Ron Athey, an ex-Pentecostal, self-described “post-punk/pre-goth” performance artist influential in L.A.’s queer art scene throughout the ’80s and ’90s, has worked with artists from Catherine Opie to Zackary Drucker. Still, he might be best-known for a 1994 performance that put him at the center of a national culture war conflict between conservative lawmakers and the NEA (the HIV-positive artist has frequently used human blood in his work, which made him controversial, particularly during the height of the AIDS epidemic).
Now, at age 57, he is looking back on his life so far in a new performance piece for The Broad, Gifts of the Spirit: Prophecy, Automatism, and Discernment. It’s a collaboration with experimental composer Sean Griffin, who is known for his multimedia pieces that range from operas to video installations, including commissions for LACMA, the Hammer, REDCAT, and other arts institutions around the world.
Athey sees this piece as fitting in as a sort of indirect response to Infinity Mirrors, The Broad’s recent blockbuster exhibit of Yayoi Kusama’s work, particularly the ideas of “self-obliteration” she often explores. “Rather than erasure of oneself,” Athey says of Kusama’s art, “the gesture is also grand, erasing the singular emphasis and using infinity as a texture.”
He is putting his own spin on that fusing of the personal and the infinite by taking a memoir he has been writing about the spiritual journey away from his Pentecostal upbringing, and presenting it, not as a conventional, linear story with himself at the center, but as a collaborative performance. Athey describes this process as “expanding the ‘I’ of my memoir into the randomness of collectively authored text.”
The collective authorship is both conceptual—the collaboration between Athey and composer Sean Griffin, the participation of the performers and audience in the work—and literal, in the form of an installation of an “automatic writing machine” powered by a team of 16 writers and six typists. The cast of Gifts of the Spirit also includes singers, musicians, and even a hypnotist. While the original music and choreography are performed, Athey will complete his memoir in a trance-like state of “ecstatic communion,” reading, writing, and listening, with the audience as witnesses.
Fitting for a work steeped in religious messaging and imagery, the performance will be staged a few blocks away from The Broad museum at Vibiana (214 S. Main St., downtown), a deconsecrated Catholic cathedral which has recently been restored. There will be just two performances, at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on January 25; tickets ($25) are required to attend and are available online.
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