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by Tom Liesegang
"Modern primitive" is a term coined by Fakir Musafar back in 1967 to "describe a non - tribal person who responds to primal urges and does something with the body."
Thirty-two year old Ron Athey is a Los Angeles-based performance artist whose work can best be described as modern primitive taken one step beyond. Onstage rituals include multiple piercings, mummification, flagellation, and blood - letting all under the auspices of tight - laced, rubber - clad clinical "nurses."
Whereas San Francisco - based Fakir's body play and manipulation is spiritually inspired, Athey's vision comes more from a post - industrial, post - punk culture trying to come to grips with the devastating effect AIDS has had on its own generation. Athey, who is HIV positive as are other members of his group, describes himself as "a fatalist with a lust for life."
Their objective is to raise their audience's consciousness to the plight of people infected with the AIDS virus; and to say his work is about life and death is an understatement. It is harsh and it is in your face.

FAD: How did your interest in "modern primitive" culture come about and were there any early influences?
Athey: Yes, I was raised by my grandmother and aunt and was influenced through their involvement with a Pentecostal church - it was at that time the calling of my life. I was training to be a preacher and my whole life centered around speaking in tongues, faith healing, and dances in spirit. We never went to one church for more than a month. We'd go to workshops in the desert where they would do this stuff for someone who was supposed to have stigmata, or there were special healing services. They were outside the church; you could actually belong to an underground Pentecostal church.

FAD: Under what circumstances did you become aware of Fakir Musafar and when did you first meet him?
Athey: The first time I saw pictures of him was in Annie Sprinkle's Love Magazine back in '81 or '82. I met him while he was doing a performance at a three-weekend festival of which I was on the planning committee. So much of his stuff was about transformation and ritual and a new spirituality, that upon meeting him I said that I believed some people get into masochism because of self-hatred and that you can actually work yourself through it. I think it's a good catharsis. So, basically we have different reasons for doing certain things.

FAD: In your work, what is the correlation between masochism and primal urge?
Athey: Some of the SM techniques employed in my work are used as metaphor and it creates a ritual by doing it; but I'm not enacting a spiritual ritual. Sewing your mouth shut is not a spiritual ritual, whereas I put an arrow through me as a metaphor for Saint Sebastian to represent HIV positive people, and even Modern Primitive people, as being outcasts within gay culture.

FAD: You mentioned earlier that SM psychodrama or masochism can be a cathartic experience. Can you elaborate?
Athey: I think that if you're boiling inside, the strongest manifestation you can make is to physically abuse yourself - and if you know why you're doing it, you can transcend and work through it. If you deny why you're doing it, the problems can perpetuate themselves. For instance, Cleo Du Bois, a dominatrix friend of mine, gave me a ritual whipping over grieving. I wouldn't call this masochism. I was filled with so much sorrow because three friends had just died. She beat me for a half hour until I cried, focusing on the loss, not the sensuality of it or the submission - power trip.

FAD: What are some of the extreme rituals you've performed publicly?
Athey: I guess in the context of HIV gays, bloodletting is really extreme. When I had the needles pulled out of my head at the last Act Out Benefit there were cups of blood on the floor.

FAD: Your work makes some historical references, especially concerning the lives of the saints; do you try to adapt your work to or around contemporary events?
Athey: I really don't care about popular politics, Jesse Helms and such. I don't lash out at specific events. What I do react to are events that affect me personally. For instance, when David Wojnarowicz died, I tried to imagine what it would be like for a nurse who truly loved their patient and was helpless to save them. What would their penance be? That was a fantasy I had about that and I just had to do that piece.

FAD: Why a piece on Saint Sebastian?
Athey: Because he is the homo-erotic saint. I just read a book by Yukie Mishima called "Confessions of a Mask." It's about an adolescent boy growing up in Tokyo in the '40s and he comes across a reproduction in a book of Saint Sebastian and as a result he experiences his first ejaculation! So it's a sexual icon, just high drama!

FAD: How many performances do you do in a year?
Athey: It depends. I'm defining it as I go along, so each performance is really the culmination of a year's work in progress. I'm utilizing better spaces now for my shows so better sets get built, better lighting designers come in and so forth. The work is harsh so it's a good balance to refine it with more technique and better technology.

FAD: Does it hurt?
Athey: I think people freak out about the kind of pain I go through because there is blood as a result of it. I hurt more at the gym doing squats than I do with a 25 gauge needle going through my chest!

Photo: Doris Kloster
Photo color: Lorin Crosby

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