WHEN TWO PROTEAN ARTISTS face off against each other, the confrontation can be titillating. So it went last week in Los Angeles, over the Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual artist-designed fundraiser, conceived this year by Marina Abramović. “The shit has hit the fan,” Abramović said on Thursday, when the leaked draft of a letter that choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer wrote, but hadn’t yet sent, to LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch went viral on the Internet.
Rainer was protesting Abramović’s plans for the gala, “An Artist’s Life Manifesto,” scheduled for Saturday, November 12. The “entertainment,” Rainer wrote, promised to exploit the young people Abramović was training to perform for such meager pay that it amounted to abuse by the rich. Their job was to either lie naked under plastic skeletons revolving on the $100,000 dinner tables, or poke their heads through the $50,000 and $25,000 table tops while turning themselves on lazy Susans and locking eyes with guests throughout the evening.
The prospect of this “grotesque spectacle,” the outraged Rainer wrote, reminded her not of Abramović’s The Artist Is Present, the performance empress’s three-month-long sit at the Museum of Modern Art last year, or of her Nude with Skeleton from 2002, but of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film Salò, where fascist sadists sexually abuse beautiful youths. “Subjecting her performers to public humiliation at the hands of a bunch of frolicking donors is yet another example of the Museum’s callousness and greed, and Ms Abramović’s obliviousness to differences in context and to some of the implications of transposing her own powerful performances to the bodies of others,” Rainer wrote, suggesting that MoCA rename itself “MODFR, or the Museum of Degenerate Fund Raising.”
But it was the contretemps, not the exploitation issue, that notched up the pre-gala buzz. On her Facebook page, one LA artist called Abramović “deluded” and hoped the performers would rebel. Another posted an article about Vanessa Beecroft’s 1998 invitational performance at the Guggenheim Museum, where nearly naked models had to stand for hours while tuxedoed swells stared at them and nobody cried abuse. Yet the controversy barely flickered to life among the artists and curators at Regen Projects’ Thursday night opening for Sue Williams’s sexually scatological paintings, while Abramović joined the frolickers at collector Eugenio López Alonso’s dinner for designer turned photographer Hedi Slimane. But Deitch took the bait and invited Rainer to a rehearsal on Friday. Abramović, though cooperative, was not pleased.
She was especially exercised by the letter’s allusion to fascism, when she had spent her life opposing everything that her parents, Communist Party heroes in the former Yugoslavia, stood for. The gala, I gathered, would be something like a reverse Occupy MoCA, where wealthy, overdressed patrons would be given white lab coats to “democratize” the proceeding. Five hundred people had auditioned to be the heads and nudes on the tables, knowing they would be paid only $150 for their several hours on display. Though the chosen performers had signed confidentiality agreements to ensure the event would come as a surprise, one of them had complained to Rainer and then quit.
At a prerehearsal gathering that turned into a pro-Abramović rally, Rainer appeared a bit shaken by how quickly her unsent letter had gone public, but sat quietly among the ninety performers while Abramović acknowledged her presence and addressed her complaints. The small fee was all the museum could pay, she said, adding that she was getting no fee at all. She was hiring young people not to take advantage but because it took stamina to get through one of her durational pieces. “I’m the idiot,” she said. “I’m sixty-five and still doing this!”
Their performance as gala centerpieces would not be easy, she said, but she was taking every precaution to protect them. Diners would be instructed not to feed them, touch them, talk to them, or disrupt their performance in any way. Guards would make sure they were unmolested, but if anyone wanted to leave, they could walk out at any time. “It’s an experiment,” said Abramović, “not an entertainment. There’s a huge risk of failure, but this is my work.” This was greeted by a tremendous cheer of support and the rehearsal went forward, with Rainer interviewing the performers one by one. “I wonder how she’d like it if I did that at one of her rehearsals,” Abramović sniffed later.
That night, at the MoCA annex in the Pacific Design Center, Deitch defended Abramović for curious guests attending the opening of Slimane’s “California Song” photographs. Slimane was invisible in the darkness of an installation that projected his high-contrast, magazine-ready portraits on a cube at the center of the black-box gallery. “Any pictures that large are going to look good,” groused one observer, before moving on to Adam McEwen’s debut at Gagosian in Beverly Hills.
Next morning, an e-mail from Rainer had her “revised” letter attached, this time with dozens of signatures from other artists and writers joining the protest. The gist of it was the same as before, though this time Rainer took special care to respect Abramović’s work while denouncing her use of live heads and women-only nudes as “decorative centerpieces” at the gala to come. She claimed that the performers at the rehearsal were all “young, beautiful, and white” (I saw many black, Latino, and Asian faces, along with several white, not all young). She admitted they appeared both “touching and somewhat comic,” but recoiled at the thought of them being subjected to “possible public humiliation and bodily injury” at the hands of those frolicking donors. “Their cheerful voluntarism says something about the pervasive desperation and cynicism of the art world,” she concluded, “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.”
She had a point, but perhaps she has never seen one of the benefits for the Watermill Center that Robert Wilson creates. Rainer told me that she never goes to openings and was unaware that such celebrity clusterfuck fund-raisers had become common practice, more or less out of necessity. As Abramović said at the rehearsal, “Kings, aristocrats, and popes used to be the supporters of art. Today, in Europe, governments do it. In this country, we have businessmen and they want to be entertained. I want to take a different approach.”
By 7 PM that evening, the museum on Grand Avenue was filling with a parade of patrons who seemed oblivious to the debate. In very short order, I came across last year’s gala artist, Doug Aitken, Americans for the Arts advocate Nora Halpern, Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin, actress Rosanna Arquette, Guggenheim Foundation deputy director Ari Wiseman, and artists Mark Bradford, Alex Israel, and Rosson Crow. The latter was on the arm of designer Jeremy Scott and decked out in a vintage yellow gown by Don Loper—“Lucille Ball’s favorite designer,” Crow was quick to point out. Strolling through the collection galleries, I came across former gala artist Francesco Vezzoli (in Prada) with model Shala Monroque (in Rodarte). “I’m happy that Marina can still raise controversy,” Vezzoli said. “I wish the same for me at her age.”
While Minnie Driver, Gwen Stefani, Will Ferrell, Kirsten Dunst, Pamela Anderson, and David LaChapelle walked the red carpet outside, burlesque artist Dita Von Teese (in Jean Paul Gaultier) and sometime filmmaker and jewelry designer Liz Goldwyn (in a vintage red dress) joined the crowd previewing “Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles” and “Kenneth Anger: Icons,” a Hollywood Babylon showcase of Anger’s films and memorabilia, within. “We’re a very creative museum!” said chief curator Paul Schimmel, noting that the shows came on the schedule only recently, and giving the impression he wasn’t all that thrilled at their entry. (His sweeping, and historic, Pacific Standard Time show at MoCA’s Geffen Contemporary took years to pull together.) “You just gotta roll with the punches and all the changes,” he said.
Guards asked everyone to proceed to the humongous dinner tent outside, where one tenet of Abramović’s manifesto was projected over the entrance. “An artist should avoid falling in love with another artist,” it said. Under it, a group of the hired performers helped patrons into their lab coats, though some, like Crow, refused.
Inside, all thought of exploitation quickly faded, as the 769 guests, who included California governor Jerry Brown and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as well as Beecroft, took their seats before the rotating heads and nudes-with-skeletons and dug into their food unfazed. (It was delicious.) Some people did hold the gaze of the heads; others winked and elicited forbidden giggles. After brief speeches by gala cochairs Eli Broad and Maria Arena Bell, and another by Deitch, who called Abramović and Deborah Harry, the evening’s main entertainment, “giants in their field,” Abramović took the stage to exhort everyone to keep on their lab coats for the sake of the experiment at hand. (Not all obeyed.) She went on to explain that it hadn’t been her idea, but the museum’s, to use only women as the nudes. Artists rarely made manifestos anymore, she said, referring to the gala’s title, adding that they were necessary in these troubled times to establish a “codex of moral and social behavior.”
John Baldessari and Meg Cranston seemed pleased to be seated ringside, where half-naked and very buff pallbearers periodically mounted the catwalk-like stage carrying a shrouded body on a bier. At trustee Wallis Annenberg’s front-and-center table, Governor Brown was smiling but seemed uncomfortable at the nude before him. “That’s a fake vagina, isn’t it?” asked collector Michael Ostin, refusing to believe that the woman on display did not have “some kind of enhancement.”
He was not the only doubter. During Serbian folk singer Svetlana Spajic’s performance of a haunting tune from Robert Wilson’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, someone at the table beside mine loudly expressed his displeasure to Broad Foundation curator Joanne Hyler, dealer Sara Watson, Creative Time director Anne Pasternak, and Schimmel. “This is offensive!” he shouted. “This is shit, not art. Who is she kidding? Jeffrey! Yo, Jeffrey! Stop this!” The source turned out to be artist Thomas Houseago, who evidently had imbibed more than his share of the “Rauschenberg Spirit” wines. He continued his diatribe during a reading by the performers of Abramović’s full manifesto (“An artist should not steal ideas from other artists; an artist should not make themselves into an idol . . . ”) before leaving his dinner partners in peace.
Once again, the pallbearers mounted the stage, only this time the person under the shroud was the platinum-haired Harry, who sang her first number from a reclining position on the bier before hopping off to do “Heart of Glass,” followed by a rousing “One Way or Another” that brought much of the cheering, camera phone–wielding audience to its feet. After her final number, two more shrouded bodies were brought onstage. Under them was dessert: two eerily lifelike cakes fashioned to look like Abramović and Harry by LA’s Rosebud Cakes and Raphael Castoriano’s Kreëmart organization. Wielding lethal-looking knives, Abramović joined Harry to cut out the hearts of each of their cakes to a shouting, astonished crowd.
Chaos followed, as guests fought over pieces cut by the bare-chested pallbearers. “I want the breast! Give me the vagina!” they screamed, hardly noticing that Tilda Swinton had arrived for photo ops, looking very much like David Bowie in his Thin White Duke phase. When it was all over, the cut-up cakes resembled mutilated bodies that made for a ghoulish sight.
A man I didn’t know accosted me. “Is it me or was this all about violence against women?” he asked. “It’s you,” I said. “Look at that cake!” he exclaimed. “It’s a horribly mutilated woman with knives in her chest. Doesn’t that bother you?” “It’s a cake,” I said. “It represents all the indignities women have suffered at the hands of men. It is women telling their own history.” Apparently, the point was lost on him. “It’s disgusting,” he replied. I asked his name, which he declined to give. “I’m in the social register!” he growled, brushing past me to let Deitch know that this violence against women would result in the withdrawal of funding from the museum.
“Don’t be afraid of art!” Deitch said, when the man stormed off. “Wow,” he added a moment later. “That was intense.” In the end, the gala raised $2.5 million.