at Randolph Street Gallery, May 28 and 29

The most powerful moment of Ron Athey’s Martyrs and Saints may well have come in the show’s first piece: Three nurses, each caring for a “mummified,” breathing body, enter the stage with all the subtlety of enraged bulls. As they prep their patients, a loud, pounding sound track accompanies each move. One of these nurses is Athey himself, dressed in hideous drag: His makeup appears smeared from the start, his mouth is sewn shut with what looks like clear fishing line.

Eventually the other two nurses remove the stitches from Athey’s mouth, and he takes to a microphone, shouting what may be intended as a kind of manifesto for the evening: He evokes the biblical Lazarus and tells us he’s HIV-positive, but most of his words are lost in the pummeling music. As he speaks, tiny red dots appear where the stitches were around his mouth, then become streams of blood that roll down his chin.

This Athey is in distinct contrast to the Athey at the end of the show. By then he has unquestionably undergone a transformation from the bizarre to the beatific: He stands with his hands shackled and raised, arrows piercing strategic points of his body, and blood blanketing his head from dozens of needle pricks. Yet he’s radiant, a picture of grace.

While this final image seems intended to enchant, its real effect may be numbing. At the sold-out Friday performance at Randolph Street Gallery no one applauded at the finale until Athey, finally released, indicated we should by bringing his own hands together. That caused only a smattering of clapping and still no movement. Athey, now seated, waiting for someone to remove the arrows from his body, finally looked up at the crowd, and, a little embarrassed, said, “Get out.”

Certainly there were deliberately shocking images in Martyrs and Saints: a nurse whipping a woman with a riding crop, Athey giving another man an enema, the man emptying his bowels into a bucket, ritual piercing and bleeding, bondage, an abundance of Nazi paraphernalia–all juxtaposed with an altar boasting an array of Pentecostal imagery.

Yet I’d argue that the audience wasn’t silent because of shock, but was wasted from trying to integrate the relentless barrage of sensational images with virtually no text or context. (Athey speaks twice during the program, both times mostly unintelligibly.) Because there was nothing to challenge our notions, fears, or prejudices about the activities before us, I think most of us left with not much more than we came with. Athey’s apparent changes were a wholly alien experience.

In fact, the absence of context combined with the lack of theatricality in all but the first piece begs the question of how different this show was from what Athey might perform in an S-M sex club, and therefore what its purpose was in a public art gallery. This may seem like an idle question, but while some political considerations may cross from private to public space intact, aesthetics, particularly those that pertain to the erotic, won’t easily make the transition unexplained.

Certainly presenting Martyrs and Saints at RSG validates the S-M/piercing community–a noble enough undertaking, but one that’s political and psychic and not necessarily artistic. If this is the sole point of the exercise–if this is in fact an S-M scene transported whole from a private club–why in heaven’s name were we enticed to RSG with the idea that we would see a public art performance?

The argument that a private act in a public place is instantly transformed into performance is credible only to a point. Athey does perform in sex clubs, where one assumes the interests are erotic, communal, and transcendental. There the narrative and aesthetics should serve those concerns, and everybody knows the rules. But if Athey is an artist and his product is to be seen as having artistic merit, then there are different expectations of his performance–including a focus beyond the merely prurient. In other words, if the point isn’t strictly a hard-on, just what is it? And how are those of us in the audience supposed to approach it?

The issue of aesthetics and context is particularly pronounced because of the glut of explicit Nazi imagery in Athey’s work. It’s certainly old news that this is a staple of S-M scenes, a vehicle for fantasies of power and powerlessness that has probably been in use since before World War II. In private S-M scenes a fantasy, by its very nature, requires only the logic and covenant agreed to by its participants to be acted out. If swastikas are holy, then they simply are; desire defines its context. If the word “green” means stop, then that’s the safe word to end the private show.

But these same things resonate quite differently in a public space. How, for example, do the Nazi costumes escape their historical weight? Where, if the female nurses in the opening sequence represent the medical establishment, are the men (doctors and others) who are more accurately behind the kinds of exploitation depicted here? How, without text or context, does the artist using S-M techniques, rituals, or syntax create with her or his audience the same kind of agreement that participants in a private scene have? In a public space in our current society “green” is go until we’re told otherwise. Surely an artist with roots in the S-M community–which prides itself on education, step-by-step initiation, and mutual consent–understands the need to make sure that everybody’s on the same page.

For me, this was Athey’s great failure. We could see exactly what he was doing, but we never had much sense of its significance–to him, to us, to his community. What little context was offered got lost in a sloppy program and bad amplification. As a result, we were subjected to reckless sensationalism, a fascinating but ultimately empty experience.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.