Flier courtesy of the artist’s website
Photo: Elyse Regehr

Four Scenes in a Harsh Life (1994)

Ron Athey addresses the queer sexual politics of religiosity in Four Scenes in a Harsh Life (1994). Throughout the performance, Athey engages in masochistic acts with performers Divinity P. Fudge, Julie Tolentino, and Pig Pen. Most notable is when Athey cuts into Fudge’s back and makes imprints of his blood on paper towels, which are suspended on a clothesline above the audience. Later, the performers queer religious iconography by affirming Athey’s gay male body as a site of reverence amid the AIDS pandemic. Oftentimes, Athey resembles Saint Sebastian when piercing his body with needles, which symbolize the arrows shot into the saint for converting people to Christianity. The exploration of religion and the exposure of blood in this performance were met with homophobia by the media. A Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter who did not attend the performance accused Athey of exposing the audience to AIDS-tainted blood. However, the blood that was central to the live act was not from Athey, but from Fudge whose HIV/AIDS status was negative. The controversy surrounding the blood in the performance led to national debates that called for the censorship of Athey’s artwork. Finally, Athey was attacked by right-wing politicians and religious groups for examining religion through a queer lens. Following the conservative protests against Athey’s artwork, video documentation of Four Scenes in a Harsh Life was netcasted live as part of Franklin Furnace’s History of the Future (1999) on Pseudo Programs, Inc.’s the Performance Channel.

RON ATHEY is a performance artist based in Los Angeles. In his bloody portrayals of life, death, and fortitude in the time of AIDS, Athey calls into question the limits of artistic practice. These limits enable him to explore themes of gender, religion, and sexuality, among other topics in his performances. Athey first performed with Rozz Williams at underground galleries during the early 1980s in a collaboration known as Premature Ejaculation. Later, he began his solo performance career with The Torture Trilogy: Martyrs & Saints, Four Scenes in a Harsh Life, and Deliverance (1992–1995), and went on to develop Incorruptible Flesh (1997–2008) and Solar Anus (1998). His recent performances include Judas Cradle (2004–2005), Self-Obliteration (2008–2011), and Gifts of the Spirit: Automatic Writing (2010). Athey has collaborated with Lawrence Steger on Incorruptible Flesh (In Progress) (1996), Juliana Snapper on The Judas Cradle (2004), and Julie Tolentino on THE SKY REMAINS THE SAME (2007–). A monograph of Athey’s performance artwork, Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey (2013), was edited by Dominic Johnson and published by Intellect Ltd.