The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual gala is one of the most highly anticipated events of the fall art season — previous editions have included such headliners as Lady Gaga and guests like Brangelina — and this year it may also be among the most controversial. The November 12 party, which boasts performance artist Marina Abromavic as creative director and musician Debbie Harry as an honoree, is already ruffling some feathers in the local art community. Renowned dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer has written a letter to MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch indicting Abramovic’s planned performance for the event, which she calls “grotesque” and “verg[ing] on economic exploitation.” The complaint was also signed by a number of art figures including Douglas Crimp, Tom Knechtel, and Monica Majoli.
Rainer was compelled to write to Deitch after hearing an account of the audition process from a friend, who told Rainer that she felt the performers were being “taken advantage of.” According to the friend's emailed account, which was obtained by ARTINFO, performers will spend three hours with their their heads protruding through the gala's tabletops, kneeling on Lazy Susans below to slowly rotate in circles while maintaining eye contact with guests. Other performers will lay nude on tables with fake skeletons on top of them, recreating Abramovic's famous "Nude With Skeleton" performance, as reperformers did at her MoMA retrospective. Participants will be paid $150 and receive a one-year MOCA membership. “Of course we were warned that we will not be able to leave to pee, etc. That diners may try to feed us, give us drinks, fondle us under the table, etc., but will be warned not to,” read the email. “Whatever happens, we are to remain in performance mode and unaffected.”
This “grotesque spectacle” of a performance is "reminiscent of 'Salo,' Pasolini’s controversial film of 1975 that dealt with sadism and sexual abuse of a group of adolescents at the hands of a bunch of post-war fascists," Rainer writes in her letter. "Reluctant as I am to dignify Abramovic by mentioning Pasolini in the same breath, the latter at least had a socially credible justification in the cause of anti-fascism." Abramovic and MOCA's director and curators, she adds, don't "see the egregious associations for the performers, who, though willing, will be exploited nonetheless.” As for the performers, “their desperate voluntarism says something about the generally exploitative conditions of the art world such that people are willing to become victims of a celebrity artist in the hopes of somehow breaking into the show biz themselves. And at sub-minimal wages for the performers, the event verges on economic exploitation and criminality.”
“Wow,” Abramovic told ARTINFO after being read the letter. “I hope the performance itself will bring some kind of dignity, serenity, and concentration to the normal situation of a gala, and actually change the energy of the space and bring the performance into an everyday life situation.” She added that it is difficult to judge the performance without having seen it: “All these accusations, you can’t have them before you actually experience the situation and see how I can change the atmosphere, that's my main purpose,” she said, before adding, “I really respect Yvonne.”
Rainer declined to offer additional comment beyond her letter, though she noted that she had not been invited nor does she plan to attend the gala. Rainer’s 1965 “No Manifesto,” which codified the tenets of her choreography, mandated that dance should say “No to spectacle.... No to the involvement of performer or spectator…. No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer.”
MOCA’s galas, by contrast, are nothing if not headline-worthy spectacles. This year, the gala will be co-chaired by television producer Maria Bell and megacollector Eli Broad, while Larry Gagosian and Dasha Zhukova will serve as honorary chairs. Individual tickets range from $2,500 to $10,000, and table prices range from $25,000 to $100,000. A representative from MOCA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
[Update: At the time ARTINFO originally published this article, we understood that Rainier had already sent the letter to MOCA. In fact, though word of it had already begun to leak out, she had not. We regret the error.]
[Update: The Los Angeles Times got a response from MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who reportedly has invited Rainer to attend a rehearsal later today. “For me this is the way the art world works, it's all about dialogue,” he said. “I would just hope that when people make allegations like this, they would actually come to see the performance and talk to the performers.” He noted that Rainer’s information came from one performer “with her own personal agenda, who does not represent the hundreds of people who applied for this.”]