Marina Abramovic's silent heads from MOCA gala speak out [Updated]
At the start of the MOCA gala Saturday night, all eyes were on the heads.
Earlier this week choreographer Yvonne Rainer had circulated a letter lambasting Marina Abramovic's direction for the gala, which involved positioning performers as centerpieces with their heads poking through holes in the dinner tables, as nothing less than "a grotesque spectacle" and "exploitative." Last night, the 750 gala guests who paid $2,500 and more per seat could see for themselves what the fuss was all about.
By the time the guests — a wild mix that included Museum of Contemporary Art trustees Maria Bell and Eli Broad; celebrities Gwen Stefani, Tilda Swinton and Pamela Anderson; and Gov. Jerry Brown and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — entered the main dinner tent, dozens of performers were in place kneeling on Lazy Susans beneath rectangular dinner tables, heads poking through those holes so that they could turn quietly and make eye contact with the guests. (A few other performers lay on circular tables, nude, breathing life into the skeletons resting on top of them.)
PHOTOS: MOCA Gala 2011
But as the night unfolded and various courses of art and food were served, the charges of exploitation seemed to disappear as fast as, well, choice pieces of the life-sized Kreemart cakes made to look like nude replicas of Abramovic and the night's lead singer, Debbie Harry.
Some artists in attendance called the complaints unfounded. The Naples-born, L.A.-based conceptual artist Piero Golia said: "Exploitation? No. Where I come from, it's considered an honor to work for a great artist." Where you come from in Italy? "No, where I come from philosophically."
L.A.-based Serbian performance artist Ana Prvacki said she just doesn't like the idea of one artist speaking for someone else — "If these performers were being exploited, they wouldn't have done the project." She added that for her that whole conversation "was overshadowed by a different performance — the woman who was singing in the Narikace tradition from Eastern Europe — she was a weeper or professional expresser of sorrow, and I found it incredibly moving."
"I'm not sure if this was exploitation," L.A. painter Rosson Crow said. "But I will tell you one thing: I didn't like the lab coats," she said, referring to white coats that all the guests were asked to wear, which a few (dramatically dressed women in particular) defiantly did not. "I was not down with it." She was wearing a vintage dress by Don Loper, "one of Lucille Ball's favorites," she said, her lab coat nowhere in sight.
As for the performers themselves, they abided by a code of silence for the length of the event and had been sworn to secrecy beforehand. But reached this morning by phone, several shared their experiences. None had heard of any performer being fondled or suffering "bodily injury," a concern expressed in Rainer's letter.
"The worst thing that I heard about," said one of the heads, yoga instructor/actress Jesse Aran Holcomb, was someone lining up a little salt near a performer's face "so it looked like he was snorting a line." She found the accusations of exploitation perplexing. "It’s not so bad to sit on the floor -- as a yogi I do that all the time," Holcomb said. "You feel sorry for us because we’re being stared at? But we’re staring at you. Marina gave us all permission to create our own performance space around us — it was a gift."
Another participant, actress Megan Rose, said the experience was "monumental" for her in large part because of one guest at her table, the collector and MOCA trustee Blake Byrne. "We actually locked eyes for 35 minutes straight and had this nonverbal conversation that was really meaningful. It was incredible: he was staring at me while Deborah Harry was performing, I felt so honored." (If you don't know what "nonverbal conversation" is, Rose suggests you go home and look into your spouse's eyes, "you'll know.")
A local artist-curator who actually knew a few people at her table, Leila Khastoo, had a different experience. "I think I wanted more from the people attending," she said. "A lot of people at my table seemed really uncomfortable and tried to ignore what was going on. If it were me at the table, I’d be thrilled to do something more than shove my face full of fancy food. You missed an opportunity."
Portland-based performance artist Joni Renee said she experienced a few taunts, including some from an unidentified film producer who kept saying "this isn't art, this is stupid." But she said the behavior that bothered her the most was Rainer's, who was invited by MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch to attend rehearsals on Friday after the content of her letter was published.
"When Yvonne came for rehearsals and interviewed us, she slid into our group wearing our clothes and pretending to be one of us — she never said who she was — I felt that was really tricky, not fair disclosure. And she was rude, saying degrading things to us like 'Why would you do this?' Or 'yes, you get paid, well prostitutes also get paid.'"
[UPDATED 11/13/11 2:58 p.m: When reached for comment, Rainer confirmed that she had not introduced herself by name at the auditions but called her visit there "friendly" and denied making "any sort of comment about prostitutes or pay." As for the larger controversy, she expressed surprise that a draft of her letter made the rounds so quickly, even before she sent it to MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch: "I sent it to a few people," she said. "I'm a novice at this viral game."]
Abramovic's own comments on the performance can be found in this larger interview with her.
-- Jori Finkel
Photo: A performer at the MOCA gala directed by Marina Abramovic. Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for MOCA