If the adage “you had to be there” applies to performance art more so than to other forms of visual expression, it is particularly germane when it comes to the work of Ron Athey. Among the fifteen chapters in Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey—the dense, sometimes dizzying account of Athey’s career edited by Dominic Johnson—Adrian Heathfield’s contribution comes closest to evoking what it is like to attend one of Athey’s legendary “bloodbath” durational performances.

Heathfield’s vivid description of Athey’s Incorruptible Flesh: Dissociative Sparkle (1996; reperformed in 2006 at New York’s Artists Space) is told in a third-person narrative that heightens the drama yet echoes the “dissociative sparkle” of the work’s title. Upon entering the space wherein Heathfield finds the bronzed and greased artist naked and prone on a rack of steel, a baseball bat penetrating his rectum,...

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