Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance


In terms of performance art’s potential for flabbergasting bullshit in the name of
“transgression,” Ron Athey tries and in a sense succeeds
at beating all comers— an
apparently fearless, gay,
massively tattooed, HIV-
positive thunder god of sadistic ritual and preposterous
self-absorption who puts
himself through Christ-like
torture sessions onstage. Talk about ego. By the evidence
given in Catherine Gund
Saalfield’s crude video portrait, Hallelujah!, which chronicles Athey’s career from Pentecostal cherub to s/m-loving club boy to bloodletting auteur, Athey’s
aesthetic consists mostly of
self-inflicted flesh wounds.

Athey himself is quite
articulate, though with respect to Sick, another self-abusive-artist biopic, he is not by any stretch Bob Flanagan, whose debilitating congenital illness and knifelike sense of humor lent his act a redemptive grace. For all his theorizing, Athey comes off most convincingly as a happy theater nerd, chatting up his stage design and lighting, and going giddy over European perf-art spaces. He may justify the lacerations (of himself and others) as quasi-liturgical tribulation, but the onstage double-ended-dildo ass fuck, and subsequent suck, is tough to swallow as resonant self-
expression. Saalfield’s talking heads (coworkers, cast
members, et cetera) are all
engaged in a hard sell for Athey, but there isn’t an artistic idea in sight that looms a tenth as high as Athey’s arrested desire to piss in his parents’ shoes. The heritage of midcentury Middle American religious fanaticism that Athey cites as his source is much more interesting, and the vestiges of it on view more
mysterious and terrifying. But who needs a subject, when you can stick needles into your skull?