Pissing off U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms is a good sign that you have done something with your life.
When Ron Athey performed his "Four Scenes in a Harsh Life" in Minneapolis in the early '90s, he did not expect the backlash from Helms to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts ( NEA ). Athey's controversial work, along with artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, spawned the conservative Republican movement to defund and destroy the NEA. His work has since then and has always been on the edge of the intersection of fine and performance art.
Athey lived in Southern California and attributes his fascination with the human body as a medium to the body-conscious milieu of that region. "I think my fascination with the body is also representative of the time that I grew up in and came out ofthe '70s," Athey told Windy City Times. "Now it is also a matter of AIDS and aging and my defiance against both. I still have action in this body!" Athey also attributed his use of the human body as an artistic medium to his captivation with passion plays. "These are plays that conjure up other moments and other places, "said Athey. "Using the human body also gives one a feeling of how things transfer from one body to another."
"AIDS is always present," Athey said about his work. "It wasn't until the mid-'90s that there was any effective treatment that could prolong life. Before that, we were living under a cloud of death.
Chicago and Athey have a long relationship, as he performed one of his first collaborative pieces at the Randolph Street Gallery in 1993. He is now back with the Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery and Mana Contemporary Gallery on South Throop Street performing the final installment in his "Incorruptible Flesh" series called "Messianic Remains."
Athey hinted that "the piece will be a reflection of the preserved and sexualized corpse." The performance begins with 20 minutes of audience participationspecifically, of attendees touching or "anointing" Athey's body. The rest of the performance is meant to evoke Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs by Jean Genet. The book, when published in 1943 was as provocative then as it is now with meditations on death and ecstasy. "I am performing the ritual of the text," said Athey.
Athey will also be collaborating with Jon Jon and Sage Charles to bring "Sebastiane" to life. St. Sebastian's image and the iconography surrounding the early third-century saint are not foreign to gay culture. "This is the archetypal play of St. Sebastian as Adonis," said Athey. "He is also the saint who many prayed to during times of the great plagues and death. I want to bring his image back."
Athey, again finding his muse in other mediums, points to the popular painting subject of "St. Sebastian Tended by Irene." He said, "This is a resurrection myth. It is through St. Irene's washing and anointing of the body of St. Sebastian that his rebirth comes about."
While in Chicago, Athey will also be signing his first book, Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey, a retrospective of Athey's body of work, spanning nearly three decades.
His new book is a path in another direction. Athey is and always has been an independent and self-made artist. "Branding is a dirty word," he said. "So many pop artists of this era are really just destroying art. They are not furthering a discussion on the evolution of the culture in which they are being made!"
Athey himself is an autodidactic, having no formal education or training after high school. "I was part of a generation in the '70s that said, 'If you want to be an artist, then go be an artist'. You just have to go out and do it."
Athey said he believes that the greatest obstacle to art made and done in our time is stagnation: "We are all so concerned with who went to school where. We begin to pay for a brand and forget about what it is all supposed to be about. Artists need to stop waiting around for a boring curator to give them a chance and just collaborate and open a space. It's all about cultivating the local talent."
Athey's piece "Messianic Remains" can be seen Friday, Jan. 31, and Saturday, Feb. 1, at the Mana Contemporary Gallery, 2233 S. Throop St. His lecture and book release are Tuesday, Feb. 4, at 6 p.m. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 280 S. Columbus Dr. See www.RonAthey.com .