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.