Choreographer Yvonne Rainer stirred up debate last week when she lambasted performance artist Marina Abramovic’s plans to use human centerpieces for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual gala. Rainer wrote a public letter to MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, declaring Abramovic’s "An Artist's Life Manifesto" to be "grotesque" and "exploitative" in its use of underpaid performers to create a queasy spectacle for wealthy patrons. The concept, she added, put her in mind of Pasolini’s 1975 Facist sexual torture film "Salo."
While there was no X-rated violence Saturday night, there were indeed some eyebrow raising sights, like nude models laying on some tables with skeletons draped over their bodies — a re-staging of one of Abramovic's famous performances — and human heads popping out of others, spinning like ghoulish aparations out of the "Exorcist." (The film parallels may have seemed appropriate, since, hey, it's Hollywood.)
Abramovic wanted all guests to don lab coats, disappointing plenty of L.A. women who put on their finest jewels and prettiest gowns for the event. Most kindly obliged, including honorary chairs Dasha Zhukova, Dita Von Teese, and Kirsten Dunst. But others, like 15-year-old fashion blogger Tavi and a smattering of socialites, prefered to show off their dresses in defiance of the artistic MC.
Once seated for dinner, partygoers exchanged uncertain glances with the rotating heads (courtesy of actors kneeling on Lazy Susans hidden under the tables). L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and California governor Jerry Brown represented the world of politics. Gwen Stefani, Nicole Ritchie, Will Ferrell, and Tilda Swinton were among the Hollywood set. From the art world, attendees included John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha.
"I like the idea of total transition," said Abramovic as she read her manifesto, according to the Daily Beast. "You’re not just here as a guest of another gala. You’re an experimenter in a strange lab."
Guests were instructed to behave themselves at their dinner tables. "Look but don’t touch," read the cards. “The centerpiece will observe you. You may observe the centerpiece. No touching, feeding, offering drink, or disrespecting the centerpiece. All communication and connection with the centerpiece must be non-verbal."
Adding an extra layer of strangeness, two life-sized nude statues of singer (and musical entertainment for the night) Debbie Harry and Abramovic were wheeled out. The crowd then cheered as Harry stabbed her likeness — made out of cake — pulling out a heart of red velvet.
Some guests disagreed more with the lab coats than with Rainer’s accusations. "I'm not sure if this was exploitation," L.A. painter Rosson Crow told the L.A. Times. "But I will tell you one thing: I didn't like the lab coats."
Click on the photo gallery above to see images from the 2011 MOCA Gala.