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 ‘SalÃ².’”
What? You haven’t seen “SalÃ²?” 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, “SalÃ², 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 shot, slapped, 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.