In the latest celebrity assault on that trendy-but-widely-misunderstood medium known as performance art, actor Shia LaBeouf can currently be seen at Cohen Gallery on Beverly Boulevard, performing a piece called #IAMSORRY. The performance, an apology for recent acts of plagiarism, has LaBeouf welcoming visitors while sitting silently with a paper bag over his head. Visitors can do whatever they please with him, using several available "implements" that include a ukulele, a vase of daisies and a bowl of Hershey's Kisses.
Perhaps more bizarre and more telling than this performance, however (which is nothing more than a very weak riff on Marina Abramovi?'s harrowing 1974 work Rhythm 0, in which the available implements to use on the artist included a loaded gun) was a series of visits LaBeouf paid to local galleries and alternative art spaces in his quest to find a suitable and willing venue.
After the actor sent out a mass email in late January detailing his proposal, François Ghebaly Gallery, Favorite Goods and South of Sunset were among the recipients who decided to call him on his bluff. They extended invitations for on-site meetings, half expecting the whole thing to turn out to be an elaborate hoax.
Much to their surprise, all three quickly received personal visits from the real LaBeouf - sans entourage and dressed in a get-up that included dirty sweatpants tucked into combat boots, a bomber jacket, a dirt-smeared baseball cap, fake-looking tattoos and a huge military-style backpack. What followed could be described as a fascinating lab experiment in which a clueless celebrity with issues is set loose in the woolly world of emerging contemporary art.
"It was like he was dressing the way he thinks artists dress," says Elizabeth DiGiovanni, who along with Megan Dudley launched South of Sunset in the Temple-Beaudry neighborhood last summer. The two had a fairly awkward meeting with LaBeouf, in which a skeptical Dudley lost interest and stared out the window while DiGiovanni tried to grill him on his nonexistent art practice. LaBeouf spoke in a strangely affected manner, they report, and made a point of taking swigs out of a gallon jug of water that he had brought with him. He talked a lot about method acting, and the two women suspected that the visit itself was a method exercise.
A native of L.A., LaBeouf told them that South of Sunset was his favorite of the spaces he had visited so far, in part because he had grown up very close by. In spite of this sentimental plea, Dudley and DiGiovanni did not find his proposal compelling enough to seriously entertain, and sent him on his way with some friendly art world advice on how to procure a space.
"If this whole thing is a publicity stunt, I have no idea what the purpose of it is," Dudley reflects. "If he was acting during our meeting then he is a very convincing actor, because I still don't know whether this whole 'being an artist' thing is sincere or not."
Audrey Moyer, who runs Favorite Goods out of her renovated second-story home on Chinatown's Chung King Road, had a similarly off-kilter experience. LaBeouf breezed into her space, oohed and ahhed over it, and excitedly gushed about wanting his performance to be "both totally sincere and totally extreme." He cited iconic German performance artist Joseph Beuys as a key influence, but mispronounced Beuys' name. He also admitted to being totally ignorant about performance art and the art world.
Sensing how far out of his element he was, Moyer wonders if the two artists he cites as collaborators on this project - Finnish performance artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö and British artist Luke Turner - are using the highly impressionable LaBeouf as a medium for their own ideas about celebrity culture. (Indeed, his "Metamodernist Manifesto" shows off a facility with artspeak that doesn't seem to gibe with LaBeouf's personality.) At the same time, she doesn't doubt the sincerity of his interest, describing him as someone who is trying hard to break out of his own celebrity pigeonhole.
"Part of me wanted to do it," Moyer admits. "This crazy opportunity just falls in my lap, so why not? At the same time I'm thinking, do I really want to contribute to the dumbing down of this medium, of this world that I work in?"
Moyer ultimately turned him down because she already had a show planned during the dates he wanted. But she might have relented if he had offered a rental fee. "If the price was right, I could have used the money to fund shows in this space for the rest of the year."
François Ghebaly, who found LaBeouf surprisingly pleasant and respectful, was also tempted to host the show at his spacious downtown gallery, saying, "It's not the same as having a James Franco show in a museum. This is a gallery, and galleries are supposed to be more reflective of our times. The art world is becoming very popular and all kinds of celebrities want a piece of it. I don't know if this is good or bad, but in some way it could be art."
The idea of bringing mass appeal to the largely esoteric world of contemporary art is attractive to Ghebaly, who incidentally was already in talks with another major movie star about participating in a project conceived and developed by one of his gallery artists.
In the end, though, Ghebaly too turned down LaBeouf's proposal, not wanting to risk "erasing six years of [art world] credibility with one event." However, he says that, had he moved forward with it, he would have organized a panel discussion to responsibly grapple with the issues that arise when celebrity culture invades the art world.
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Moyer says she would have done the same thing. "Celebrities see the art world as a place where anything flies, anything is art," she observes. "Jay-Z, Tilda Swinton, Lady Gaga - everyone writes about what they're doing but no one is being critical about it."
It might also be said that no one is being aggressive enough in fully exploiting the possibilities offered by LaBeouf's performance. While the available instruments are far more innocuous than those at Abramovi?'s performance, visitors are nonetheless invited to have their way with him. Judging from the published reports to date however, no one has been anything but polite and respectful.
"An artist should go in there and beat the shit out of him," Ghebaly jokingly suggests. "Dawn Kasper should do it." Now that would have been art.