As a boy, Ron Athey practiced Christianity in extremis, and it helped make him the tattooed purveyor of spectacular and disturbing rituals that he is today.
Athey is still best known for his brief, shining moment as a scapegoat in the culture war. The religious right singled him out in 1994, when the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis funneled approximately $150 from the National Endowment for the Arts in his direction. Given Athey’s background, there’s a certain irony to this. He’s been dealing with religious extremism all his life.
“There was a thrill-seeking aspect to religion that was very easy to feed into,” Athey says of the holy-rolling, chunkin’-out-the-demons style of worship he experienced as a child. His family never belonged to a particular Pentecostal church but roamed the revival tents and miracle sites of southern California, from the Golden Altar of Revelations in MacArthur Park to a woman with stigmata in a shack in the desert. Athey estimates that he witnessed a faith healing at least once a week—the curing of cancers, the lengthening of legs.
And all this was nothing compared to the apocalyptic fantasies on the home front. Athey was raised by a grandmother and an aunt who told him from the time he first had memory that he’d been born with “the Calling on his life”: he was destined, as he puts it, “for the most grandiose ministry.” By age seven or eight, he was being encouraged to lie down, look at the sky, and have cloud hallucinations. At age 10, he began speaking in tongues. People laid their hands on him in services. He failed only at learning the automatic writing that came so naturally to his Aunt Vena, who regularly channeled her dead grandmother and various saints.
But Athey did learn that his was “the most important family in the world, chosen by God to kick off Armageddon.” His aunt would give birth to the second coming of Christ and she would then marry Elvis—or so the Virgin Mary had revealed in a vision. And Athey would fill the John the Baptist role, preparing the way for the Lord.
“I have trouble living on Earth,” says Athey in Hallelujah!, Catherine Gund Saalfield’s new documentary about his work, which opens this week. “My brain wants to live in that psychic mumbo jumbo. That’s how I was raised.” Athey believed the mumbo jumbo fervently until he was 15. Even today, though he is alienated from his family and certainly no Christian, his often grisly, sometimes beautiful, performances echo a basic precept of Christianity. As he puts it, “Someone has to be in pain for all of us.”
The twisted history of performance art has produced relatively few artists who ask the audience to watch real suffering. Even fewer incorporate this pain into spectacle. But in an Athey show, the artist will really stick 30 hypodermic needles into one tattooed arm, really push surgical needles into his scalp for a crown of thorns, really cut another performer’s back with a scalpel—all of it carefully orchestrated. Is this a spiritual quest? An s/m scene? “I’m using the power of both,” Athey says.
To be religious is to believe in symbols and invest them with power. But even as a devout boy, Athey wanted more. When he visited the woman with stigmata, he was disappointed to find that she wasn’t really bleeding from her hands, but only had pictures. ‘blood chemistry changes when you witness things that are extreme and real,” Athey said in an interview last October. For him, the performance’s power comes from the fact that the blood is not a representation.
“Only people that are emotionally damaged feel the need to tear their bodies inside out,” he explains in Hallelujah! “I believe by doing it publicly, by doing it in theater, and theater more related to Greek tragedy than contemporary theater… it doesn’t need to be called ritual. It’s bearing witness. It’s alchemy.”
He remembers when he began to turn to his own body “for a protest.” One day, when he was 15, he told his girlfriend about all the prophecies related to his family, and under the weight of her incomprehension, the house of cards suddenly collapsed. His world view shattered. Athey says that if you’ve ever truly believed and then lost your faith “you always have some sort of hole in you.” He’d been so isolated as a kid, he didn’t even know there was such a thing as atheism. “I think that was the beginning of my self-mutilating. Because I felt very empty and hurt. I would start to pray, and then I’d cut myself or stick tweezers in a light socket. I’d actually start doing that to try to disassociate.” However, he’s also described cutting himself as a way to reconnect with reality. “I felt like a numb piece of meat. I can remember thinking that when I was 15. Cutting myself and trying to land that way.”
This idea that pain takes you to another place—maybe heaven, maybe hell—is at the core of the performances, too. Just so, some spectators find these rituals powerfully cathartic, while others find them profoundly distressing.
Near the beginning of Hallelujah!, Athey describes the “frenzy” he felt after learning he was HIV positive and might not have much time “to leave my mark.” This is the thinking still ingrained in him from long ago, as he muses about how he might be remembered: “Was I just some stupid fag who died of AIDS? Or was I just this damaged boy who was never a minister, who rebelled and lashed out at himself, so, between drugs and promiscuous sex, he contracted a disease and died? There’s this frenzy to make it…mean something. And how can you do this without God? How can you do this without spirituality?”
Athey’s shows illustrate a quest for redemption in a world without God and, at this point, Saalfield’s film offers a rare chance to see them at all. Since 1994, the controversial Athey has worked mostly in Europe. So we see him performing in Mexico City and Zagreb, and hear him and his troupe speak articulately about their “demonstration of pain to represent how they feel about this life.”
The film doesn’t really humanize Ron Athey, however. His Pentecostal background gets short shrift, as does the painful escape from it. Maybe spirituality is the last real taboo, or at least embarrassing to acknowledge among scenesters. But the real redemption story is one of the things omitted from Hallelujah! Self-mutilation was just the beginning of Athey’s downward slide. He also spent about 10 years as a junkie and repeatedly tried to kill himself. But then the young man trained to have visions finally had one that redeemed him. In his dream, he saw himself tattooed with black tribal designs, facing a man tattooed just as he was. They levitated together and “elation washed over me. The image was planted that I could be whole.”
Athey began to get his tribal tattoos, kicked heroin, and, in the end, he did become a sort of grandiose minister. For those drawn to the pierced tongue and the dog collar, he speaks to the transcendence of pain as few others can. “I’m programmed to carry a message,” he says in the film. “The message isn’t programmed, but that I’m a vehicle is the most important thing in my life. It’s more important than my life.
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