November 15, 2011

Letter from Yvonne Rainer to Jeffrey Deitch

After observing a rehearsal, I am writing to protest the “entertainment” about to be provided by Marina Abramović at the upcoming donor gala at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where a number of young people’s live heads will be rotating as decorative centerpieces at diners’ tables and others — all women — will be required to lie perfectly still in the nude for over three hours under fake skeletons, also as centerpieces surrounded by diners.

On the face of it the above description might strike one as 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 postwar fascists. Though it is hard to watch, Pasolini’s film has a socially credible justification tied to the cause of anti-fascism. Abramović and MoCA have no such credibility — and I am speaking of this event itself, not of Abramović’s work in general — only a questionable personal rationale about the beauty of eye contact and the transcendence of artists’ suffering.

At the rehearsal the fifty heads — all young, beautiful, and mostly white — turning and bobbing out of holes as their bodies crouched beneath the otherwise empty tables, appeared touching and somewhat comic, but when I tried to envision 800 inebriated diners surrounding them, I had another impression. I myself have never been averse to occasional epatering of the bourgeoisie. However, I can’t help feeling that subjecting her performers to possible public humiliation and bodily injury from the three-hour endurance test at the hands of a bunch of frolicking donors is yet another example of the Museum’s callousness and greed and Ms. Abramović’s obliviousness to differences in context and some of the implications of transposing her own powerful performances to the bodies of others. An exhibition is one thing — again, this is not a critique of Abramović’s work in general — but titillation for wealthy donor/diners as a means of raising money is another.

Ms. Abramović is so wedded to her original vision that she — and by extension, the Museum director and curators — doesn’t see the egregious associations for the performers, who, though willing, will be exploited nonetheless. Their cheerful voluntarism says something about the pervasive desperation and cynicism of the art world such that young people must become abject table ornaments and clichéd living symbols of mortality in order to assume a novitiate role in the temple of art.

This grotesque spectacle promises to be truly embarrassing. I and the undersigned wish to express our dismay that an institution that we have supported can stoop to such degrading methods of fund raising. Can other institutions be far behind? Must we re-name MoCA “MOUFR” or the Museum of Unsavory Fund Raising?


Yvonne Rainer
Douglas Crimp
Tom Knechtel
Monica Majoli
Liz Kotz
Michael Duncan
Matias Viegener
Judie Bamber
Kimberli Meyer
Kathrin Burmester
Nizan Shaked
Alexandro Segade
David Burns
A. L. Steiner
Simon Leung
Moyra Davey
Taisha Paggett
Susan Silton
Silvia Kolbowski
Susan Mogul
Julian Hoeber
Catherine Lord
Zoe Beloff
Lincoln Tobier
Millie Wilson
Mary Kelly
Charles Gaines
Amy Sadao
Gregg Bordowitz
Andrea Geyer
Lucas Michael
Liz Deschenes
Ulrike Muller
Nancy Popp
Su Freidrich
Dean Daderko
Litia Perta
Ginger Brooks Takahashi
Stefan Kalmar
bell hooks
Julie Ault
Zoe Leonard
Molly Corey
Sharon Horvath
Rachel Harrison
John Zurier
Day Gleeson
Thomas Miccelli
John Yau
Ernest Larsen


Comments (6)

  • Thank you for posting this. I was so glad to read Rainer’s letter and to follow the very interesting response to the letter and Abramovic’s performance in a few different online forums.

    I have read a few responses that defend the performance by stating that the performers can’t possibly be exploited if they agree to the task and after all, they are given the opportunity to work for a famous artist (as if proximity to a well established, respected artist erases the potential of exploitation). I think it is more subtle than this; the experiences of the performers were varied – some say they felt empowered and I don’t think its that productive to judge the source of one’s empowerment – no one was hurt, or harassed and yet, I see this performance as a part of a larger system that continues to perpetuated consciously and unconsciously all kinds of oppressive dynamics and behaviors about sex, gender, women, bodies, beauty, etc. that our society and culture was founded on. (If I had a nickel for every time a nude woman was used to sell something or was situated as a spectacle for the consumption of an audience I would be wealthy enough to buy tickets to the MOCA gala for myself and all my friends!)

    I wonder if major institutions like LAMoCA will ever be accountable to the politics they promote through these sorts of events.

  • This critique of the LAMoCA for participating in this event is quite powerful and i hope it has its intended effect. While not passing judgement on the feelings of the particpants (having read the linked accounts and the comments), it seems hard not to question the idea of “democratizing” (Abramović’s word) the gala environment through silencing artists. A kind of “carnivaleque” (Bakhtin’s word) celebration which does equalize is one were people actually exchange roles. No one changed roles in this event. The patrons were asked to wear “lab coats,” neutralizing their chic, but they could afford to ignore the request, as some (many?) apparently did. YR explicitly refuses to criticize Abramović’s work as a whole, perhaps because in works like “The Artist is Present” the idea of “role” is questioned.

  • While I am thankful someone finally broke the PC censorhsip wall of the contempt artscene, she is still off base. Read the comments for a better characterization of this wannabe bacchanal. Lame though it was.
    It is not about artistes, it is about art and its role in human culture. It is Not culture itself.
    We ahve tuned out in droves. And no noe bothers to ask why, instead consumed by teh irrelevancies of the acadmies, absurdist entertainments for their nouveau riche patrons.

    Occupy the Contempt museums and Academies, the playgrounds of those who are the parasites of our world and humanity. Arts true subject, seeking the essence of who We are.

  • I mirror posted on my facebook wall and in less than an hour, 18 comments. Perhaps most notably, my friend Pedro pointed out this after-the-fact account:

  • thanks Joseph for posting! and thanks also Konrad for context

  • Thanks for posting it.

    Might/would be good to give some context. This the LAMoCA the letter is directed to, for those who don’t keep up with who is who in the art world directorship sector.

    In turn, Abramović has told Artinfo, “I hope the performance itself will bring some kind of dignity, serenity, and concentration to the normal situation of a gala,” adding, “I really respect Yvonne.”

    Go Yvonne Rainer and co-signers!

See all responses (6)
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