Blood in the Lung: Ron Athey, Cassils and Fanaa Conjure a Ritual Body at the Arizona Desert’s Biosphere 2

In the vast greenhouse complex, goths, art kids, academics and patrons gathered to witness an allegorical spectacle

This past December, I hopped on a bus in a fit of art tourism. My destination was Biosphere 2: built in 1987, the vast greenhouse complex was an experiment in creating a self-sustaining ecosystem, should earth eventually prove herself uninhabitable. Infamous in the scientific community, I found that its mention solicited a kind of cultish awe. When the structure got a little too hippy for its big-oil funders, Steve Bannon was apparently brought in to break up the party.

Ron Athey, Cassils and Fanaa, Cyclic, performance documentation, 2018. Courtesy: the artists and MOCA Tucson; photograph: Adam Cooper-Teran for MOCA Tucson

Ron Athey, Cassils and Fanaa, Cyclic, performance documentation, 2018. Courtesy: the artists and MOCA Tucson; photograph: Adam Cooper-Teran for MOCA Tucson

A congregation of the devoted assembled around a grassy crater beneath Biosphere’s glass and white-painted steel architecture: performance scholars, goths and body modification enthusiasts from across the US, as well as some rather well-humored MOCA Tucson donors. They had gathered for Cyclic, a robust and episodic performance composed by Ron Athey, Cassils and Fanaa, featuring Hermes Pittakos and Paul King, with direction by Sean Griffin. Together we were led clumsily, one-by-one, into the unlit interior of a cylindrical domed structure called ‘the Lung’, where, after an extended moment in darkness, a Brion Gysin cut-up dance composition began, brusque and orderly, with the cadence of early 1990s industrial music. With a shift in lighting, this segued into a lecture, delivered at a podium by Athey, borrowed from texts by Genesis P-Orridge. Musing on the structural integrity of William S. Burroughs’ concept of the ‘cut up’, ‘Esoterrorist’ (1980-88) argues that a certain logic lies behind the seemingly arbitrary. Initially, the reference seemed a convenient way to contain the work’s three disparate performers, but the reading deepened.

Ron Athey, Cassils and Fanaa, Cyclic, performance documentation, 2018. Courtesy: the artists and MOCA Tucson; photograph: Adam Cooper-Teran for MOCA Tucson

Ron Athey, Cassils and Fanaa, Cyclic, performance documentation, 2018. Courtesy: the artists and MOCA Tucson; photograph: Adam Cooper-Teran for MOCA Tucson

‘The myths and symbols of the past were attempts to articulate intimation of what is possible,’ Athey read. ‘The themes of mythology are not just archaic knowledge – they are living actualities of human beings.’ A moment later, we were thrust back into the darkened lung. The air was ripe with the diffused musk of fertilizer as Fanaa was extracted from a large mound of soil. In nods to both Ana Mendieta and Medea, she removed a sack containing that same dirt from the clod and dragged it methodically across the circle formed by the audience. Another theatrical shift in light revealed Cassils’ nude body, stretched out on the concrete floor. A large pane of glass was ceremonially brought inside the circle and placed atop their chiseled musculature, creating a living human table. They began a dance of constraint, slowly shifting the pane above them, a heavy index of their body’s physical limits.

Athey has had a busy year, producing a large-scale operatic collaboration with Griffin at Vibiana Cathedral in Los Angeles and the Bataille-inspired Acephalous Monster at Performance Space New York. In these compositions, mannered, referential performance and detailed production design seemed to eclipse the grueling corporeality which first made the artist infamous in the 1990s. It was something of a pleasant surprise, then, when Athey was fastened into a bench by Paul King, who carved a Minotaur glyph, inspired by a stone statue from Knossos, into his bare chest. Removing a sheet of paper from a surgical tray to his right, King pressed the parchment against Athey’s wound, creating a print from his blood which he pinned to a clothesline and sent up towards the audience. The gesture reprised Four Scenes in a Harsh Life, the 1994 performance that made Athey a household name when it was demonized by Republican politicians in their attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts.

Ron Athey, Cassils and Fanaa, Cyclic, stills of Cyclic video documentation by Graham Kolbeins. Courtesy: the artists, Graham Kolbeins and MOCA Tucson 

Ron Athey, Cassils and Fanaa, Cyclic, stills of Cyclic video documentation by Graham Kolbeins. Courtesy: the artists, Graham Kolbeins and MOCA Tucson

As Athey’s human printing press filled the ceiling with its pages, Cassils and Pittakos approached vats filled with a viscous fluid that glowed neon under black light, eventually submerging themselves in the miasmic stuff. Retrieving minotaur masks from their respective pools (one blue, one red), this mythopoeic constellation of references and actions sublimely fused.

We had come to church, the goths and the art kids, the academics and the patrons. We’d followed Athey and Cassils into this otherworldly structure: a dome that breathed, anatomically, in order to sustain the human vessels seeking sense within it. Truly fabulous spectacle plays with surface not for the sake of entertainment, but as allegory – and here, a ritual body was conjured in the belching theatre of the Lung. 

Ron Athey, Cassils and Fanaa, Cyclic, stills of Cyclic video documentation by Graham Kolbeins. Courtesy: the artists, Graham Kolbeins and MOCA Tucson

Ron Athey, Cassils and Fanaa, Cyclic, stills of Cyclic video documentation by Graham Kolbeins. Courtesy: the artists, Graham Kolbeins and MOCA Tucson

In ‘Cyclic’, the performers’s bodies exposed their expressive limits, physically strained in their pursuit of deep Gnosticism  – like a religious tapestry, whose stitches can, at best, only connote the metaphysical sublimities they’re meant to depict. At the performance’s close, a plume of smoke shot up through the Lung as Fanaa emerged, now painted gold, and let out a primordial, final scream.

I walked amongst Athey’s prints after a four-minute ovation with my host, poet Raquel Gutierrez. Looking at the pages, a shudder took us and we stood there, sobbing under all that blood.

Main image: Ron Athey, Cassils and Fanaa, Cyclic, performance documentation, 2018. Courtesy: the artists and MOCA Tucson; photograph: Adam Cooper-Teran for MOCA Tucson

Bradford Nordeen is a writer and the curator / founder of Dirty Looks, a platform for queer film, video and performance based in Los Angeles, USA. 

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