Four Scenes From a Harsh Life

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Artist: Ron Athey

Year: 1994

Date of Action: July 1994

Region: North America

Location: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Subject: Nudity, Political/Economic/Social Opinion, Sexual/Gender Orientation

Medium: Performance Art

Confronting Bodies: Public Health Officials, Elected Officials

Description of Artwork: In the performance art piece, Ron Athey, performs rituals which represent and are related to issues of AIDS, body image, and homophobia. He carves patterns into the back of another performer, Darryl Carlton. He then blots the incisions on Carlton's back with paper towels and are then put onto clothes lines which are suspended over the audience. He creates his own religion out of the rituals and symbols of being H.I.V. positive. Athey claimed that Carlton was H.I.V. negative and that he was not contaminating his audience with H.I.V. positive blood, but this was never fully confirmed.

The Incident: Audiences were extremely disturbed by this piece of performance art for a number of reasons. It's content was undeniably provocative, but reports that audience members who attended the performance were exposed to H.I.V. positive blood were extremely frightening to the public.

Results of Incident: The disturbed public lead health officials and senators to get involved.In July of 1994, North Carolina Senator, Jesse Helms, proposed an amendment which was purposed to prevent NEA from funding art that involved "human mutilation or invasive bodily procedures on human beings dead or alive; or the drawing or letting of blood." Although the National Endowment for the Arts contributed a mere $150 to the performance, months after Athey's show, their budget was cut by 2 percent and new rules and regulations were implemented regarding who is allowed to apply and acquire government funding for art works.

Source:


How a Mpls. show helped spark mid-1990s 'culture wars'

THEATER REVIEW; A Little Infamy Goes a Long Way