Review: Ron Athey packs a punch at SPILL - Ipswich’s radical festival of performance art

The Spill Festival putting Ipswich on the map for international art.

The Spill Festival putting Ipswich on the map for international art. - Credit: Archant

The uncompromising and unapologetic SPILL Festival of Performance returned to Ipswich this year for the second time.

The festival hosted more than 100 events across five days from Wednesday to Sunday in various buildings in the town including the Jerwood DanceHouse, the New Wolsey Theatre, the old police station and Ipswich Corn Exchange.

Now in its sixth edition, SPILL is held alternate years in London and Ipswich and is curated and produced by the renowned, Pacitti Company.

The company’s artistic director Robert Pacitti is Ipswich born and bred and has recently opened an artistic resource in the Victorian Wing of the Ipswich Museum and Art School Gallery called The Pacitti Company Think Tank.

The theme of this year’s festival was Surrender and Saturday night’s performance at the Corn Exchange from Ron Athey certainly followed theme.

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The fourth installation of Athey’s Incorruptible Flesh series, Messianic Remains, began with the audience walking into a dark room with a single spotlight beaming down on Athey’s naked body.

He lay vulnerable on a metal rack with metal hooks piercing his eyebrows, pulled back by strings attaching him to the table, with a transparent helmet covering his head from his nose upwards and an Egyptian-style plastic beard on his chin.

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Spectators were given a rubber glove to put on while queuing to get onto the stage where two naked figures in brown robes were waiting with bowls of a Vaseline-like substance.

This was followed by an invitation to rub the substance on Athey’s heavily tattooed body, which was clearly fighting a physical endurance battle as his legs trembled and his face sweated under the hot spotlight.

The audience were invited to share his tension, but this interaction was slightly spoilt by staff filming the performance amongst visitors on the stage.

After everyone had their turn and was off the stage, the lights dimmed, the music became more intense and smoke filled the room and Athey stood up, his body illuminated from the substance audience members covered him in.

His two young assistants wiped off the substance with towels and Athey, who was diagnosed HIV positive in 1991, walked off stage and into the audience.

The two robed characters drew a circle on the floor with chalk. One stood in the middle with a rope tied around his waist while the other pulled against him with the other end of the rope, carefully balancing against each other to draw a symmetrical circle.

Athey, now in a long black robe and priest-like hat, removed the hooks from his eyebrows which left a pool of blood where he stood and continued to drip down his body onto the floor within the circle where he remained, acting, like the rubber glove, as a barrier between spectator and artist.

The rest of the performance continued with a monologue by Athey speaking of the death of Divine.

The two assistants, who marched around the edge of the circle with sceptre-like sticks, added force to certain phrases like “Poor Divine”.

As Athey’s speech came to a close he added pace and at one point was galloping round the circle blasting his words and finished with a defiant spin in a circle which forced his cape to spread out wide.

There was little time to register that the performance was over before Athey was cheering, fist pumping and laughing as he did a lap of honour around the circle, which felt like a snap out of character that came too soon.

SPILL festival is a step in the right direction for Ipswich; it was refreshing to see something so radical and daring in the town, which helps put Ipswich on the map and which attracts an audience of people who may never have visited without it.

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