Each Performance a Miracle of Survival
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Published in: January-February 2021 issue.


Edited by Amelia Jones and Andy Campbell
Intellect/University of Chicago Press
439 pages, $37



I WAS Curator of Performing Arts at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from 1988 to1996. Artists were creating fierce and politicized bodies of work; some became entangled with the Culture Wars being waged in the media and in the halls of Congress. In 1994, I presented Ron Athey’s Four Scenes in a Harsh Life.

            Athey’s life story is a compelling one. Raised by schizophrenic women in a fundamentalist Pentecostal household, he writes: “By the age of nine, I spoke in tongues, danced in the spirit, and was prone to visions and ecstatic catatonic states.” His first artistic forays emerged out of the Los Angeles punk, leather, sex-club, and modern-primitives scenes of the late 1970s and ’80s. A decade of drug addiction followed. In the early ’90s, Athey amalgamated his experiences into shamanistic rituals of extreme corporeality. Drawing upon his evangelical, punk, and BD/SM roots, he describes his æsthetic thus: “Physically, my work manipulates the human body: acts of bloodletting, branding, piercing, cutting, purging, exhaustive dancing, and gender bending are staged.” This vision, while harsh and unrelenting, is ultimately about redemption. Responses to his theatricalized suffering are cathartic and visceral. Experiencing his work, we witness miracles of survival.

     The sold-out Walker performance was well received by an audience of about a hundred.

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John R. Killacky, a longtime contributor to this magazine, is serving in his second term as an elected legislator in the Vermont House of Representatives.