Olivia Michiko Gagnon | New York University
Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains was the first performance I saw when I moved to New York City in the summer of 2013. It was brutally hot that
evening, but Grace Space—an alternative art space in Brooklyn—filled up quickly. Inside, we waited, a mass of sticky bodies, wetness dripping down our
necks. Some shirts came off, a few girls slumped in the corner sipping beers, I sucked down my bottle of water. And then it began: Athey’s tattooed body
was stunningly still yet vibrating somehow, caught in an eerie state of suspended animation. Slick with glow-in-the-dark Vaseline, stretched out across a
metal gurney, impaled by a baseball bat, his forehead hooked and pulled taut, eyes popping open, nails hammered through his lips, that engorged scrotum,
massive barreled ribs descending steeply into a sunken stomach. Breath the only indication of life, of liveness. I had written about Athey’s work before,
gone through some of his archival materials in London, seen him speak in public, pored over grainy documentation of his early S&M punk performances at
places like Club Fuck! in Los Angeles during the early 1990s (I concluded that the videographer had most definitely been intoxicated). But being there, I
surprised myself by staying pressed up against the wall near the back. Frozen somehow, I felt unable to enter the force field that he had conjured around
his naked, penetrated, beautiful body. Watching the video documentation of that evening however, I realize that I was in the minority. Most of the audience
clusters around his body, accepting his assistants’ invitation to don a pair of latex gloves, lube up, and touch him. And what happens next is as much a
part of this performance as Athey’s body itself. A woman massages his feet for almost 20 minutes, a man holds his arm in perfect stillness, some just rest
their hands lightly on his skin. Some won’t touch, but simply stare. One looks disgusted, another blank with shock. I’m sure I see one woman with tears in
her eyes, and I wonder if she knows why or if, like me, she is simply registering the sticky affective weight of the environment she has walked into. Many
peer anxiously into the camera or across the room at each other, the silent questions “what is this?” or “what should we do?” streaked across their faces.
I remember that the man standing in front of me shoved his hands into his pants with so much intensity that I moved quickly to the opposite side of the
These scenes of care, desire, alienation, and community unfold around Athey’s body—weaving together traumatic histories of HIV/AIDS, elements of ritual,
Christian spectacles of the body in pain, and the pleasures of queer sex. The laying on of hands, the echoes of Michelangelo’s Pietà and
Brugghen’s Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene, the spectacular display of a sexualized corpse, the suspension in trauma, the specter of contamination
evoked by latex. As in much of his work, Athey centers the biopolitically-managed HIV+ body, the penetrated queer body, the abandoned sick
body—and finds fleshly avenues for transformation and resistance through acts of wounding, self-obliteration, and radical passivity. Standing in that
sweaty room, I found myself knit together with the other audience members through flows of desire and fear, arousal and anxiety, transfixion and care,
death and sex. This is the affective density that accretes around Athey’s body in performance, which is also an invitation to participate in an intense
collective experience of ritual and witnessing: a sometimes ecstatic, sometimes difficult co-presence with the other and with each other.
This is also the mark that Athey’s Pentecostal upbringing has left upon his work: not only an investment in a fevered performatic intensity, but also in
the flesh as a vexed site of pleasure and pain, sex and suffering, desire and revulsion. While these tensions are not limited to
Pentecostalism, what is unique is the latter’s focus on intensely embodied and chaotic manifestations of the divine—a particularity that
has been endlessly generative for Athey. Thus, in both the St Sebastian series and The Torture Trilogy, religious iconographies are
reworked onto the body, into and as scenes of queer life, loss, love, and death. Is religion, here, queered? Or has it always been queer? Or, has the
Pentecostal already queered the Christian—inviting swells of deep feeling, an embodied fervor, and the erotics of ecstasy into the church or the house, the
stage or the club?
There are many ways into Athey’s work. And as Jennifer Doyle has beautifully written, the work’s mixing of pain and pleasure, its affective fullness, the
demands it makes of us—all of this makes it difficult to sit with, to confront, to know. But in the
context of this issue, we might consider how Athey recasts religious intensities as part of an expansive queer practice of survival, one which must both
grapple with death and confront the question of what it means to still be here, to have persisted, to have outlived so many friends and loved
ones. From his earlier works, which more literally engage the pandemic from within its midst, to his later ones, in which he reflects more obliquely on the
status of what he calls his “Post-AIDS” body, Athey labors to imagine new political constellations of care, desire, pleasure, grief, trauma, vulnerability,
and embodiment. In his work, cutting, bleeding, piercing, sex, penetration, automatic writing, dancing, and wild aurality converge, offering a glimpse of
new queer forms of ritual and ecstatic transport, erotic display and participatory witnessing, collective mourning and deep healing.
The Pentecostal notion of “gifts of the spirit” indexes the ways in which the divine affixes itself to and finds itself harbored within a body. This is why
the flesh trembles, overflows, makes the darkness visible. An exorcism, an orgasm. The body—Athey’s body—shakes, it twists, it screams, it touches itself,
it offers itself to us, gives itself over, violated, glimmering, wounded, held.
Jennifer Doyle, Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013.