Concept and Performer Ron Athey
Manchester Word of Warning at NIAMOS
This is a marriage made in heaven/hell as the iconic and maverick performance artist Ron Athey performs his blistering Acephalous Monster in the chilly, faded splendour of the old Hulme Hippodrome now reinvented as NIAMOS. Known for his bloody and visceral explorations of life, death, sexuality, trauma and fortitude this recent work focuses on the mutating, insidious spread of neo-fascism. Comprising video projections, readings, word virus and blood letting, Acephalous Monster is both troubling and mesmerising.
The performance is inspired by the work of George Bataille and his creation of a secret society, Acéphale which sought to combat 1930s fascism and rescue Nietzsche from the Nazi propaganda machine. It is provocative and definitely playing with the limits of artistic practice, but Athey is experienced and assured in his practice so the work never feels gratuitous.
Divided into five distinct sections this is not for the faint hearted. Pistol Poem sees a dapper, suited Athey chanting out numbers as he moves across a grid with deliberate and increasingly exaggerated movements like Hitler doing a step class. Later joined by Hermes Pittakos, they continue what seems a pointless repetition of moves that is quite hypnotic, while text by George Bataille appears on the screen behind. In Dionysus vs The Crucified One we see Athey at a glowing red pulpit reading lecture text from Bataille on the madness of Nietzsche while video shows the violent, imagined conception of the Minotaur.
The core focuses on celebrating the beheading of Louis XVI as an elaborately wigged Athey powders and preens before facing his execution like a macabre Punch and Judy show. There are inevitably allusions to our current political buffoons and their elaborately coiffed heads. The background footage features beheadings in the labyrinth of Forest Lawn Memorial Patk in Greendale. There is a delicious irony in Athey exploring the concept of Acéphale, the headless mascot and monster in the very cemetery where Walt Disney lies buried while his severed head is in a cryogenic facility.
Apotheosis sees Athey naked as he merges into a pool of gleaming viscose goo and then rises clutching visceral guts or umbilical cord with pigs skull mask. Dark and beautiful this is visually stunning and moving. In the final part he is joined again on stage by Hermes Pittakos for a delicate and painstaking blood letting that depicts an old masters painting. On the screen behind a BDSM scene unfolds with fakir shoes and the insertion of an elaborate peacock feather buttplug. This closing scene has real tenderness and joy. Perhaps a celebration of life and fortitude it marries the work of Athey who tested positive for HIV over 30 years ago and has survived to see PrEP while also celebrating the work of fellow performance artist Jon John who recently died from cancer in his early thirties.
There is humour, tenderness and supreme elegance in every aspect of this work. It feels impossible not to be moved by this multi layered, lushly designed performance.
Cambridge Junction 30th October 2019
Images by Rachel Papo