“Marjan Vayghan reacted, and her words, which closed the forum, reflected the conflictedness that had coursed through the whole discussion. She thanked Deitch for even attending, acknowledged how difficult his job must be and that she had found her participation in Abramovic’s performance powerful. But why was it the female body that was still always subject to display? Why were we stuck in these old molds of acceptability and unacceptability? And was it really true that the guests, who had democratized by donning the lab coats, couldn’t have pushed themselves just a little bit further and accepted another kind of democratization, too?”http://blogs.laweekly.com/stylecouncil/2011/12/moca_gala_controversy.php Performance Art “Marina Abramovic’s MOCA Gala Controversy: Jeffrey Deitch Confronted and the Performers Speak Out,” By Catherine Wagley Mon., Dec. 19 2011 at 12:30 PM
Saturday, November 12th, 2011
Marina Abramovic’s MOCA Gala Controversy: Jeffrey Deitch Confronted and the Performers Speak Out
By Catherine Wagley Mon., Dec. 19 2011 at 12:30 PM
Getty Images for MOCA
A human centerpiece at the “Artist Life Manifesto” directed by Marina Abramovic for the MOCA Gala
The guests at MOCA’s annual galas are patrons high in the economic hierarchy: politicians, heirs, celebrities, moguls, entrepreneurs who’ve made bank. Tickets cost an arm and a leg — they ranged from $2,500 to $10,000 at this year’s gala on Nov. 12 — and the draw is always that some particularly famous artist “directs” the event, a deal made sweeter by the appearance of a token celebrity or two. Two years ago, Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli directed and Lady Gaga performed “Speechless,” but this year, the token celebrity, Debbie Harry, was less tantalizing to many in L.A.’s arts community than the director: Marina Abramovic.
The New York-based Serbian artist just closed her Museum of Modern Art retrospective, “The Artist is Present,” where she appeared in person, sitting for hours in a long red dress and locking eyes with visitors who endured winding lines to sit across from her. For her gala performance, she planned again to subject guests to unnerving intimacy and she needed help to do so.
At her gala, most of the table centerpieces would be rotating human heads that would lock eyes with guests as they circled. Naked bodies positioned beneath life-sized skeletons would rotate around six additional tables, and a chorus of volunteers would also be needed to dress the guests in white lab coats and shout out Abramovic’s artist’s manifesto at the appropriate time. She held auditions that attracted a number of admiring artists, dancers and actors. Prospective performers were warned that gala guests could try to poke or feed them, they would be expected to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and would be paid with $150 and a year-long MOCA membership. That was just the beginning of the controversy, which was hashed out and argued over at a reflective public forum on Saturday.
Dancer Sara Wookey, who participated in the November 7 auditions, wrote to her mentor Yvonne Rainer, a filmmaker, choreographer and dancer who studied with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham before breaking out to pursue a freer version of dance that celebrated the “everyday body.” Rainer composed a letter to MOCA’s director, Jeffrey Deitch, expressing her frustration about poor compensation and potential exploitation of artists. She forwarded the letter to a few friends for their feedback and a snowball effect ensued. Soon, the letter had been “leaked” online. Bloggers responded, the L.A. Timesweighed in and Deitch invited Rainer to attend the auditions to see for herself.
Saturday’s public forum on the MOCA gala
“Yvonne Rainer’s letter was a performative act,” said theorist, professor and sometimes-performer Matias Viegener on Saturday, at the start of the public forum, which dealt with Abramovic’s gala, Rainer’s response and the potential implications. Viegener co-organized the forum, held at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition (LACE), with cultural critic Jennifer Doyle and artist-curator Dino Dinco. By “performative act,” Viegener meant that Rainer wasn’t merely criticizing. By taking a stance, she was participating, or intervening, in Abramovic’s performance and he hoped that the forum could function similarly.
The strange thing about the MOCA Gala controversy is that the majority of the people talking about it weren’t there, a fact that is itself controversial. For the most part, the approximately 750 guests haven’t spoken up, and opinions of actual performers, who were not named in the gala program, have been overshadowed by Rainer’s letter. The forum started by attempting to remedy that. Around a dozen gala participants who were there described their experiences.
Artist Marjan Vayghan helped guests into white lab coats as they arrived (Abramovic requested all guests wear them) and recalled that some reacted viscerally to the prospect of covering themselves up. Artist Honey McMoney, who also helped with the lab coats, noted it became increasingly difficult to tell guests apart from the waiters, volunteers and performers. “The nature of the power structure started to crumble in a really delightful way,” he said.
Carrie McILwain, an artist who co-runs the alt space Raid Projects, performed as a turning head and found her presence made some guests visibly uncomfortable. “One woman, I felt like she couldn’t eat in front of me,” said McILwain.
Artist Blaine O’Neill also performed as a head, and spent the night rotating around a table that included Eli Broad, Mayor Villarogosa, and a number of collectors. “The only person who gave me more than five minutes [of eye-contact] was the mayor,” said O’Neill. “But that was a pretty fun experience — to stare down the mayor.”
The way they described it, the performers had more power than guests did in their roles at the gala. But that didn’t mean they weren’t exploited.
Artist Adam Vuiitton also attended the gala, but as a protester, not a performer, and he brought with him a sign showing a guillotine. Since performing artists appeared “beheaded on the tables of the ultra-rich,” it seemed a relevant metaphor. Another of the protesters with him had decided, at one point, to break in to the gala, dodged past security and made it far enough to yell to the guests that, one day, their heads would be on the tables. Guards escorted her out, but took no further measures. Then, said Vuiitton, the protesters went out for a beer and talked about starting an artists’ union.
That issue — wages and economics — became a major one as the forum continued. Artists work for free and for less than $150 all the time, either for the experience or the principle, but does that make it excusable? And what does it mean that artists were the engine driving an event they could not afford to attend? Certainly, rarefied events generate important revenue for a place like MOCA. But they still alienate, as Doyle, the critic, noted. “Someone like me begins to feel already always unwelcome” in the space of the museum, she said.
Something else had been unwelcome at the museum, too. Abramovic initially wanted both male and female bodies to circle around those on those six special tables, but only women appeared. When MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch slipped in near the end of the forum, someone posed the question to him: why no naked men? “That was my request to Marina Abramovic,” said Deitch, citing the discomfort the conventional businessman feels when confronted with male nudity. “We subjected people to a lot of things,” he continued, but said when you push something out to the edge you have to be careful not to go over.
Marjan Vayghan reacted, and her words, which closed the forum, reflected the conflictedness that had coursed through the whole discussion. She thanked Deitch for even attending, acknowledged how difficult his job must be and that she had found her participation in Abramovic’s performance powerful. But why was it the female body that was still always subject to display? Why were we stuck in these old molds of acceptability and unacceptability? And was it really true that the guests, who had democratized by donning the lab coats, couldn’t have pushed themselves just a little bit further and accepted another kind of democratization, too?
Marina Abramovic’s silent heads from MOCA gala speak out [Updated]
November 13, 2011 | 2:04 pm
At the start of the MOCA gala Saturday night, all eyes were on the heads.
Earlier this week choreographer Yvonne Rainer had circulated a letter lambasting Marina Abramovic’s direction for the gala, which involved positioning performers as centerpieces with their heads poking through holes in the dinner tables, as nothing less than “a grotesque spectacle” and “exploitative.” Last night, the 750 gala guests who paid $2,500 and more per seat could see for themselves what the fuss was all about.
By the time the guests — a wild mix that included Museum of Contemporary Art trustees Maria Bell and Eli Broad; celebrities Gwen Stefani, Tilda Swinton and Pamela Anderson; and Gov. Jerry Brown and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — entered the main dinner tent, dozens of performers were in place kneeling on Lazy Susans beneath rectangular dinner tables, heads poking through those holes so that they could turn quietly and make eye contact with the guests. (A few other performers lay on circular tables, nude, breathing life into the skeletons resting on top of them.)
But as the night unfolded and various courses of art and food were served, the charges of exploitation seemed to disappear as fast as, well, choice pieces of the life-sized Kreemart cakes made to look like nude replicas of Abramovic and the night’s lead singer, Debbie Harry.
Some artists in attendance called the complaints unfounded. The Naples-born, L.A.-based conceptual artist Piero Golia said: “Exploitation? No. Where I come from, it’s considered an honor to work for a great artist.” Where you come from in Italy? “No, where I come from philosophically.”
L.A.-based Serbian performance artist Ana Prvacki said she just doesn’t like the idea of one artist speaking for someone else — “If these performers were being exploited, they wouldn’t have done the project.” She added that for her that whole conversation “was overshadowed by a different performance — the woman who was singing in the Narikace tradition from Eastern Europe — she was a weeper or professional expresser of sorrow, and I found it incredibly moving.”
“I’m not sure if this was exploitation,” L.A. painter Rosson Crow said. “But I will tell you one thing: I didn’t like the lab coats,” she said, referring to white coats that all the guests were asked to wear, which a few (dramatically dressed women in particular) defiantly did not. “I was not down with it.” She was wearing a vintage dress by Don Loper, “one of Lucille Ball’s favorites,” she said, her lab coat nowhere in sight.
As for the performers themselves, they abided by a code of silence for the length of the event and had been sworn to secrecy beforehand. But reached this morning by phone, several shared their experiences. None had heard of any performer being fondled or suffering “bodily injury,” a concern expressed in Rainer’s letter.
“The worst thing that I heard about,” said one of the heads, yoga instructor/actress Jesse Aran Holcomb, was someone lining up a little salt near a performer’s face “so it looked like he was snorting a line.” She found the accusations of exploitation perplexing. “It’s not so bad to sit on the floor — as a yogi I do that all the time,” Holcomb said. “You feel sorry for us because we’re being stared at? But we’re staring at you. Marina gave us all permission to create our own performance space around us — it was a gift.”
Another participant, actress Megan Rose, said the experience was “monumental” for her in large part because of one guest at her table, the collector and MOCA trustee Blake Byrne. “We actually locked eyes for 35 minutes straight and had this nonverbal conversation that was really meaningful. It was incredible: he was staring at me while Deborah Harry was performing, I felt so honored.” (If you don’t know what “nonverbal conversation” is, Rose suggests you go home and look into your spouse’s eyes, “you’ll know.”)
A local artist-curator who actually knew a few people at her table, Leila Khastoo, had a different experience. “I think I wanted more from the people attending,” she said. “A lot of people at my table seemed really uncomfortable and tried to ignore what was going on. If it were me at the table, I’d be thrilled to do something more than shove my face full of fancy food. You missed an opportunity.”
Portland-based performance artist Joni Renee said she experienced a few taunts, including some from an unidentified film producer who kept saying “this isn’t art, this is stupid.” But she said the behavior that bothered her the most was Rainer’s, who was invited by MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch to attend rehearsals on Friday after the content of her letter was published.
“When Yvonne came for rehearsals and interviewed us, she slid into our group wearing our clothes and pretending to be one of us — she never said who she was — I felt that was really tricky, not fair disclosure. And she was rude, saying degrading things to us like ‘Why would you do this?’ Or ‘yes, you get paid, well prostitutes also get paid.'”
[UPDATED 11/13/11 2:58 p.m: When reached for comment, Rainer confirmed that she had not introduced herself by name at the auditions but called her visit there “friendly” and denied making “any sort of comment about prostitutes or pay.” As for the larger controversy, she expressed surprise that a draft of her letter made the rounds so quickly, even before she sent it to MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch: “I sent it to a few people,” she said. “I’m a novice at this viral game.”]
Abramovic’s own comments on the performance can be found in
November 11, 2011
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by Julia Halperin
Published: November 11, 2011
The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual gala is one of the most highly anticipated events of the fall art season — previous editions have included such headliners as Lady Gaga and guests like Brangelina — and this year it may also be among the most controversial. The November 12 party, which boasts performance artist Marina Abromavic as creative director and musician Debbie Harry as an honoree, is already ruffling some feathers in the local art community. Renowned dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer has written a letter to MOCA director Jeffrey Deitchindicting Abramovic’s planned performance for the event, which she calls “grotesque” and “verg[ing] on economic exploitation.” The complaint was also signed by a number of art figures including Douglas Crimp, Tom Knechtel, and Monica Majoli.
Rainer was compelled to write to Deitch after hearing an account of the audition process from a friend, who told Rainer that she felt the performers were being “taken advantage of.” According to the friend’s emailed account, which was obtained by ARTINFO, performers will spend three hours with their their heads protruding through the gala’s tabletops, kneeling on Lazy Susans below to slowly rotate in circles while maintaining eye contact with guests. Other performers will lay nude on tables with fake skeletons on top of them, recreating Abramovic’s famous “Nude With Skeleton” performance, as reperformers did at her MoMA retrospective. Participants will be paid $150 and receive a one-year MOCA membership. “Of course we were warned that we will not be able to leave to pee, etc. That diners may try to feed us, give us drinks, fondle us under the table, etc., but will be warned not to,” read the email. “Whatever happens, we are to remain in performance mode and unaffected.”
This “grotesque spectacle” of a performance is “reminiscent of ‘Salo,’ Pasolini’s controversial film of 1975 that dealt with sadism and sexual abuse of a group of adolescents at the hands of a bunch of post-war fascists,” Rainer writes in her letter. “Reluctant as I am to dignify Abramovic by mentioning Pasolini in the same breath, the latter at least had a socially credible justification in the cause of anti-fascism.” Abramovic and MOCA’s director and curators, she adds, don’t “see the egregious associations for the performers, who, though willing, will be exploited nonetheless.” As for the performers, “their desperate voluntarism says something about the generally exploitative conditions of the art world such that people are willing to become victims of a celebrity artist in the hopes of somehow breaking into the show biz themselves. And at sub-minimal wages for the performers, the event verges on economic exploitation and criminality.”
“Wow,” Abramovic told ARTINFO after being read the letter. “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.” She added that it is difficult to judge the performance without having seen it: “All these accusations, you can’t have them before you actually experience the situation and see how I can change the atmosphere, that’s my main purpose,” she said, before adding, “I really respect Yvonne.”
Rainer declined to offer additional comment beyond her letter, though she noted that she had not been invited nor does she plan to attend the gala. Rainer’s 1965 “No Manifesto,” which codified the tenets of her choreography, mandated that dance should say “No to spectacle…. No to the involvement of performer or spectator…. No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer.”
MOCA’s galas, by contrast, are nothing if not headline-worthy spectacles. This year, the gala will be co-chaired by television producer Maria Bell and megacollector Eli Broad, while Larry Gagosian and Dasha Zhukova will serve as honorary chairs. Individual tickets range from $2,500 to $10,000, and table prices range from $25,000 to $100,000. A representative from MOCA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
[Update: At the time ARTINFO originally published this article, we understood that Rainier had already sent the letter to MOCA. In fact, though word of it had already begun to leak out, she had not. We regret the error.]
[Update: The Los Angeles Times got a response from MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who reportedly has invited Rainer to attend a rehearsal later today. “For me this is the way the art world works, it’s all about dialogue,” he said. “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 noted that Rainer’s information came from one performer “with her own personal agenda, who does not represent the hundreds of people who applied for this.”]