Marina Abramović, the performance artist, came up with a powerful, unnerving idea when L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art asked her to curate their annual fundraising dinner in 2011.
The year before the Francesco Vezzoli, the Italian artist/provocateur, had treated that same dinner as a live artwork, using Lady Gaga and danseuses from the Bolshoi Ballet as his raw materials.
That event—I described it here—had been a hit.
The art notion that Abramović came up with was to have a human head protruding through a central hole in every table.
Their naked owners would be kneeling beneath on Lazy Susans, rotating by degrees, and making eye contact with each guest at the table throughout the meal.
This was a proxy development from The Artist is Present, the piece Abramović had done at New York’s Museum of Modern Art earlier in the year in which she had been seated opposite individual museum-goers through the working day for several weeks, looking silently into their faces.
Elsewhere in the MOCA dining space six female performers would be lying on separate tables, each beneath a fake skeleton, this being a direct re-creation of a piece that Abramović had herself performed a decade before.
The dinner was to be on Saturday, Nov. 12. A few days before this Yvonne Rainer, the highly regarded filmmaker, dancer and activist, got a letter from a dancer with whom she had worked, denouncing the pay, which was $150 for several hours of work, what she took to be the lack of safeguards for the performers, and a general lack of respect.
On Nov. 9 Rainer discharged a letter to MOCA’s new director, Jeffrey Deitch. It ran in part: “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,” she wrote.
Of the performers, she added: “Their desperate voluntarism says something about the generally exploitative conditions of the art world such that people are willing to become decorative table ornaments installed by a celebrity artist in the hopes of somehow breaking into the show biz themselves.”
This letter made its way online, and went viral lickety-split. Deitch prudently asked Rainer to a rehearsal, at which her presence was publicly noted by a privately nettled Abramović, who addressed her issues—it was MOCA who had decided the pay rate, for one—and Rainer interviewed the dancers one at a time.
End of story? Not exactly. Rainer re-issued her letter, somewhat toned down, but with the addition of a number of artist signatures.
So it can be assumed that most of the 750 guests were aware that the dinner was already entering legend as they arrived and where each was handed a white lab coat, both to underline that this was an experiment and to blur the who-was-whoness of the evening (an offer some ignored).
The who-ness included the artists John Baldessari, Sue Williams, Mark Bradford, Adam McEwen, and Francesco Vezzoli; also Eli Broad, Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of the city, the governor of the state, Jerry Brown, Debbie Harry, who was going to perform, and Tilda Swinton who, two years later would make her own foray into performance art, sleeping in a vitrine in the window of MOMA.
There were other arrivals, though, who were not on the list and clearly there because of the Rainer critique. An artist, Adam Vuiitton (not a typo), held a sign bearing an image of a guillotine and a female protester made it past security far enough to shout at the guests that their heads would be on the tables too one day.
The comment stream online was already sizeable, equally meaty and mostly, though by no means unanimously, enraged. “We did the calculation and it turns out that our museum values the kitchen staff more than it does artists. In an art museum!” opined one.
There was fury against “donors.” One post read: “Naked minions paid a pittance for the entertainment of bloated champagne swilling ‘Art’ patrons. I say occupy MOCA.”
One extremely imaginative poster inquired: “How does ‘dignity’ arise from inviting people to dine over rotating human heads (intentionally suggestive of meat roasting on a spit) particularly people who probably aren’t there to think critically about their roles as consumers (of food, drink, art)?”
Another, clearly somebody who had been auditioned for the project, wondered: “Could I have maintained this pose for 3 hours in the face of beautiful, rich, arty MCA supporters—eating fabulous food, drinking expensive wine and being entertained by pop stars? I fantasized that I would rise up like a zombie—overturn the table and throw food and drink all over the astonished guests, give them a taste of the anarchy of true performance art.”
This grief, hurt, and rage was wrenching to encounter. And it’s utterly understandable because disparities of wealth are not just as apparent in the art world as anywhere but somewhat more visible there, indeed transparently so, thanks to the persistent susurrus of media attention and auction figures.
The steady impoverishment of productive bohemia is real too. I have friends who are acclaimed in their fields and in their prime, yet are currently using food stamps.
That said, the reasoning of the haters was askew, I think. “Donor” has become a tainted word because of shenanigans in the political realm but the art world has thrived in symbiosis with patrons and collectors since way before Lorenzo di Medici.
State subsidies and government programs are no substitute—you just have to look at most public art to see that—so it’s down to private individuals just like those ready to fork upwards of $2,500 to sit down at MOCA.
Those white lab coats had indeed been intended to democratize the event and, as to the nakedness of the performers, well, that is part and parcel of the art of Marina Abramović—who used to perform them herself without, I think, being overly humiliated.