@NIAMOS RADICAL ARTS CENTRE, MANCHESTER
First of all, let’s just unpack that name a bit, because it’s pretty damn useful for understanding the performance as a whole. Acephalous is a Greek word meaning ‘not having a head’ (cheers google) & Athey uses this headlessness as the only constant form of imagery throughout his entire performance. He moves from poetry, to a lecture on madness in Nietzsche, to the beheading of Louis XVI, to becoming a minotaur & eventually becoming a cephalophore (a headless saint – thnx again google). Ultimately, we are taken on a spiritual journey of transformation in which the artist seems to be trying to locate himself, or maybe society as a whole, within the landscape of myth, sin & possible salvation. .
As the chaotic scenes unfold on a small stage, I tried too hard to search for their deeper meanings. After the first act - which was a reimagining of a poem by Brion Gysin – I realised that instead of trying to piece together the catalogue of references that Athey was alluding to, I instead should sit back and enjoy the show. Thankfully, he had gifted us with a lecture-style handout of useful information about the performance which would help us later when we would inevitably sit at our laptops trying to work out what we just saw.
On the surface, this seems to be a rather exclusionary tactic – keeping the art for the artistic & academic elites - & in a way it is. But Athey is what I consider an artist working in a niche within a niche. He incorporates live bloodletting, BDSM, depictions of violence, & religious mortifications of the flesh into his performances, mixed with a camp theatrical flair and a love of costume. & so, making his audience work for something more than just the visual feast of extreme bodily harm & sexual acts is what turns his gruesome theatre into a sensational work of art.
I find it super interesting that in an age where we are consumed by the instant gratification of art, social media & news – an endless scroll of knowledge at our fingertips – Athey chooses to delay the gratification of his art by sending us away with food for thought. As an audience, we are used to consuming art on our terms - flicking through an art mag, scrolling through an insta, walking in & out of a gallery - but to have the art performed for us, on the artists terms, is something truly magical. We are forced into a realm of his creation, and are only allowed to leave when he allows us to. When it's over, we gasp & applaud the show we think we have understood, then hours later connect another piece of his puzzle. It’s exciting, and I genuinely cannot stop thinking about it.
images: Rachel Papo & @Ron_Athey_2
HISTORICAL STUFF I LOOKED UP SO YOU DON'T HAVE TO