There will be blood.

Ron Athey is a renowned performance artist who takes pleasure in using some fairly extreme staging devices to create a show with a message. The message may not be immediately clear, given the density of the polemic that it contains, but it encompasses faith, lack of faith, age, death and headlessness amongst other themes.

The Secret Society of Acéphale was formed in the late 1930s to try and use magic to unseat fascism, and Athey takes this theme forward to challenge current ideologies of intolerance. It may be hard to pick out the main purpose of this work in a piece which mixes longish moments of apparent inactivity with some viscerally gripping and unforgettable action.

The work is divided into five separate titled sections, with a back projection giving us some explanation and quite a lot of text. The first part, Pistol Poem, is a rather breathless stomping uniformed dance of apparently random numerology, first brought to us by Brion Gysin, with new music from Sean Griffin against a video backdrop by Georges Bataille. It makes us think about the obsession of the militarist with ordered movement, while also highlighting the pointlessness of it.

We then move into a lecture delivered by Athey (Dionysus v The Crucified One) on themes from Nietzsche by Georges Bataille. This could be as new to you as it was to me.

The third segment sees Athey dressing for the part of the beheaded Louis XVI, with wig and powder puff, with a video backdrop of Divinity Fudge chopping a head.

Ron Athey performing his piece “Acephalous Monster” at Performance Space New York.

Fourth segment ‘Apotheosis’ sees Athey naked becoming the Minotaur, with the assistance of a trough of some fluorescent material under strong UV lighting in a slurry of unknown liquid, colour and tripes.

The final part takes a text from Genesis P-Orridge and a video of a rather invasive bit of live performance while on stage Hermes Pittakos takes a knife to Athey’s chest to draw a bloody symbol which is then repeatedly dabbed onto strips of white cloth.

Athey depicts a world of art challenging normality and conformity and quite deliberately uses fairly shocking methods to reinforce this challenge. He is also clearly troubled by matters of faith, perhaps reflecting a strict religious background which makes little sense in a world dominated by the faith in power and wealth currently dominant.

It is not an easy show to watch, and can sometimes appear unfocused, but this gives time and space to dwell on the issues it raises. It reminds me of the artistic freedoms claimed half a century ago or more ago when artists employed ever more bizarre methods in performance, and experimentation was respected and occasionally even enjoyed.

I cannot say that I was clear about the message of this work, and the four pages of notes offered did not speed my learning. Ron Athey tackles some of the basic dilemmas of human life and some of the extremes of human physical behaviour in a very personal performance that will certainly provoke discussion. While I feel challenged by the delivery I cannot say that I engaged with the intellectual themes presented, perhaps because my own personal viewpoint is less troubled with inherited or acquired issues of faith. But my view does not matter, what makes this show so good is that it uses dramatic theatricality to engage us and make us reflect on some of the basics of our lives and interaction with each other, and for that Ron Athey is to be celebrated and enjoyed.

A few moments on the web will give you a clear overview of Ron Athey’s trajectory. He is nothing if not consistent in his challenge to the acceptable norms of stagecraft, and draws from the further extremes of performance art including material and technique that might grace a range of niche venues celebrating particular aspects of sexuality, gender, pain and pleasure. This is guy whose skin has experienced more than many of us would dare to consider. I suspect that he does not say ‘that hurts’ as often as many of us would.

The difference between the avant garde of 50 years back and tonight’s show is that we have to demonstrate at the desk that we have read and accepted the warning advice about challenging content, even in the heart of Norwich tolerance, the Arts Centre, before accepting attendance. I wonder whether this show would have more resonance with less buildup, even though I am now part of the problem by giving you this detailed review. Discuss. There will be blood.

For all that I really enjoyed this thought-provoking show, and I will watch out for his future work. A capacity audience at the Arts Centre certainly appreciated his work, with generous applause as the work concluded.

© Julian Swainson 2019