Ron Athey grew up in a fervently religious household—a beginning that plays a fundamental role in his singularly visceral performance art. Athey incorporates aspects of religious iconography and ritual into his 30-year practice of bloody, masochistic spectacles. He has slashed and pierced his flesh and even injected his scrotum with saline in pursuit of epitomizing a struggle with sex, death, and resilience deeply colored by the AIDS crisis and his H.I.V.-positive status. In 1994, while the AIDS epidemic hung heavily in the air, he sent paper towels blotted with the blood of another performer over the audience. False, inflammatory rumors swirled that he had risked infecting audience members with H.I.V. As Athey found himself persona non grata in American art centers, he looked to Europe, where he lived and exhibited until 2015 when he moved back to Los Angeles.
Now, amid new national controversies, Athey’s work has taken on fresh resonance. His 2018 performance piece Acephalous Monster takes its name from the French intellectual Georges Bataille’s Acéphale, a public review and secret society that critiqued the percolating anti-Semitism and fascism in pre-WWII Europe, and was itself derived from the Greek word for “headless.” With excruciating urgency, Acephalous Monster, performed last November at Performance Space New York, examines the loss of individual coherence following the contemporary resurgence of fascism and the decline of organized religion.