“Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance”
Kinkiness Piercing, Branding and Tattoos
Body artist, extreme masochist, H.I.V.-positive gay man, heavily tattooed freak, former heroin addict, onetime grant recipient from the National Endowment, Ron Athey has turned his life into the most radical kind of performance art.
In his collaborations with a traveling troupe of self-described outcasts, Mr. Athey turns his experiences into mock Christian rituals. In one he is ecstatically tormented with a crown of thorns consisting of hypodermic needles that spill blood across his face as they are inserted into the skull. At the moment of insertion, Mr. Athey, his eyes rolling heavenward, wears an expression of total calm.
This crowning is just one of several blood-letting scenes in Catherine Gund Saalfield’s documentary portrait “Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance”. This is a movie that is definitely not for everyone, especially not the squeamish or the sexually prudish. In addition to the blood-smearing, the film offers a methodical catalogue of advanced sexual kinkiness, with scenes of piercing, bondage, branding, flogging, enemas and dildos (everything you never wanted to see).
As Mr. Athey shares that he was born an extremist, having been raised by a Pentecostal grandmother to be a prophet. Anyone who is brought up in such an extremely devout environment is probably bound to have a very developed sense of good and evil, of Jesus and the devil involved in perpetual combat. When Mr. Athey smiles, you have the sense of a performer taking pleasure in being the naughtiest little boy in the world. His performance art is admittedly a desperate act. As an H.I.V.-positive man, he insists he wants to make the most creative use of whatever time he has left. And his performances take body art about as far you can go. The most disturbing excerpt from his work shown in the film is a section from “Martyrs and Saints,” in which impassive white-robed “doctors and nurses” brutally parody invasive medical procedures.
We ask ourselves if Athey’s performances are art or psychodrama, sacred or profane and we realize that they are both. Emphasis is on visceral and spiritual extremes and are obvious attempts to shock.