On August 15, 2015, on the bottom floor of a gutted house in downtown Los Angeles, in the middle of what was once a living room, Ron Athey lay stretched out on a table naked, balls bound and swollen, fishhooks pulling back his eyelids and his nipples, the skin of his collarbone, his belly and his thighs, like acupuncture gone wild. A short row of men lined the side of the altar on which he lay, and massaged his quivering thighs and heaving torso.
There was a balcony upstairs, where viewers congregated and drank from the open bar, from whence a spotlight shone down, creating a circle of bright light around him, evident from all vantage points in the venue. Even from a fair distance, I could see the beads of sweat above his upper lip, as the men massaged thick wads of cream into his sweaty flesh. One of the men stepped aside, gesturing and encouraging me to walk forward. I made my way up to the platform to stand next to Ron. I put my hand on his chest. I felt it rise and fall as I rubbed gently. He didn’t look at me. His eyes were angled toward the ceiling, but it appeared to me like they were looking at the sky.
I stepped away to let others through, and to look for my friend Denise, an art professor who had worked with Athey as a graduate student at CalArts. She had invited me to this art show tonight because, she said, “you are brave.” I hadn’t known what she meant. Athey has a long history of bold and bloody performances, which she well knew, and I didn’t. I found her buried in the corner, looking small, like a child. She asked me if I touched him. I nodded.
“I can’t” she said, “It makes me nauseous, seeing him like that, doing that. I could never touch him.”
I nodded again. I got it. The room was hot and dense with the smell of beer, blood, sweat and massage oils. Intellectually, I understood this whole thing was raw and intimidating and probably a little dangerous. But I felt comfortable in the space, and oddly at peace with the worshippers, the theatrics, the suffering and the witnessing of it. The laying of hands felt familiar to me, and the noisy backdrop was like a soundtrack of speaking in tongues.
A voice boomed through the speakers and the spectators hushed. Ron rose from the table, as if from the dead, peeling back the hooks and discarding the wires. He garnered a cape and hat and began to walk in a circle, and with each step, his cape blew back gently to reveal his naked, vulnerable body, testicles now unbound and gorged with blood, so they looked impossibly large. The audience carefully stepped back to give him space. The voice from the speakers spoke of Pharaoh and mercy, exculpation and redemption, sin and ablutions, captivity and exodus. I thought of Moses and his band of followers leaving Egypt and walking toward the promised land.
I stood silent, reverent and rapt, as did the viewers around me.
The truth is, most people are horrified by Athey’s art. He has performed prophecy, pain, Christian mythology, transgressive and redemptive sexuality, and the politics of queerness when being HIV-positive (as Athey has been openly since the 1980’s), was a death sentence. Critics find him masochistic, dirty, extreme, and grossly inappropriate. I can’t argue with any of those labels. Yet through his work, I am reminded, yet again, that pain is inevitable, and suffering is a choice. Throughout his performance, I felt like I was more than a voyeur, or even a witness. I was a participant in a holy catharsis, in a space transcendent like a cathedral, communal like church.
For some of us, change and growth, transformation and metamorphosis, require more than words. For some of us, the symbols and integration of those symbols on or into our bodies helps us shift identities, from archetypes we clung to as children, to more fluid ways of seeing and being in the world. Sometimes this takes more than intellectual knowledge or analysis. Sometimes we have to walk through the desert barefoot and feel our way across the sand, without a map, or even the assurance of a destination point.
When I am afraid of cataclysmic change, I often think of the goddess Kali, who is the embodiment of the terrifyingly beautiful cycle of life and death, the pyrrhic clearing of the old to make way for the new. She burns away what no longer serves us and forces us to shed outgrown patterns and strategies and emerge as something new. Kali destroys the safety nets we cling to, so that we can grow into a new container of being.
Ron Athey’s work, like Kali, has stayed with me, walking beside me like a friend.
Athey’s fishhooks and binds are clearly self-imposed. By inviting people to participate in his suffering, to bear witness to the process of transformation, he gives us permission to endure our own pain, without apology or excuse. This isn’t an apocalyptic message. The visceral experience of being present for another’s transformation reminds us that we may have to give up our old, comfortable life to change the way things are. Athey reminds us that healing, like freedom, is a process.
Experiencing pain doesn’t mean we’ve failed. Pain is inevitable. Suffering is a choice. When I think about the ways I willingly push myself–my body, my mind, the boundaries of social acceptance–I am reminded that growth comes with a price. Paying it is a fair exchange.