11.13.11

MOCA’s Bizarre Gala

Performance artist Marina Abramovic turned a stuffy museum gala on its head with human centerpieces and a violent finale. Isabel Wilkinson reports. Plus, photos of the guests, from Gwen Stefani to Debbie Harry.

It’s a funny thing to see people get dolled up for a museum gala—furs, jewels, tuxedos, floor-length gowns—only to be asked to put on a white lab coat before sitting down for dinner. But that’s what the 750 guests of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles had to do at its annual gala on Saturday night—and the weirdness didn’t stop there. 

The event was curated by the performance artist Marina Abramovic, who used the concept of a stuffy charity gala as a jumping-off point to have a little fun. This being Hollywood, within minutes, everyone had “styled” their lab coats. Dita Von Teese wore hers draped over one shoulder like her boyfriend’s motorcycle jacket. Liz Goldwyn wore hers over both shoulders like a mink. Dasha Zhukova folded her sleeves to the elbow, while Pamela Anderson looked like she was about to tear hers off in a game of X-rated Operation. The 15-year-old fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson didn’t wear hers at all, and showed off her Rodarte dress instead. Lab coats are for rookies, anyhow. 

“I think I was a nurse for Halloween one year,” Gwen Stefani said of the last time she was in a lab coat. And Jaime King asked incredulously, “Like, why did I even bother wearing this dress?!” 

“I feel like I work at the Clinique counter,” one guest said. “Are we going to be getting dirty?” Asked another. “We better.” 

As guests from John Baldessari to Rachel Zoe crowded into dinner, they were greeted by unusual centerpieces at every table: live human heads. Performance artists sat beneath every table, their rotating heads poking up between the plates.  

As I took my seat, I locked eyes with my centerpiece: a bearded man with long, slicked-back hair and kind eyes. “Are you like the Queen’s guards, or can I make you smile?” I asked. He winked. The evening was off to a good start. Shortly into the meal, conversation reached a lull—so I returned my focus to the centerpiece, who was still there, twirling, and understanding me. 

When I returned to my table later in the meal, I announced that I had lost my napkin. Within seconds, a hand reached up from under the table, offering it up. My prayers had been answered. The centerpiece smiled at me again.   

Before the main course was served, Abramovic led a group of performers in a reading of her “Manifesto.”  “I like the idea of total transition,” she explained. “You’re not just here as a guest of another gala. You’re an experimenter in a strange lab.” 

Shortly thereafter, several shirtless male performers carried Debbie Harry onstage covered in a white sheet. She flung it off, and shimmied around in a tight red cocktail dress, serenading the crowd with “One Way or Another” and “Heart of Glass.” The sea of scientists in diamond earrings jumped to their feet. 

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any weirder, it did: two life-size nude statues of Debbie Harry and Marina Abramovic were then rolled out onstage. Harry was somehow provided with a machete. Amidst raucous cheers, she dramatically raised it over her head and drove it straight into the heart of her nude likeness. Then, recalling something out of The Last of the Mohicans, she removed the statue’s beating heart—made of red velvet cake. 

The two cakes, in the shape of Abramovic and Harry, were then dismembered by teams of shirtless men with meat cleavers and placed on dessert plates to be distributed around the room. One breast went to Table 63, a few toes were served at table 22. A sea of revelers posed with the dismembered breasts in lewd poses. 

But not everyone in the room was having a laugh. A few members of the crowd—invited guests or crashers, we’ll never know—started chanting, “Violence against women! Violence against women!” as a form of protest against the performance piece. “This is extremely offensive,” one woman told me as arms and legs were being circulated on dessert plates around the room. “This is misogyny at its finest. Women are being raped and killed every day, and we’re cheering as naked men cleave them open with a knife.” (The live centerpieces had been protested, too, with claims that the performers were being exploited.) 

Abramovic appeared ruffled by the protesters, but Debbie Harry carried on: “ I haven’t eaten a piece of myself,” she said, motioning toward the life-size cake, “… yet.”