Exclusive Article: After the Experience - A Road to Pagan Sanctity

Following their reading of Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey, the artist, writer and curator Andrea Pagnes (VestAndPage) and Lisa Newman have written a response to Ron Athey's perfomance Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains.       


After the Experience - A Road to Pagan Sanctity
Andrea Pagnes

The concept of the “Incorruptible Flesh” series took form a year before the three-therapy HIV drug treatment would give hope by halting the numbers of AIDS deaths. “Messianic Remains” is the fourth installation of the series, culminating in a final monologue—“Divine’s funeral”, re-transcribed from “Our Lady of the Flowers” by Jean Genet. It’s a solo performance conceived by Athey where the artist prolongs the exploration of his own post-AIDS body. Commissioned by Performance Studies international, it debuted at Stanford University in June 2013.

In a 1947 letter to Cocteau, Jean Genet wrote: “To watch our heroes live and to pity them is not enough. We must take their sins upon ourselves and suffer the consequences.” To merely observe is not to witness or embody. Athey repeatedly enforces this difference in his art, meditating upon relics of acknowledgement, thankfulness, seriousness and the paradox of bitter playfulness underlying the suffering that forges a survivor like himself.

A man, a thinker and a lover who went through the era of AIDS bearing its burden in his own flesh and spirit, resisting, reacting, responding to the hypocritically inquisitorial, expanded witch-hunt climax that had arisen in the US during those times and thereafter with courageous terrific art actions, which still powerfully influence and inspire the art and the life of many younger generations.

Saint Sebastian

Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains reveals a new anthro-poetic approach to the question of religion, a perspective that rejects assimilationist ideology to advocate an implicitly relativist sensitivity to norms pertaining to holiness, the sacred, and the icon, opposing art as a meaningful tool to the violation of freedom once and for all. Within the mature technical exactitude of his performance, Athey has sought the essence of the Christian religion to relocate it in its ideal “primitive” beginnings, uniting it to the harbingers of the most ancient ceremonies, and returned in a full artistic contemporary acception.

Generating a new power in the spectacularization of the quintessence of the rituals of worshipping, mourning and embalming, the performance itself becomes the ideal shared place to redeem and sanctify a living human body of an individual - and with it a multitude of people with similar histories, subjected to bigotry and rejection by their governments and social normativity.

In the final monologue re-transcribed by Jean Genet’s Our Lay of the Flowers, Athey states strongly and even ironically that if (the) Divine is dead, it means that it is no longer here, and perhaps even elsewhere. This assertion contains the seeds of this new generative power for the human spirit itself, since all the sexual impulses, forced constrictions, repression and symbolism are the basic foundation of all religions.

The antithesis to this – the enforcing evidence – is given by the initial staging and enactment of a real martyrdom as it was reserved for those who were judged heretics or suspected of witchcraft and later, but only much later, maybe absolved by the church and canonized. Here Athey’s body is immobilized in agony, publicly exposed, hooked and impaled on a gridiron, but the procession of the public invited to smear Vaseline as an holy balm on his helpless body, unable to move and suffering, is to realize that stolid piety, adoration and commiseration lead nowhere, except to distract us from the fact that what we need really is always a powerful and continuous communicative act of love toward others and ourselves, and that those who do not like this could simply “stay away”.

Morals are a matter of community feeling, but also the cause of separating communities. They are so interwoven with religion and habits that Athey, as if appealing to a subtle and culturally grounded relativism, fairly advances the argument that one society has no basis for condemning the standards of others, assuming and interpreting the pure act of a ceremony as fertile symbol of conciliation, where visible suffering and constriction do not imply any immorality because they pertain to all of us. Clearly, it is not a deliberate criticism to religion and its icons, rather the proposition of a new way of deciphering and re-interpreting religion from its very fundament, to try and get closer to the truth in origin.

To rely on dance as a liberating and cathartic moment from his initial bodily constriction and suffering, Athey represents a total recall to the birth of religion, where today’s controversial topic of sexuality had no reason to be, because the early humans found life power in the dance and in the outreaching the ecstasy state generated by it. Already in 1923, Havelock Ellis identified “”the spellbinding power of dance as the original impulse behind all the arts along with religion, the essential part of all vital and unregenerate religion, where mystic signs and a kind of emotional ecstasy are the very soul of religion in its great original moments, in its strange and profound beginnings in the childhood of all races, persecuted and casted away later by the Church… as intended merely as barbaric social amusements. In fact, in ancient times dance was not only a valid religious practice, it was the very heart of the human religious impulse, far more authentic as religion than Christianity itself.1

Incorruptible Flesh: Messanic Remains

Ultimately, in Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains, the concept of the “incorruption of the flesh” becomes like a generative fructifying process celebrated communally, as it was in ancient Greece and Egypt, strengthening Athey’s participatory performance by restating the myth of enlightenment as it was used in several ancestral ceremonies, from the ancient Celtic to Indian tribes. Here, however, it is not a system of evocative prayers to recall a hypothetical heavenly blessing, but rather to offer by means of art an occasion of a gathering reunion among individuals to reflect upon the necessity of the re-awakening of the divine Self.

In a society which is increasingly constellated by forced inhibition and repression upon the evolution of the being, particularly the inhibition of our human innate wish to preserve for the sex impulse and its spiritual (and therefore also mystical) connotations, of which Christianity has so utterly bereft it. In fact, along the course of history, religions’ repression and denial of the “pagan sanctity” of sexuality can well explain also the virulence of the plenty of gender-phobic campaigns, which are still prevalent today. For instance, Christianity had lost the sexual basis of ancient religions because of the Church propaganda, driven to exert power and instigate fear on individuals with the clear purpose to rule them. The results are evident in the growing scandals and accounts of corruption within the Catholic Church, together with an increasing discomfort among both liberal and conservative Christians towards the Church itself (as supreme institution), but still towards what they consider “diverse”, as the corruption injected by Catholic dogmas over centuries are still to rooted in common beliefs, as well as the obsolete misused dualism “good-bad” / “right-wrong”.

Confrontational and uncompromised - as it is all Athey’s oeuvre - Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains offers a visceral reminder of the holiness of the abject, the persecuted body as divinity, and the power of empathic connection through the giving over of oneself to another.



  1.  Wenger, Tisa, We Have a Religion, The University of North Carolina Press: 2009, p.161. For a thoroughly investigation see: Ellis, Havelock, The Dance of Life, Boston And New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1923.

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