Ron Athey Four Scenes in a Harsh Life (1994)

Ron Athey confronts the sexual politics of religiosity in Four Scenes in a Harsh Life (1994). Athey engages in a series of ritualistic and masochistic acts with performers Divinity P. Fudge, Julie Tolentino, and Pig Pen. While the performance addresses body politics, it also works to affirm the gay male body as a site of reverence during the AIDS pandemic. These radical acts on stage queer religious iconography and decenter homophobic agendas of the religious right, sparking national debates about explicit art. Heightened by conservative agendas during the culture wars, the Minneapolis Star and other media outlets falsely accused Athey for exposing the audience to AIDS-tainted blood. However, the blood central to the live performance was not from Athey, but from performer Divinity P. Fudge, whose HIV-status was negative. The polemic of blood in the performance ignited discrimination and censorship of Athey’s work across art venues and by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The religious right further attacked him for employing a queer lens to examine religion, gender, and sexuality. Following the mass censorship of Athey’s work, video documentation of Four Scenes in a Harsh Life was netcast live as part of Franklin Furnace’s “History of the Future” (1999) on Pseudo Programs, Inc.’s The Performance Channel (

Ron Athey is an iconic figure in the development of contemporary performance art. In his often-bloody portrayals of life, death, and fortitude in the time of AIDS, Athey calls into question the limits of artistic practice. These limits enable him to explore themes of gender, religion, and sexuality, among other topics in his work. Athey began performing at underground galleries with Rozz Williams in 1981, in a collaboration known as Premature Ejaculation. Later, he began his solo career with The Torture Trilogy: Martyrs & Saints, Four Scenes in a Harsh Life, and Deliverance (1992-1995), and went on to develop Incorruptible Flesh (1997-2008) and Solar Anus (1998). Recent works include Judas Cradle (2004-2005), Self-Obliteration (2008-2011), and Gifts of the Spirit: Automatic Writing (2010), in which Athey explores his Pentacostal upbringing and the creation of an ecstatic experience. He collaborated with Lawrence Steger on Incorruptible Flesh (In Progress) (1996), Juliana Snapper on The Judas Cradle (2004), and Julie Tolentino on company works and THE SKY REMAINS THE SAME (2008-). He recently celebrated the release of the first publication dedicated to his work, Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performance of Ron Athey (2013), edited by Dominic Johnson.


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Additional Info

  • Title: Four Scenes in a Harsh Life
  • Holdings: video (HIDVL)
  • Duration: 00:52:46
  • Language: English
  • Date: Live performance 1994. Netcast performance 1 Dec 1999
  • Location: Live performance: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Netcast performance: The Performance Channel via Pseudo Programs, Inc.
  • Type-Format: performance art
  • Credits: Performed by Ron Athey, Divinity P. Fudge (Darryl Carlton), Julie Tolentino, and Pig Pen (Stosh Fila).