Performance art pioneer Marina Abramović caused quite a stir in November with her controversial direction of the 2011 MOCA Gala. Her deployment of nude performers as live centerpieces at a festive dinner attended by the rich and famous brought accusations of exploitation from fellow artist and Los Angeles resident Yvonne Rainer.
Others viewed the over-the-top event, which also included the slicing and serving of extremely lifelike cakes made to resemble Abramović and guest performer Deborah Harry, as a bizarre and tasteless sellout. Social media dialogues on the topic became so heated that a community forum was held at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) to air out the attendant issues.
When not causing trouble in Los Angeles, Abramović, who has been creating highly influential works of performance art since the 1970s, busies herself with her current life's mission: moving performance art from its historic position on the fringes of the art world into the mainstream. This mission gained some serious steam in 2010, when the Museum of Modern Art gave her a high-profile retrospective exhibition that went a long way toward placing performance art in the public consciousness. Abramović now is hard at work developing the Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art in upstate New York, dedicated to archiving and showcasing works of performance art, as well as educating the public about the practice and its history.
The making of Abramović's MoMA exhibition, along with highlights of her stellar career, are the subject of Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, a beautiful and evocative new documentary film by Matthew Akers. In advance of the film's West Coast premiere June 15 at the Nuart Theatre, we sat down for a stimulating interview with Abramović in which, among other things, she finally says her piece about the MOCA Gala and explains why it's important for performance art to go mainstream.
I'm curious what you think about the state of performance art today, as it's being practiced by the current generation. What have you seen, what do you like?
You know my life in the last 10 years, I literally run for time. I hardly can see anything, I hardly can go to the movies. Recently I saw a very beautiful performance by Terence Koh at Mary Boone Gallery last winter. It was really a two-month-long piece, where he walks on his knees around a huge heap of salt. I'm very drawn to long durational pieces like this because it is something I believe can really change you in a very deep way. Other than that, I've had no chance to see things.
So now when I raise money for the institute, one of my priorities is literally to go to look at things, because I have to bring work to the institute, so I have to see more. One of the most wonderful things for me is to watch somebody else perform, where I am the audience -- I love this more than ever. I just have no time, so I can't even say what's happening in Los Angeles, I have no idea. I see just little, like 1percent or something.
One of our L.A. artists, Dawn Kasper, was in this year's Whitney Biennial and she got a lot of attention. She basically moved all of her belongings into a gallery at the Whitney and lived there every hour that it was open; she just hung out and it was her living space and her studio and she interacted with people and that was her piece.
I did not see it but I heard about it. This living in the space, it is not an enormously original idea. You know other artists have been doing this since the '70s. It is very interesting, how some ideas recycle and become fresh and new. You know the artist Colette? She was very prominent in the '70s, especially in Europe. She made these Marie Antoinette beds with all her belongings, and she would just sleep in the museums and the galleries for enormously long time. Nobody even know her. Lady Gaga made the meat dress, and at least three artists made in the '70s this kind of piece, and no one even reflect on the original works. So that's why my institute is there, to remind people that lots of things have been done, and we have to look in the perspective of history. Some of these pieces have literally been copied and presented as a brand new work.
Up next: the MOCA gala