Dining with Abramović and her nudes: Exploitation or art? Opinion round up


Weeks before the night of the MOCA gala, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LA MOCA) sparked controversy when performance artist Marina Abramović’s planned event was publicly condemned by American choreographer Yvonne Rainer.

LA MOCA's 2011 gala centrepieces. Image courtesy Getty Images for MOCA.

For 2011’s highly anticipated fundraiser and in celebration of its 32nd year as a leading art institution, LA MOCA hired esteemed Serbian-born performance artist Marina Abramović as creative director, with American musician Debbie Harry as honoree. Known for her intense endurance performances, Abramović turned the space into a laboratory where performers and audiences were at the same time specimen and observer.

Gathering wealthy patrons from different areas of the art scene, the provocative piece entitled An Artist’s Life Manifesto aimed to explicitly present the thick line between the haves and the have-nots. Laying nude on tables with skeletons on top of them or kneeling on rotating lazy Susans with their heads protruding from tabletops, performers were made to stare blankly and silently at the diners. While in their white lab coats, guests were dared to stare back.


LA MOCA's 2011 gala centrepieces. Image courtesy Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for MOCA.

In a private correspondence with Yvonne Rainer, Sara Wookey, an auditionee for Marina Abramović’s piece, revealed that performers were instructed to stay in one position for three straight hours and that they were to be paid USD150 and gifted a one-year membership to LA MOCA. Enraged by this information, Rainer, known for her NO Manifesto (an effort to demystify the psychological, social or formal motives of dance), released an open letter to LA MOCA’s director Jeffrey Deitch about the then-upcoming performance. In the letter, she calls the piece “exploitative”, a “grotesque spectacle” and even parallels the event to Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s 1975 film about sadism and postwar fascism entitled, Salo. Throughout the letter, Rainer, with her fifty signatories, protests against Marina Abramović, the performers and the museum itself.

Ms Abramović is so wedded to her original vision that she—and by extension, the Museum director and curators—doesn’t see the egregious associations for the performers, who, though willing, will be exploited nonetheless. Their cheerful voluntarism says something about the pervasive desperation and cynicism of the art world such that young people must become abject table ornaments and clichéd living symbols of mortality in order to assume a novitiate role in the temple of art.

Sara Wookey, later on, issued her own letter to the public in support of Rainer’s cause. Click here for the entire transcripts of Rainer and Wookey’s letters.

LA MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch and performance artist Marina Marina Abramović at the 2011 gala for LA MOCA. Image courtesy John Sciulli/Getty Images for MOCA.

In response to the controversy, Jeffrey Deitch, in an interview with Los Angeles Times, replied,

For me this is the way the art world works, it’s all about dialogue. I would just hope that when people make allegations like this, they would actually come to see the performance and talk to the performers.

He also claimed the possibility of a personal agenda behind Rainer’s claims.

In both interviews with ARTINFO and Los Angeles Times, Abramović relayed her surprise upon reading the letter. Particularly with ARTINFO, she says,

I hope the performance itself will bring some kind of dignity, serenity, and concentration to the normal situation of a gala, and actually change the energy of the space and bring the performance into an everyday life situation…. I really respect Yvonne.

The LA MOCA gala artist for 2010 was Doug Aitken, pictured here with Gwen Stefani. Image courtesy John Sciulli/Getty Images for MOCA.

Though a number of people stand by Rainer’s claims, others saw no truth in them. Some called the performance “monumental”, while others found it uncomfortable or just plain silly, but still, nothing abusive. A day after the dinner, Yvonne Rainer expressed shock at how quickly the story had spread, as she had only sent the email to a few people.

Click here for the full article on the audience’s and Rainer’s reactions published on 13 November 2011 in the Los Angeles Times.

At the end of the show, Marina Abramović and Debbie Harry sliced life-sized cakes that were designed to look like them and passed them around to the guests for dessert.

Marina Abramović and Debbie Harry cutting cakes at their LA MOCA 2011 gala performance. Image courtesy Wireimage.

As entertaining as Marina Abramović’s show was and regardless of whatever personal agenda may be hidden behind Yvonne Rainer’s assertions, the question still remains: Was this piece of performance art exploitative? Where should the line be drawn between entertainment and art, exploitation and endurance?

Related Topics: Marina Abramović, performance art, contemporary art eventsround up posts

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