Yvonne Rainer’s “Salò” Reference Is Hyperbole

by Reid Singer on November 11, 2011 · 21 comments Opinion

Sirens are sounding as word has spread of a letter written by choreographer Yvonne Rainer to LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch. Rainer isn’t happy. Dismayed after hearing details of the performance artwork organized by Marina Abramovic set to take place during a donor gala for the museum, she describes the planned performance as “degrading” and “grotesque,” denouncing Abramovic’s project as “another example of the Museum's callousness and greed.”

This came after details of the performance were listed by one of the participants in an email to Rainer. As the email recounts, some participants will sit on slowly-rotating benches under the diners’ tables while their faces protrude, expressionless, through holes in the center of the table. Others will be asked to lie, au naturel, on top of tables with fake skeletons laid on top of their bodies. During the three-hour gala meal, participants will be prohibited from moving their bodies or leaving their appointed positions to pee. As compensation, they will receive $150 and a year’s membership to the museum. In her letter to Deitch, Rainer writes that the work of art taking place during the gala is something “reminiscent of ‘Salò.'”

What? You haven’t seen “Salò?”  Well, then there’s a chance the severity of Rainer’s comparison might run over your head. For those of you who don’t know, “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” (1975) is a film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini based on a novel by Marquis de Sade. It is a work of fiction, taking place in northern Italy at the end of World War II. Observing that Mussolini has fallen, that partisan warfare is ravaging the peninsula, and that there is basically no law, a group of wealthy Fascist collaborators round up eighteen teenagers and amuse themselves by subjecting them to increasing levels of torture and sexual humiliation. Boys are sodomized. A girl is made to eat feces. The victims are scalped, branded, and have their eyes and tongue cut out before being killed. It is exceeded only by “Lilja 4-ever” (2002) as the most disturbing film I have ever seen.

I was at my desk when Artinfo’s Julia Halperin read the letter to Abramovic over the phone a few feet away. Julia was blushing. She hadn’t enjoyed being the messenger. Abramovic, hearing about it for the first time, was caught very much off guard. Can you blame her? Viewers familiar with the Serbian artist’s oeuvre might view her plans for the gala as typical Abramovic fare. Endurance and close-up nudity are both common features in her work; the steady eye contact the performers will be asked to make with dining gala guests recalls elements of her exhibition “The Artist is Present” at MoMA. Nor does Abramovic’s piece stand out in the canon of performance art. Participants will have to hold uncomfortable positions for a few hours, for little pay, but no one will be shotslapped, or cut with a razor. No native cultures will be mimicked. No sentient creature will be starved to death.

In a few keystrokes, Rainer downgrades the project from performance art to “‘entertainment'” [quotes Rainer’s], resting the fulcrum of her invective on the difference between the performance art that museum-goers see during the day and the work that is planned for the donor gala. While the former might allow for behavior that unsettles an attentive viewer’s beliefs about social interaction in a varying context, viewers attending the latter are disposed to see it as a decorative joke. They’re philistines, incapable of comprehending the “dignity, serenity, and concentration” Abramovic hopes the performance will bring to the gala environment. If rich people are present, as the logic goes, then a work can’t be taken seriously.

Abramovic was likely puzzled that Rainer (and her co-signers, art historian Douglas Crimp and choreographer Taisha Paggett) decided to express their grievances first and only to Jeffrey Deitch. She might also have wondered how her piece could be targeted with the class-conscious language of “economic exploitation,” or how seriously Rainer took a paid participant’s call for “a revolution” over the work she and her fellow performers had volunteered to do for a charity benefit. Abramovic’s performance piece is hardly the first time visitors to an art museum have been edified by the work or image of someone less fortunate than themselves. It is quite unlike making a girl eat shit.

CORRECTION NOTICE: The original version of this post referred to Douglas Crimp and Taisha Paggett as artists.


Lorna Mills November 11, 2011 at 6:08 pm

In all fairness, the description of the performance did remind me of Salo, though I wouldn’t argue that it is equivalent to the Pasolini movie. (and if I was stinky rich I wouldn’t go near that fundraiser)

Tim November 11, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Just because it’s become common practice for artists to pay people shit wages for degrading “work” doesn’t mean it’s not something worth criticizing. Rainer’s language might be hyperbolic but I couldn’t agree more with the underlying sentiment. In fact I’d go further: I don’t think the context of the gala doesn’t change the ethicality of the thing at all, it just highlights how gross it is. It would still be just as gross were it open to the general public, it just might not stand out as much.

As for the comparisons to the rest of Abramovic’s oeuvre – I’m reminded of that scene in Spinal Tap when the band runs into another, more popular rock star who’s most recent album cover depicts him tied down on a table being whipped by semi-nude women. Having just had their own album cover – depicting a semi-nude woman on all fours being forced to smell a leather glove – rejected by the record label for being sexist, they begin complaining amongst themselves about the hypocrisy, saying his is “much worse” than theirs. “Because he’s the victim,” points out their manager, “Their objections were that she was the victim. You see?” “I see,” they respond. “He did a twist on it.” “We should have thought of that.” And then of course the memorable line: “There’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” I think Abromovich falls firmly in the former camp this time around.

Woodrow November 11, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Isn’t hyperbole a means of describing exaggeration when it’s used, intentionally, for emphasis or effect? I think it’s obvious to anyone reading that she doesn’t LITERALLY mean it’s literally “like making a girl eat shit.” She’s just trying to convey the severity of her disgust. 

Rather than objecting to the degree of her objection, or speculating about what Marina Abramovic might be thinking about her letter, can’t we agree that Rainer is right that this event (perhaps a microcosm of the MoCA/Deitch axis of money-lined banality) is shallow and degrading and even perverse, especially in an exclusive room full of wealthy donors?

Paddy Johnson November 13, 2011 at 10:36 pm

I mention this in my response to CJ but yes, I think the performance sounds bad. It also sounds like a lot performances she’s done, which is basically what benefits are about — capitalizing on the trademark works of a particular artist in an effort to raise money for the museum.  

If the work seems inappropriate for the benefit context — and I think it’s problematic — Deitch should be taking more heat. Sure, it would be nice if Abramovic was a little more sensitive to such matters, but surely anyone with a wit of sense could have seen these problems coming before they asked her to participate. It’s what she does. 

This has Deitch spectacle written all over it. 

Paddy Johnson November 13, 2011 at 11:21 pm
Sebastian November 11, 2011 at 9:33 pm

Douglas Crimp isn’t an artist. 

Cliffordx2000 November 11, 2011 at 9:35 pm

Yuck. Remember when Ambromovic was an amazing performance artist? This sounds like something Carrie Bradshaw would go to.

Anonymous November 12, 2011 at 12:07 am

Woodrow’s comment is spot on.  Singer’s opinion piece misses the point completely.  If Marina wants to put her OWN head through a table throughout a dinner and kneel under the table for three hours while an extravagant dinner party goes on around her that is great.  More power to her.  If her “art” calls for her to get other (mostly) younger performers to do this, if is only reasonable that she and MOCA pay a respectable rate for the performers the project hires.  In addition to the three hours under the table there are doubtless many hours of preparation, possibly rehearsal etc.  They should be paid for this work.  It seems to me that Marina’s artistic focus, which created important works in the past, is being thrown off by the allure of celebrity, money, glamor and glitz. (Check public disappointment regarding her fawning over celebrities during the run of her MoMA show in 2010.)

Paddy Johnson November 13, 2011 at 10:09 pm

It’s probably best to ask the performers themselves if they feel exploited before deciding that that’s what’s going on. If they are happy to donate their time and don’t mind sticking their head through a table then I don’t think there’s anything particularly exploitative about it. 
Seeing as how benefits routinely ask artists to donate their time and work as a means of raising money for institutions, I’m not sure the low rate is so outrageous. Of course, if the museum announced this would be a standard rate of pay, then there should be some conversation. 

Anonymous November 12, 2011 at 12:11 am

To quote Jenny Holzer: Abuse of power comes as no surprise.

Nsnyc2005 November 12, 2011 at 1:41 am

I am so happy Yvonne is, as usual and often as a lonely voice, supporting the under-represnted and  unvoiced in the artworld. God love her, and I am an atheist!

John H November 12, 2011 at 3:12 pm

So just so I have this straight, in the art world what’s the line of exploitation? At what point is it not hyperbolic/naive to actually have a problem with something?  Evidently being groped in the nude without being able to take a bathroom break is cool.  So eating shit is the line?  Or is it having your tongue cut out? 

Josephshade November 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Hey, let’s side with the power, c’mon guys?

Reid Singer November 13, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Thanks for pointing that out.

Reid Singer November 13, 2011 at 1:40 pm

When the performance takes place during the MoCA gala, there’s a strong chance that that the guests will turn their attention to the performance piece, change their behavior appropriately, be silent, and allow for something meaningful to take place. There’s also a chance that they’ll ignore the instructions not to touch the performers. This would be fucked up. They could also otherwise ignore the serious intent of the piece, sip their wine, and gawk. This would be distasteful. If I were a major donor, then I’d probably be too shy and concerned about these possibilities to want to attend the gala dinner. Here, It comes as no surprise that I should agree with Lorna Mills. G-d bless her indeed.

Paddy Johnson originally assigned me this story as a news stub. I decided to write an Opinion post instead when I started to think about the move Yvonne Rainer makes from criticizing Abramovic’s piece to condemning it, moving from questions about fairness and taste to questions about high morals. 

Using loaded terms about “exploitation” and “criminality,” in her letter Rainer has styled herself an advocate for victims of the museum system’s “callousness and greed,” allowing for a change in stakes that I find quite abrupt. Thinking I’d overlooked some features of her substantial resume as a social activist, I’ve tried over the past couple of days to find a quote in which Rainer talks about unsafe gallery conditions or museum custodians who aren’t paid a living wage. Nothing has turned up. If someone can show me a place in the public record in which Rainer has talked about criminal exploitation, in the museum system, besides in her letter about the Abramovic piece, then I might be compelled to change my position.

Until then, her exchange with LA MoCA will continue to strike me as obtuse. Her having written first and only to Jeffrey Deitch, without knowing anything about the performance besides what she read in the email, was, in my mind, hasty. One participant told Rainer what she’d been asked to do and what she’ll be paid. It makes me want to ask if the performance would be more acceptable if the participants were paid more. How much more? What if the participants were non-professionals, working without pay? After all, this is a benefit for a museum, a context in which people gladly work on a volunteer basis all the time.

I have no impulse to “side with the power” in this case; Woodrow is right in observing that my issue with Rainer’s letter is, above all, rhetorical. I found her line about “frolicking donors” cartoonish, recalling images of men in top hats and tails and women blowing their noses with Benjamins. Most importantly, her reference in this context to “Salò” risks trivializing the suffering of actual victims of rape and torture.

Tim November 13, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Again, I don’t think the reaction of the gala attendees changes the inherent ethicality of the work in any significant way. I suppose a callous attitude would add to the degradation of the performers, but it would still be degrading were they to be reverent.

Your quibbling about “criticizing” versus “condemning” is exactly the kind of semantic game playing that has allowed things like this to become commonplace and for questions of ethics to become taboo within art criticism. Instead of actually taking a stand on ethical issues, the artist and critic both are reduced to “pondering” or “exploring” them, thereby intellectualizing them out of existence. You can’t talk about economic exploitation and power imbalances in the same way you talk about art historical referentiality or how an object plays with space, and saying a work “problemetizes” or “raises questions” sometimes isn’t as valuable as saying “this is fucked up,” even if the latter might be unfashionable.

What I find really ridiculous though is your snarky implication that only people with “substantial resumes as impressive social activists” have the right to speak up when they witness exploitation in action. I think there’s a logical fallacy that describes that kind of argument, but anyway, I fail to see how Rainer’s background in any way undercuts the validity of her objections. It’s not as if she’s being hypocritical. Is there some Rainer performance I don’t know about that involves forcing people to hold their piss for three hours?

It also seems a little silly to claim that your issue with the letter is rhetorical after spending four paragraphs mostly detailing why you think she’s not entitled to even raise the objections she’s raising at all. Your discussion of the language she’s using seems mainly a cover for ridiculing the very complaints themselves. What word, besides “exploitation,” would you prefer she use?

sally November 13, 2011 at 2:33 pm

I think its really unfair to say that Rainer has “styled herself an advocate…” Maybe she just heard about it, got grossed out and decided to take some action. Rainer is a performer, with a lot of experience specifically negotiating bodies in public, and the aesthetic and social dynamics that arise when playing with tensions between acting natural/ acting staged. She knows about the power dynamics and embodied ethics of up close & personal performance and she is supremely qualified to criticize this piece. And she obviously found it galling.

By the way, there’s a whole bunch more people signed on now.

sally November 13, 2011 at 3:11 pm

maybe the performers should be famous-but-aging art stars rather than cute young novitiates. that would change the dynamic a little.

Michael Murphy November 14, 2011 at 5:49 am

This article is a really shallow defense of Abramovic. What people seem to ignore about her is that, while she is an artist, she is also in a tax bracket where she can afford to pay her performers well. If she is going to ask for degrading performances, she can at least pay these people more than what they wold make doing similar work in the porn industry…at least there they could take bathroom breaks. I wonder if Reid Singer and Paddy Johnston would be defending the Koch brothers in this way…sure they exploit those below them, but it’s ok ’cause they also donate millions to arts organizations! Yay for art world hypocrisy, yay!

Paddy Johnson November 14, 2011 at 10:38 am

Hi Michael, 

Please explain what aspects of the article you believe are shallow, when lodging the criticism. Otherwise your comment will suffer from the like. 

A couple of points: 1. it’s highly unlikely that Marina would act as a subcontractor for the museum and be the one paying the performers. That responsibility falls on the museum. Her tax bracket isn’t relevant in this particular context, though obviously, that her work sells for a lot is useful when selling tickets to collectors and benefactors. 

2. The performance sounds horrible to me, but just as I think its important to let sex workers decide if and how their work is degrading, I think the same is true of this performance. As I mention earlier in the comments, that so many people seem perfectly willing to tell others what they should find degrading makes me very uncomfortable. Frankly, it reminds me of the Christian right.  

3. Finally my or Reid’s position on the Koch brothers isn’t analogous to this situation. The Koch brothers are philanthropists and libertarians. They are in the oil business and are known to be ruthless. Abramovic is a performance artist who put together a piece that ferries off spectacle in the hopes of drawing some money out of the Hollywood crowd. 

Anonymous November 18, 2011 at 7:42 am

 I think there’s a logical fallacy that describes that kind of argument, but anyway, I fail to see how Rainer’s background in any way undercuts the validity of her objections.
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