Religious Studies Review - Pleading in the Blood: the Art and Performances of Ron Athey

I did not fully appreciate the power of iconic artist Ron Athey’s work until I attended one of his performances in Chicago, where, as Athey lay naked on a ladder, his face stretched into a leering mask by hooks and lines fastened to a wall, a baseball bat inserted into his rectum, I joined others in caressing his naked body, including his scrotum, inflated with saline to monstrous proportions. It was then, as blood issued from his wounds, that I experienced the potency of Athey’s theatricalized sexuality, his staged but very real vulnerability, and the ambiguous sacrality of which his ritu- alistic performances, deftly eliciting horror and desire, par- takes. Although Pleading in the Blood cannot convey the tremendum of a firsthand experience of an Athey perfor- mance, it provides a superb feel for the artist and his work. Comprising texts by Athey as well as a distinguished host of scholars, artists, writers, and curators (Homi K. Bhaba, Lydia Lunch, and Catherine Opie are among them), and featuring color photos documenting Athey’s career, this volume delves into the religious background and sensibility that informs Athey’s work. In “Gifts of the Spirit,” Athey, raised in an intensely zealous, Pentecostal Christian household, reveals that a prophecy uttered by his grandmother foresaw Athey becoming a minister. In a sense, Athey’s performance art has fulfilled that prophecy, building on those gifts of the spirit—speaking in tongues, charismatic preaching, auto- matic writing—that he displayed as a child. But for Athey, who has been HIV positive since 1986, spirit is a fleshly, bloody matter. As Johnson writes, “Athey articulates the peculiar nobility of ecstatic, living flesh,” even as he engages pain, woundedness, and abjection in performances that see him, for example, pierced with arrows after the manner of St. Sebastian. Pleading in the Blood is essential reading for scholars of religion working at the intersection of ritual, performance, and contemporary art practices, as well as those with interest in abjection, gender and sexuality, the AIDS crisis, charismatic Christianity, and the construction of religious identity.

Review by Jeremy Biles, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, published in Religious Studies Review, Volume 41, Number 4, October 2015

Originally published Wiley Online Library.


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