May Pole

Andrew Hultkrans on a Ron Athey performance

New York

Left: NYU Chair of Art and Art Professions Nancy Barton. Right: Professor Jennifer Doyle and artist Jonathan Berger with Ron Athey. (All photos: Julia Portwood Hipp)

Given that it was not only May Day but also the afternoon of the immigrant workers’ protest march in lower Manhattan, traveling to see Ron Athey’s “durational performance” at Artists Space proved to be a somewhat durational affair in itself. The A and C trains had been diverted to the F track, making my trip from Brooklyn unbearably glacial. Then, though the performance was scheduled to begin at 5 PM, the small crowd of art journos and gallery punters—all white, youngish to middle age, surprisingly unpierced—had to mill about on Greene Street for half an hour or so before being admitted upstairs. Having read about and seen images of Athey’s past work, I expected something actively painful, perhaps bloody, certainly kinetic, and inherently political—at least in an identity politics/AIDS-awareness sense.

Hence it was amusingly disappointing—or disappointingly amusing—to find Athey lying motionless on his back on an elevated “bed” made of aluminum rods, staring blankly at an array of small disco balls hanging from the ceiling—a corpselike pose he would hold for the next five hours. OK, he was completely naked—waxed, shaved, and tribally tattooed; yes, he was covered liberally in Vaseline; sure, he had approximately ten large fish hooks stuck into his face, with leather straps pulling them taught against the “headboard” behind him; yup, his balls and penis seem to have been vacuum-pumped to a distended, spongy mass; and finally, you betcha, I suppose he did have a blue metal baseball bat stuck halfway into his ass.

No doubt all this was deeply uncomfortable, particularly considering its five-hour duration. A young female assistant even had to do a Clockwork Orange routine, periodically placing eyedrops into Athey’s unblinking eyes. Nevertheless, as I initially took in the tableau, searching for some meaning or drama that would elevate Incorruptible Flesh: Dissociative Sparkle to the narrative heights of Athey’s past performances, my heart sank when the earnest young curator, who I thought might provide some elucidation, approached me and whispered into my ear, “You’re invited to rub Vaseline on him—with or without gloves—but not on his face or his balls.” I bit the side of my tongue to stifle laughter. I’m all for interactivity in art, but really, did this invitation to further grease the already very shiny artist add anything to the piece? Did it mean anything?

Left: Rachel Eckhardt and Ron Athey. Right: Ron Athey.

I struggled with this and other related matters as I slowly circled Athey for an hour or so—ruminating on early-’90s San Francisco, RE/Search magazine’s “Modern Primitives” issue, body-mod/pain pioneer Fakir Musafar, super-masochist Bob Flanagan, “Bodies: The Exhibition,” and “daredevil” David Blaine, who at that very moment was submerged underwater near Lincoln Center, where he’d be in a plastic bubble for a week without surfacing. Athey’s piece was part of the NYU-sponsored “transgressive” performance series “Where Art and Life Collide,” and the press materials note that Athey and the other artists “consider themselves marginalized for reasons ranging from race, to class, to sexuality.” I find the circularity of this stance slightly silly. I mean, if you’re going to lie in state, so to speak, with a baseball bat plunged deep inside your ass and fish hooks tugging at your face, you are ensuring your continued marginalization—for reasons that have nothing to do with race or class. Sexuality, perhaps, though I’ve never heard of Louisville Slugger fetishists lobbying for equal rights. Other than being more outré and less crowd-pleasing, what distinguishes Athey’s present work from non-artist David Blaine’s durational stunts? Am I missing the point?

Maybe. Maybe not. Other than the era’s then-emerging scourge of AIDS—through which Athey found his artistic muse and message as an HIV-positive gay performer—domestic and geopolitical stakes today are much higher than they were in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Leaving Artists Space and catching the tail end of the immigrant march—a far more relevant statement of identity politics—I couldn’t help but conclude that Athey’s performance was solipsistic and, ultimately, empty. That the most thought-provoking aspect of the piece was the slow drip—probably unintentional—from the exposed grip-end of the bat onto the floor was dispiriting. Yes, it was diverting for a moment to wonder whether the fluid was sweat, melted Vaseline, or anal leakage, but this hardly advanced my understanding of or sympathy with living with HIV. Instead, Athey came across as a gag from Art School Confidential—or as little more than the cliché-transgressive whipping boy he once was in the eyes of the NEA-bashing right.

On my way out, I was caught off-guard in the elevator when a middle-aged woman asked me what I thought of the performance. Sensing that she clearly expected a positive answer, I mumbled something about “admiring him, as I certainly couldn’t do that,” but I felt like a liar. NYU’s press sheet claims that Athey subjects himself to “physical, cultural, and psychological challenges as a means to transform the conditions of the present,” yet there he lay entombed in a sparsely attended gallery in SoHo, four hours to go, while millions of “illegal” workers marched across the country, actively trying to change one of the all-too-real conditions of the present. Obviously, art isn’t required to be politically relevant and this isn’t a Marxist critique, but hey, if the bat fits . . .