct forms for energy transmission to the audience.
The literal source "image" for Athey's performance is actually Marlene Dietrich - who used all sorts of old-school cosmetic and tricks to create her look, including (apparently), "gruesome mini-facelifts (achieved by weaving her hair into tight braids, pinning them tightly to her scalp with surgical needles, and then topping it all with sexy wigs)." (That quote is from a UK site about her grave.)

As you might imagine, with the wig off and blood dripping from head, the tone of the performance shifts. Athey's work often works the weird spaces on the edge of camp, and for me (writing as a critic) the most difficult aspect of his work is exactly this kind of moment - I don't know whether to laugh, cry, or shiver. I felt caught up in very conflicting affective currents.

At this point in the performance, Athey removed the pane of glass at the foot of his "bed" and lays it flat. Taking up the "downward dog" pose, he positions his face over the glass and blood pores from the wounds in his scalp. The quantity of blood is shocking (we all bleed freely from head wounds). I was, I think, most rattled by the fact that I could smell it. (Check out my December Art21 essay on blood work & performance.) 

He moved onto his back, and dragged that pane of glass over his body. He then pulled the glass at the head of the platform up, and placed it on top of the bloodied pane and did a strange series of movements. He slid the panes of glass up and over each other. There was a lot of sound in this - the sound of his effort (you could see that was was hard to separate the glass panes as they became sticky with blood), the slap and slide of the glass.

This meaning of this series of actions is opaque - but it helps to know that the performance "The Perpetual Wound" ends with Athey and Johnson pressing open wounds on their thighs against opposite sides of a pane of glass. The glass here becomes a substitute for another body and also the thing between his body and the world.

My memory begins to fall apart here. I know that he puts the glass back in its place. I know he puts on another wig. And that combs the hair around his face (this recalls to me the image of the rope wound around Tolentino's face at the opening of Cry of Love). But I can't remember if that happened before or after Tolentino "archives" Self-Obliteration Solo: Ecstasy in her piece The Sky Remains the Same.

I am going to treat Tolentino's performance separately - because the issues it raises are complex and it should be treated as a distinct performance, although, as will be more clear in the next article I write here, the two works are intertwined both conceptually and structurally. (Tolentino repeats Athey's actions, but the two also mirror each other at the performance's conclusion.)

But I want to stick with Athey for the moment.

I saw this performance in 2008 in Krems, Austria at the annual Donau Festival (where it was performed in a "dialogue" with the above-mentioned artist/scholar Dominic Johnson - I believe the photo to the right is from that event). I saw it immediately after Ursula Rucker's concert (which was staged in a different venue). This was is a festival of experimental art, theater, and music. The space in which Athey & Johnson performed was like a black box theater, and the crowd was much bigger and more oriented towards music. The platform was a lot lower which made Athey feel more exposed to the audience than this Riverside performance which had instead the powerful extravagance of a Mayan ritual - largely thanks to the platforms' height. The Austrian space was cold, too - and too big for you to feel overwhelmed by his physical presence or by the blood.

I was really happy, in fact, with the difference between these performances - because although the Donau event was more grand and the audience much larger, this Riverside performance of Self-Obliteration Solo #1 was much grander as a performance than that earlier version, and I think the audience's experience was, too, somewhat closer to what Athey describes as the desired effect of this performance.

Athey writes about the development of this piece in an essay written for a Polish catalogue (it was performed in Warsaw in November 2008). Throughout his career, he has explicitly engaged with martyrology in his work - with the gorgeous & grotesteque sufferings of saints, with the gory erotics their their stories and symbology. This is in no small part because he was raised as an "ecstatic" by his Pentacostal family. His own mythology begins with a story of having been chosen before birth to receive gifts of the Spirit, and pivots around a rejection the homophobic and moralizing dogma of the religion, while an embrace of the ethic and mode of being of the ecstatic. One might call this his moment of conversion.

Being at one of his performances is a little like stepping inside a portrait of St. Sebastian. And it is perhaps ironic that people who've done some serious time in fundamentalist settings talking directly to god are perhaps the most equipped to "get" this side of his practice.

The section of the essay in which Athey addresses this side of his experience is wonderfully titled "The Beautification of the Pervert," and here I'd like to turn the floor over to him:
How to negotiate my expression? I want to go back into the center of those paintings, golden and gangrenous, rays and beams and arrows, and absorb the violation. Take the dead and deflated, embed lifelike glass eyes. What am I then, a physical manifestation of a psychic disease? The Ecstatic, answers “An honored epileptic.” The Sensualist merely purrs, distracted in a tracing the concave and moist. Ever defensive, the Nihilist, upholds the ‘what the fuck?’ in all instances, while a name game begins, to identify all the possible pathologies (Exhibitionist, Messianic Complex, Freudian Death Drive urge to pre-birth non-existence, full-throttle Lacanian Joissance) that all ring true. Open wounds seep, or sprinkle, or tinkle the blood, without which, the body would be waxen, the golden light over-saturated and brassy, a dis-intoxicant.

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