Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Who Will Rein Her In? Marina Abramovic versus Yvonne Rainer

One matron of the avant garde is battling another in a war of words that has gone viral on social networks.  In a super-charged, in-the-shadow-of-OWS moment, Yvonne Rainer is effectively challenging Marina Abramovic to a moral duel.

Rainer has penned a letter to LA MOCA’s already-beleaguered dealer-turned-director Jeffrey Deitch demanding that he  justify what she sees as bizarre, sadistic antics, to be visited Saturday night (November 12) upon a cadre of young LA performers by veteran performance artist Abramovic.

A scene from Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975

Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975. Yvonne Rainer compares the reenactment of Abramovic performances in a fundraising dinner to scenes from this movie

Abramovic forged her reputation for emotionally and politically charged happenings via masochistic feats of physical and mental endurance.  Audiences would be challenged to do anything they liked to her with an array of potentially menacing objects.  Or daggers would be thrust at excruciating speed in proximity to her fingers. The daughter of a Yugoslav general, she courted martyrdom for the twin causes of existential satire and avant garde provocation.

But these days the celebrated performer, getting on in years, delegates the degradation to younger, fitter and presumably desperate (whether financially or for fame) dancers and actors.  At her MoMA retrospective last year, surrogates were enlisted to reenact her classic performances.  Implication: the masochist has turned sadist in her dotage.

The MOCA fundraiser adds a further twist to this dynamic as pointedly humiliating performances are laid on for the specific delectation of big ticket paying party goers in what Rainer compares to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s lurid 1975 masterpiece, Salò. The movie is a reworking of the Marquis de Sade’s classic, “120 of Sodom” which the Italian cineaste sets in the last days of Fascist Italy.

At MOCA, performers are to be stationed on a rotating lazy susan under each table for a full three hours (with no pee break) forcing eye contact with each diner—uncomfortable eye contact has become a major theme of Abramovic’s work in a number of recent performances.  As Rainer writers in her letter to Deitch:

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 Abramovic’s obliviousness to differences in context and some of the implications of transposing her own powerful performances to the bodies of others. An exhibition is one thing …but titillation for wealthy donor/diners as a means of raising money is another.

Still from Marina Abramovic, Nude with Skeleton, 2002. Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery

Still from Marina Abramovic, Nude with Skeleton, 2002. Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery

Another vignette to be reenacted for the amusement of gala attendees entails performers lying naked, and still, underneath skeletons.  Rainer ascribes the willingness of young actors and dancers to subject themselves to such degradations, “to become decorative table ornaments installed by a celebrity artist” as symptomatic of a desperate need “of somehow breaking into the show biz themselves” as well as working for “sub-minimal wages.“

A volunteer performer, who has chosen to remain anonymous but whose testimony has been circulated with Rainer’s letter, reports that “diners may try to feed us, give us drinks, fondle us under the table, etc but … whatever happens, we are to remain in performance mode and unaffected.”  All this, over a fifteen-hour contract, for $150 “(plus a MOCA one year membership!!!)”

What Rainer does not spell out explicitly, but must nonetheless occur to many readers, is the extraordinary poignancy of making use of young performers in this way against the backdrop of protests by the “99%”.  The Los Angeles art/philanthropy circuit upon which LA MOCA draws its support represents in extremis the kind of concentration of personal wealth resented by the excluded and marginalized in the current economy.   Jeffrey Deitch has already proven himself seriously accident prone in gauging the mood of his adoptive city since assuming MOCA’s directorship, as the case of his ordered destruction of Blu’s anti-war mural illustrated.  This might be an instance of similar tone deafness to the changing social climate.

If, meanwhile, Abramovic’s aim is to represent the divide between haves and have nots in a pointed theater of the absurd, the likes of Eli Broad and David Geffen and other well-heeled diners might not appreciate being cast as the very caricature of the 1%.  The loss of donors would prove more catastrophic to Jeffrey Deitch than that of mere street artists or doyennes of avant garde dance.

  • Steven Kaplan

    Rainer is right. This is a culmination of exploitative spectacle that has lately accompanied the unsavory paradigm of “the artist is present”. It is bread and circuses for the prurient appetites of the art plutocrats, and one more example of the Deitch/Biesenbach “macht show” disease. The image of a performer’s head protruding through a hole in the table, for the delectation of the uber art patrons, recalls the callous cruelty, in certain Asian cuisines, of eating fresh monkey brains, spooned out of the skull while the monkey is still alive and pinioned at the center of the table. It’s like a purple-assed baboon, Dr. Benway, William Burroughs nightmare.

    The problem is not just Marina Abramovic. Rather it is efforts towards re-staging performance that ambitious curator/enablers, anxious to advance their careers, have grafted onto her original work, to make sure it continues once she is gone. The idea of substituting new, younger performers is what leads to the appearance of inequities and the charge of abuse of privilege. When Abramovic herself was the performer, willingly suffering the slings and arrows for the sake of her art, the worst charge that could be leveled was masochism. But when other bodies — young, powerless, used to titillate the powerful — are drafted for the sake of aggrandizing the art institution and the art plutocrats, there is obvious exploitation.

    • Charles Zuppardi

      This is directed to Artcritical, not Kaplan specifically:
      The past 30 or so years in SoCal art can best be described as pseudo western swing music. Nudie regurgitated. Light and style is all that SoCal brought to the table and that was a long time ago.
      Get it right for once folks. The East Coast cared about Europe and continuity, the West, light, style, and distance. They’ll never tell you but they know it’s a dead end, no home to return to and no place left to wander but Mexico.
      My old friend John Coplans would have told you that 20/30 years ago.
      Why assume that anyone in The City Of Angels cares a whit about the quaint vintage charms of “sincerity” or “feelings”.
      Has anything authentic come from there lately?
      15 years in SoCal after 50 yrs in NYC makes it oh so clear. Rainer, a sweet memory, or Abramovic, a needy exhibitionist, have absolutely nothing to offer us now.
      Sure, yes sure, the young and inexperienced student might get a tingle watching contemporary art as a rerun, but do you want to even engage in that reenactment of cultural Zeitgists that no longer exist?
      Institutionalized chatter is as bad as paying for necrophilia.
      The Occupy kids or Elon Musk are correct, the future is correct, and it’s right in your face and we are supposed to care about an artroom debate? Jeez.

  • Tobey Crockett

    I want to summarize and weigh the merits of the objections:

    There is the objection that Abramovic is re-staging works with new performers. Rainer seems to think it is unreasonable to treat performance work as repeatable choreography. As a dancer herself, this is a remarkable argument. I think performance should be able to be re-staged, especially with the supervision of the living artist present.

    There is a moral objection that the decision to re-stage Abramovic’s earlier works is decadent and degenerate. Have we not already learned enough about the perils of labeling cultural gestures in this way? The Nazis labeled modernist works as degenerate, during a very tragic period of relatively recent history. We are repeating history again. Indeed, the culture wars of this country are still not over, having virtually eviscerated the National Endowment of the Arts over Andres Serrano, Karen Finley and company, with many chilling results. This tendency to moralize in stark, reductive terms is doing the culture a disservice. Discourse today is profoundly stunted by the near refusal to disagree and debate in a meaningful and constructive way. I regret that Rainer has opened this moralistic door at the same time that I applaud her compassion for the nubile performers.

    So, there is the objection that the performers are being taken advantage of. But is not Rainer being patronizing by assuming they are too young, stupid or ambitious to know what is best for themselves? This reminds me of an older wave of feminists being appalled by the younger generations’ “do me” politics. Where is the sex positive critique of Abramovic’s works to be presented at MOCA? I’d like to read that.

    There is the objection that using young people’s beautiful naked bodies to promote a commercial agenda is beneath us. Has anyone looked at a fashion magazine lately? Half the barely clothed models appear to be in a catatonic or hysterical state, recalling a staged Charcot photograph of the women housed at the asylum at Saltpietre. It is just disingenuous to claim that art can not use bodies in this way. What about Vanessa Beecroft’s work? Does Rainer object to her as well? As recently as 2006, Rainer herself rebutted feminist Audre Lorde’s famous statement, “You can’t dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools,” with the statement, “You can, if you expose the tools.”

    Then there is the objection that the art/sex workers are being underpaid. Would paying the models more make it less morally repugnant? I think not – they either are whores or they are not. And of course they are not. It’s not about the money for the performers, but rather about the money of the art patrons. This leads to the objection that if Abramovic stages this as a political gesture against the privileged audience, a la Hans Haacke’s canceled retrospective at the Guggenheim, then Deitch – and worse yet – art itself will suffer. This presumes that museums can not sustain institutional critique because their patrons are too easily offended.

    And while I am loathe to stand up and ventriloquize for the 1%, I think they can handle it. Is it not possible to hold two mutually opposing ideas simultaneously? F. Scott Fitzgerald, who ought to know something about the 1%, said this was a sign of great intelligence. Please stop trying to protect the wealthy from themselves.

    So all together I am left with the conclusion that this is a personal matter between Yvonne Rainer and Marina Abramovic. While I applaud Rainer’s concern for all these other parties – the performers, the public, the patrons, the curator, the museum, Art itself – in the long run, I find no lasting merit in the objections.

    I welcome the opportunity to have a good discussion, and I certainly think Rainer has a right, even the obligation, to ask a good hard question. We all benefit from this conversation. And, as my 102 year old grandmother says, “Difference of opinion makes for horse races.”

  • Jan Wurm

    I want to applaud the discussion. It is really important to shine a light on the fundamental difference in meaning between an original ( in this case Abramovic’s) artist’s performance and sub-contracted labor.
    My take, considering even her own self- re-enacted performances,
    that this is no longer performance art,
    but rather,

  • Clayton Campbell

    I have heard, from quite a number of the attendees, that the impact of the piece was negligible, as they felt it was their for their delectation and enjoyment, and hence a diversion. Perhaps thi is the expected reaction of an entitled and elitist audience.

    Isn’t this discussion also part of MOCA’s sensibility under Jeffrey Deitch that spectacle (this is not new) and elevating artists to a status commensurate with the market capitalism is consistent with the background he hails from? We knew what we were getting when he signed on.
    Someone mentioned Vanessa Beecroft, another interesting and challenging artist who sometimes crosses the line into sheer, crass commercialism and tawdry self promotion. If Marina A did it this time under the guise of her so serious art, well, no one is perfect or gets it right every time.
    We might try and applaud the effort, even if gone astray. Artists don’t have it so easy, even the art stars. We might look more closely at how the market mediates creativity now, especially with A list artists who have no problems working with participating which sets a model and tone for emerging generations of practitioners.I would ask what is their responsibility if any, going forward?

  • G. Herr

    Did anyone force those performers/artist who participated to perform? Could they not opted out? How many of them did so?

    Are not those performers/artist who participated intelligent young adults capable of making their own choices? Has anyone cared to ask them what they thought?

    If such allegations are as bad as they are surely at least half of them would have rose up in protest, or at least opted out of the performance. Surely this is not overlooked since most who participated are themselves artist who are most likely intelligent and capable. I think these allegations directly insult the intelligence of those who chose freely to reenact Abramovic’s work.

    • kaathe

      And the women in Bangladesch who work for a few cents/day are free to say no too. They shall eat grass or such. And lets change minimal work safety rules-if there are adult people who choose to work in unsafe situations and absolutely underpaid-well their problems, they are old enough.

      Your privilege is showing-or did you ever need to work because your trousers aren’t that nutricious and collecting waste in a working 1. world society is rather sad? It seems not.

      Demanding that people reenact her works is NOT the problem-underpaying, while most other artist have rules on how less they will have to get paid is ONE. Not providing basic working safety against abusive sexual harassment and FORBIDDING the artist to speak out or provide safety for themselves in case of abuse is another. And then trying to SILENCe them with 1 mio $ fine, should they get sexually abused while laying naked and helpless on a spinnig table and deciding to talk about their abuse.. Yes, that ARE problems and not just a friggin feud.

      If sb makes that in a museum or on stage, usually there are people who make the space safe and will ensure that nobody walks up an put a finger or else on or on the genitals of the artist(who gets paid for performing art, not for getting sexually abused , underpaid and then silenced, should one talk and protest the exploitation by people who want 10000/seat and just pay 150(and the costs which could come with being forced to endure abuse)

  • A.C

    I am not a performance artist but I gather it is something ephemeral in nature encased within the body of the artist.
    I wish I had been to MoMa to make an opinion about it. What struck me was the fact that Abramovic was raised to a spectacle and her giant 3 storey portrait seemed almost Imperial. What struck me again, was the fact that she herself put down a few clauses before her re enactment one of which, was that she couldn’t control the reaction of the stranger who was to sit in front of her. Many a times throughout the documentary Artist is Present, I saw the guards sabotaging other artists who came to sit in front of her for a speechless dialogue. One even took off her clothes and she was quickly escorted away.
    This got me confused about Abramovic’s performance itself. She seemed to sit there like the Pope though I clearly remember her intention of the piece was completely different. It seemed to me that vacant chair was for Ulay with whom she had started the performance ages back?
    Anyhow, after watching it I was totally fascinated by Ulay. I can see how he is what I gather a performance artist should be – to be present full body and soul within the performance but has the ability to get out of it unscathed and objective. She is an actor. She lives in the persona she has created for herself.

    What she seriously needs to do is encourage young performers but I believe she is sitting pretty on this pedestal she has created for herself which falsely claims to be performance art.
    Just my two pence.