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.

Marina Abramović performs during her retrospective exhibition at MoMA. Members of the public sat across from her, one at a time.; Credit: David Smoler/Courtesy of HBO & Music Box Films

Marina Abramović performs during her retrospective exhibition at MoMA. Members of the public sat across from her, one at a time.; Credit: David Smoler/Courtesy of HBO & Music Box Films

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

Rest Energy (1980), a classic performance work by Marina Abramović and former partner Ulay; Credit: Courtesy of HBO & Music Box Films

Rest Energy (1980), a classic performance work by Marina Abramović and former partner Ulay; Credit: Courtesy of HBO & Music Box Films

When you get some time, you should come out to Los Angeles and check it out; it's a lively scene with a lot of performance.

You know I made this crazy party there, you may remember it was extremely criticized by Yvonne Rainer…

Yes, that was a big deal — the MOCA Gala from November 2011.

So let me talk about this. It's very interesting. You know I very much respect Yvonne Rainer, she is very important — in American dance, the entire development of modern dance, and creating a wonderful physical language. I met her in '75, she was doing a project with an art grant. I was doing a performance and to me it was extremely important that she come to see because I appreciate her opinion. So she went to see this performance, this was 36 years ago, and she sent me extremely angry letter, saying how I am naked and I am abusing the female body, and she really got all this feminist thing on me, which, I am not feminist and I am not having it at all. It's incredibly similar, what she said 36 years ago and what she said last year. She never got my work right, and I am really sorry for that. If I could find that letter, it would be interesting to compare these two letters — 36 years ago and now.

The performers in Los Angeles were actually better paid than the performers at my MoMA retrospective. MoMA paid $22.50 an hour but MOCA paid $25 an hour plus a one-year membership. And I didn't get paid at all, I did it for free. So I don't know, this was very strange. She was so angry, and I think that anger comes from so many different directions. I think that her work is not appreciated enough in this country, and she deserves a much better position in the art world than what she has. But this is not my problem. You know I came out from the ex-Yugoslavia, and I got all this attention but she didn't. I feel unjust that she is putting all this on me, because my work is not dealing with the things she is accusing me of.

The MOCA Gala definitely became a lightning rod for issues of artist labor, whether it deserved to be or not.

This is ridiculous! I didn't get paid for performances most of my life. If I did, I would be billionaire now, and I'm not. It was so… I was so disturbed by her. And then the issue of, why were all the performers young people? I said OK, give me anybody my age, who can perform that long, I will accept, of course. My generation of artists, they don't perform anymore. What they can do? I'm 66 this year. People think, the performers are young and beautiful, it's because I don't like old and ugly, but it's not like that! It's about energy.

It was such a big controversy in our art community that we actually organized a public forum to discuss it.

[MOCA director] Jeffrey Deitch was there. He was telling me. But tell me!

Well, basically, several of the people who were actually in your performance showed up and said they had a very positive experience, they felt well taken care of, and they wouldn't trade the experience for anything. But there were others who maintained on theoretical grounds that sometimes, even if you don't feel you are being exploited, you are being exploited. And, talking about the event gave rise to a lot of interesting discussion around issues of performance, the institution, artists' rights, etc.

Like Yvonne's letter! But artists, excuse me, you are exploited anyway. For example, when I did Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim — they never paid me one penny! I paid my own taxi to go to perform at the museum, and after seven hours of performing, they might have the mercy to give me car to bring me back because I could not walk. I mean, this is my situation, nobody pays, and this was just four or five years ago! When I was young and their age, I was glad to do anything and not be paid.

Behind the scenes with Marina Abramović; Credit: David Smoler/Courtesy of HBO & Music Box Films

Behind the scenes with Marina Abramović; Credit: David Smoler/Courtesy of HBO & Music Box Films

For me, the more interesting question about the gala was, did you see it as a work of yours, or was it just a party that you helped put together?

First of all, whenever I do things, I want to change the vibration of the normal situation. With the [previous] MOCA Gala, Francesco Vezzoli had gotten Lady Gaga and the Russian ballet, that was one way to do it, with all big names. I was thinking, I want to do something performative, I want to give some kind of other values.

Did you see the YouTube video that MOCA made? In it I talk about how art in the past was sponsored by kings and queens and popes, and now it's supported by businesspeople and banks. The existence of artists is always connected to people who are rich enough to afford it, because poor people, they are busy with existence, they are not with art, and this is a really important point.

I wanted to create something that was not just stupid party, always the same, but have something different. And I must say it was amazing to see that — it was different, it was changed. We had one table where the people cried looking at this silent guy, just looking in his eyes. The conversation was different, everything was different.

So you were happy with the outcome?

Yeah, totally, I am. And another thing: You know Blondie and me, we have these lifesize cakes that look like us, and we cut them, and this man started screaming about abuse of the woman and cutting the body. Everybody sees what they want. For me it was about, we are both public figures, giving our metaphoric body to the public — it's the ultimate gesture.

It's an old Tibetan thing, when people die, they cut up the body and put the pieces on the mountain so vultures can eat, do you know that? This is the ritual. You are beneficial to the end, even beyond the end, even in your death you are actually beneficial. But people read into these gestures in a vulgar way; they don't see it in a more philosophical or metaphorical way.

America is so obsessed with nudity. Can you relax and be normal? Come on. Most of the important performance pieces, they will never be made in America because of all the restrictions, liability cases that you have to send lawyers, what you can do and not do, and we in Europe just did it.

Well, I think you have to go underground. Artists in L.A. get naked all the time, we're just doing it in these little artist-run spaces so nobody bothers us.

No, I'm fed up with this! Performance has to be mainstream art. This is what I'm fighting for. It has to be in the museum, and the artists have to be naked, and people have to take it [laughs]. Underground, they got plants underground. I don't do underground anymore. After 45 years of career…

You want to be above ground now.


Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present opens on June 15 for a one-week run at the Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223. It also airs beginning July 2 on HBO.

Carol Cheh blogs about L.A.'s performance art scene at Another Righteous Transfer! Follow her on Twitter at @righteoustrans. For more arts news follow @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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