Unless you were one of the very first to enter Ron Athey's performance, Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains, when the doors at Human Resources opened Wednesday night, you probably didn't see Athey right away. Instead, you saw the faces of the people who had gathered closely around the performance artist, some of them looking tenderly down and others looking less certain of how to feel. You also saw two barefoot figures, one woman and one man, with dark hair and in black robes carrying gold-colored buckets of Vaseline above their heads. Other assistants handed out rubber gloves. This was so that audience members who wanted to squeeze their way to the front of the crowd, could pull on a glove, dip their hand in a gold bucket and gently rub Athey's exposed skin.
As he has been in previous iterations of his Incorruptible Flesh series, Athey was naked on a slatted, chest-high metal table, though his exquisite tattoos make his skin look like a tribal tapestry and his nakedness seem more specific than most people's. He had hooks stuck into his brow and attached to strings tied the the metal rung behind his head, pulling his skin back. His hands upturned, and the rounded upper end of a blue and silver baseball bat sticking up into his rear from below the table.
Athey grew up in Pomona and began performing in the 1980s — he contributed to LA Weekly in the 90s and early 00s when it had a different kind of alt voice (in a 2001 fashion shoot he editorialized with Vaginal Davis, called The Beauty of the Dork, he asks, “Wouldn't you say it's the dynamic of perfection prevailing over scar tissue that makes the humpy dork a veritable prodigal son?”). He did the first Incorruptible Flesh performance in the mid-1990s. This was after he had been HIV-positive for a decade, lost friends to the disease that devastated certain art communities around the counters and been inaccurately accused of exposing audiences at one of his performances to HIV-positive blood (in that performance, it was not him who bled, but another performer, Divinity Fudge, and while he does bleed and did Wednesday, it's not a risk to people present).
Incorruptible Flesh began in 1996 and had three iterations before Wednesday night: first in Glasgow in collaboration with performance artist Lawrence Steger, who would die of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1999. The two had dug deep into mythology, learning about “incorruptible” bodies of saints and other heroes. According to accounts of those there, it ended with Athey lying on a plank and Steger tending to him. Ten years later, in Incorruptible Flesh: Diminutive Sparkle in Glasgow and New York, the plank became a metal bed like the one he laid on Wednesday, and Athey stayed there with hooks through his brow for six hours as people comforted him with rubber gloves on. Incorruptible Flesh: Perpetual Wound, in collaboration with artist-critic Dominic Johnson at the Chelsea Theater and the Fierce Festival in Birmingham, took its inspiration from the story Philoctetes, a Greek hero exiled because he has a terrible wound that won't heal.
It was difficult not to think of martyr myths and the story of Jesus' body being anointed and tended by women — his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene — when watching the audience Wednesday night.
Two women, one near his feet, and one near his head, stayed next to him until everyone was asked to move away, looking attentively down at him almost without interruption. Then there were the people who tended to Athey for only a short while and them seemed to feel they'd done their part, and those on the outskirts who declined to take gloves when offered (most of these were men), or who took gloves but couldn't bring themselves to go closer. And there was the tall man in jeans and a baggy t-shirt who has holding his cell phone up above the crowd to get a shot of Athey when another audience member informed him that no cell pictures were allowed. In another situation, who could imagine him reacting hostilely at being told what to do by someone who wasn't even in charge. But he said, “Oh, of course,” in a way that suggested he wouldn't want to violate Athey in any way. You feel reverence for someone who willingly endures pain for your sake — which Athey was more or less doing.
Around 9:30, half-an-hour in, the already limited lights went down and people were herded back away from the table. The two figures in black robes — Sage Charles and Maria Sideri — padded Athey down with a towel and he disentangled himself and climbed down. The audience applauded, in the thankful way you would at church. What followed was an interlude in which Athey, now in a black robe and tall, priestly hat, stood at the outskirts of a circle while Charles stood with a rope around his waist and arms out in the center. Sideri dragged the end of that rope around and around, working to move Charles' resistant body. Then there was smoke and a narrative began to play out of speakers, Athey talking about the death of Divine, or divinity. Near the end he spun, and his cape spread out. His recorded voice spoke about vulnerability, and then the performance was over and he was jumping up and down, like an athlete who'd just nailed something he'd been working toward for a lifetimes.
There's this great thing critic Dave Hickey says in an essay about photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, though he's talking largely about the dramatic, virtuosic 16th and 17th century painters Valesquez and Caravaggio when he says it: “These images are too full of art to be 'about' it.” Athey's performance felt like that. It's full of references to darker mythological imagery, images of religious martyrdom, underground scenes from the 80s and 90s, writers like Bataille. But in the moment, all that is beside the point.