Ron Athey

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Ron Athey
Born (1961-12-16) December 16, 1961 (age 54)
Groton, Connecticut, U.S.
Nationality American (United States)
Known for performance art, body art, experimental theatre, video
Notable work Four Scenes in a Harsh Life (1994), "Deliverance" (1996), "Incorruptible Flesh" (1996), The Solar Anus (1998), "Joyce" (2002), Judas Cradle (2004)

Ron Athey (born December 16, 1961) is an American performance artist associated with body art and with extreme performance art. He has performed in the U.S. and internationally (especially in the UK and Europe). Athey's work explores challenging subjects like the relationships between desire, sexuality and traumatic experience. Many of his works include aspects of S&M in order to confront preconceived ideas about the body in relation to masculinity and religious iconography.

Life and work[edit]

Athey has been a regular contributor to magazines and newspapers including Honcho and the L.A. Weekly, and occasionally teaches performance studies. He currently lives in England, in the London area.[1]

The first book dedicated to Athey and his work, Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performance of Ron Athey edited by Dominic Johnson, was published in 2013 by the Live Art Development Agency.[2] It includes writing about his work by major artists including Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Antony Hegarty, Robert Wilson, Lydia Lunch and Bruce LaBruce, and essays by scholars such as Amelia Jones, Jennifer Doyle, Homi K. Bhabha and others.

NEA controversy[edit]

In 1994 Athey became the subject of controversy concerning the use of federal funds to support art work with visible gay content. On March 5, during a performance of an excerpt from Four Scenes in a Harsh Life sponsored by the Walker Art Center and staged at Patrick's Cabaret in Minneapolis, Athey made cuts in co-performer Darryl Carlton's (stage name Divinity Fudge) back, placed strips of absorbent paper towel on the cuts and then, using a pulley, hoisted the blood-stained cloths into the air.[3] Local art critic/reporter Mary Abbe (who had not witnessed the performance) wrote a news account of public health complaints concerning the performance which appeared on the front page of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The report quoted the Walker's director Kathy Halbreich and performing arts director John Killacky, audience members, and Minnesota state health officials. The supervisor of the AIDS epidemiology unit in Minnesota's state health department said that "it did not appear that audience members were endangered."[4] In response to the health complaints, a health department staff member contacted the Walker and was given a memo outlining medical safety precautions that it had taken. That story was picked up by the Associated Press and quickly made national headlines. The then-widespread anxiety about AIDS combined with a shocked reaction from those unfamiliar with S&M-related art: some critics and lawmakers, including Jesse Helms, falsely described his performances as exposing audience members to HIV-infected blood.[5]

Although this 1994 performance was supported only indirectly (via the Walker Center) by $150 from the National Endowment for the Arts, Athey's name was frequently invoked in criticism of the NEA. Athey was not alone in this: performance artists Tim Miller, John Fleck, Karen Finley and Holly Hughes would later become the NEA Four as they fought a case regarding funding for their work before the Supreme Court. Unlike these other artists, Athey has never applied for federal funds to support his work. Nevertheless the controversy over this incident continues to shape public perception of his work.[6]


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  3. ^ "Bloody performance draws criticism: Walker member complains to public health officials," Mary Abbe, Minneapolis Star Tribune March 24, 1994 page 1A
  4. ^ "Bloody performance draws criticism: Walker member complains to public health officials," Mary Abbe, Minneapolis Star Tribune March 24, 1994 page 1A
  5. ^ For Endowment, One Performer Means Trouble New York Times
  6. ^ RON ATHEY Los Angeles Times

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