Ron Athey’s Acephalous Monster comes with warnings of nudity, bloodletting, BDSM and graphic sexual content, but at its heart is a message of resistance and political activism.
Presenting his show Acephalous Monster, Ron Athey performed the last stop of his UK tour at the Cambridge Junction. The established extreme performance artist presented his solo programme consisting of five pieces, which included spoken word, visual projections, audio recordings, and choreography. The show is not only inspired by the Acéphale, the figure of the headless man as a symbol for radical transformation, but by French philosopher Georges Bataille’s Secret Society of Acéphale “that used magic to try and unseat fascism in 1939”. In itself, the whole show is a ritual, a calm and deliberate weaving of mythology with historical and divine elements, the latter of which stem from Athey’s own upbringing in a highly religious household.
To be honest, I was sceptical at first. The 18+ rating, warnings of nudity, blood-letting, BDSM, and graphic sexual content promised an experience unlike anything I had seen or reviewed for Lucy Writers before. And Acephalous Monster did not disappoint in these regards. Although I expected it to be even bloodier, the graphic scenes of penetration and BDSM with extravagant costumes and accessories delivered what was advertised. All in all, it doesn’t make putting my thoughts into words any easier and it’s one of those shows where every detail can be analysed and over-interpreted to the nth degree. But I’ll do my best to describe the show without over analysing themes and spoiling it for future audiences.
Let’s start at the beginning. First on the list is the vocal/percussive choreography of Pistol Poem that, although captivating, stood out from the rest of the show, perhaps because it initially appeared more conventional – and less sexually explicit. The poem is a re-imagining of Brion Gysin’s piece of the same name, originally recorded in 1960 and now, specifically for the show, by Sean Griffin, an opera composer with whom Athey had already collaborated on experimental projects before. Athey’s choreography is a balancing act of military march, dance, and hopscotch. His voicing the out-of-order numbers one until five is monotonous but surprisingly entertaining. Later joined by his art director Hermes Pittakos, the two men’s paths or glances never cross. Yet, they are always aware of each other, sharing the same space and co-existing without ever interacting. It simultaneously imitates and critiques the fascists (Athey in particular with a toupee that alludes to a certain German dictator), and offers alternative ways of existence, and thus, ways of resistance. It’s a painful reminder of the rise of neo-fascism and its automatic mechanics. All subsequent acts can therefore be seen as Athey’s suggestion for resistance and activism to challenge existing orders lacking a coherent foundation.
Fittingly, the second part includes a video depicting the conception of the Minotaur. In the piece titled ‘Dionysus vs The Crucified One’, Athey reads part of George Bataille’s lecture ‘On Nietzsche’. Bataille ascribes Nietzsche with having saved his life and turning him against religion. The Secret Society of Acéphale tried to reclaim the German philosopher from the Nazis who misread his works. Still, Bataille himself also used Nietzsche to justify his own fascination with violence and the war. Showcasing Athey’s talent as a captivating speaker, his reading of the excerpt is first accompanied by the text’s projection on the big screen before making way for the first graphic video of the show, depicting said conception of the Minotaur. As Bataille writes in ‘The Sacred Conspiracy’, excerpts from which are performed in the opera inspiring the third part of the show, of the beheading of Louis XVI: “He is not me but he is more than me; his stomach is a labyrinth in which he has lost himself, loses me with him, and in which I discover him, in other words as a monster.” The fourth part, then, sees Athey becoming the Minotaur. Now completely naked, Athey bathes in a neon-coloured, spider web-like substance that seemingly represents the labyrinth of the womb. He becomes the Monster, the grotesque, the ejected, symbolising the merging of humans and gods as a way out of contemporary, static life.
The last performance includes the anticipated blood-letting scene, the one I was maybe most interested in as it made up many of the warnings circulated. In the end, less blood flowed than expected. Athey has his chest cut by Pittakos who then continues to press strips of gauze on the wounds, hanging the strips up to the left and right of Athey. With a face cage by House of Malakai crowned by a solar-inspired headpiece, the scene has a biblical touch and postulates Athey as a prophet-like figure. The whole scenario is supported by a cut-up of Genesis P-Orridge’s Esoterrorist and the video projection of ‘Enter the Forest’, the most graphic BDSM sequence of the show that celebrates sexual desire and practices. The performance artist had previously performed a similar act; in The Human Printing Press (1984) he cut co-performer Divinity Fudge’s back and then hoisted the blood-stained cloth above the audience. In an age where the anxiety about AIDS was much more far-spread and S&M inspired art was not yet established, the act brought Athey to wider attention as he was called out for and accused of exposing audience members to HIV-infected blood. The blood-letting in Acephalous Monster may seem tame in comparison yet still constitutes a point of resistance and celebration of life, in particular that of the HIV-positive, gay man.
It is fascinating to watch Athey constantly transform. He enjoys manipulating his body to transform it. Although he does so in a less-radical way than in previous performances and primarily used wigs, make-up, and clothing instead of, for example, piercings, Athey transforms into five different yet related individuals: from a farouche militarist to a preacher-like vocalist, turning into Louis XVI, the Minotaur, a prophet. The artist clearly loves what he does, enjoys the re-imaginations of himself. His whole body is his canvas, which he has not only decorated with abundant tattoos but lends to the various characters and personifications he brings to life.
Athey’s work is a direct, although obscure, response to the rising fascism and far-right movements. It needs to be contextualised, otherwise it might leave its audience with a sense of confusion and incoherence. Athey seems to have found his place, attracting a dedicated fan base that celebrates his invented rituals, re-envisioning of the sacred, and radical transformations. His performance, in particular the video projections, are provocative and the age restriction and warnings should be taken serious. Acephalous Monster made for an entertaining 50 minutes which, however, demands more time afterwards to make sense of the extreme performance.
Ron Athey’s Acephalous Monster was shown at the Cambridge Junction on 30th October. For more information about this performance, click here.