Marina Abramovic

Nudity in museum art is a time-honored, classical tradition that would hardly raise a pulse anywhere – except when it’s live and is part of your dinner.

The folks in Los Angeles have been buzzing about this year’s Museum of Contemporary Art gala banquet a week ago, its mildly pornographic décor and its misogynist entertainment. Famed installation artist Marina Abramovic was responsible for placing nude women in the center of the MOCA banquet tables, arranged in such a way that all eyes were focused in the unfortunate girls’ direction; and in case someone in Hollywood was not yet shocked, human skeletons were placed on top of their supine bodies, implying … something only Marina knows.

For added panache, human heads revolved eerily amongst the table foliage. Fortunately they appeared to be living and supported by some kind of trick, revolving platform beneath the tables. Didn’t Nero already do this? Someone needs to tell Marina right away.

Apparently some of the donors attending the event (including big Hollywood names) were actually uncomfortable, although few would own up to it. Some women refused to don the white lab coats Marina offered. At $2,500 or more a pop, many didn’t go for the dental-assistant look, preferring their gorgeous gowns and jewels for some reason.

Gwen Stafani, photo b Georges Biard

The star-studded fundraiser was planned, chaired and attended by all sorts of art luminaries, lords and divas in support of MOCA and its trendy, often Hollywood-oriented shows. Singer Debbie Harry co-hosted the event, which included wealthy trustees and collectors. Hordes of celebrities showed up, including Will Ferrell, Dasha Zhukova, Pamela Anderson, Gwen Stafani, Nicole Ritchie and Gov. Jerry Brown.

While guests waged staring contests with the Disembodied Ones over champagne, shirtless male dancers carried Debbie Harry onstage to croon for the crowd. Then the “entertainment” went from perplexing to incomprehensible.

The denouement: two life-size, cake statues of Harry and Abramovic (nude of course) were wheeled out. Harry attacked her cakeness with a machete, cutting out the “heart” (re-velvet cake). More shirtless men with machetes mutilated the cake-bodies, which the guests ate. People posed with pastry body parts, gruesomely realistic, with pink frosting, dark within. Lots of cheering – just like the coliseum.

Although only Isabel Wilkinson of “The Daily Beast” mentioned this (no mainstream venues), there were some very vocal dissenters at MOCA that night. Whether gatecrashers or paid guests, someone began to chant, “Violence against women!” repeatedly as the performance unrolled. A few women began to complain about what appeared to be violently dismembered body parts for dessert. Too much even for Hollywood? The sight of the half-naked men with machetes hacking at limbs was an especially egregious touch. Others were disgusted with the “centerpieces” and complained they made them uncomfortable.

No particular reason or clear theme here, but Harry and Abramovic are definitely being paid a lot of money for this. Well, in the interest of full disclosure, Marina did have a serious-sounding “manifesto” printed up before the event from which a group of her performers read. Pronouncements such as “I like the idea of total transition” and “You’re an experimenter in a strange lab ” did little to enlighten the guests though.

Reactions of attendees was mixed, with most of the artists defending Abramovic and many MOCA supporters silent.

A few brave artists publically denounced the theatrics in a letter to MOCA before the event. Famed choreographer Yvonne Ranier described the “grotesque spectacle” as a degrading and abusive excuse to titillate “wealthy diners as a means of raising money.” She likened it to a 1975 sexual, Fascist torture film, “Salo” and aggressively campaigned against the event.

Ranier was especially enraged over the minuscule sums she claims the actors were paid (Where is Occupy Wall Street now?).

She asked, “Can other institutions be far behind? Must we re-name MOCA ‘MODFR,’ or the Museum of Degenerate Fund Raising?”

You can tell Ranier is an older artist by her wording, particularly “degenerate,” which in many of contemporary art’s value-free zones, has become a meaningless concept.

Abramovic had the decency to at least appear concerned over the protests, as she did over Ranier’s accusations, to which she responded with an invitation to attend the gala. That was difficult or impossible, as tickets ran from $2,500 to $10,000 per person and were likely sold out. She also ironically spoke of bringing “some kind of dignity, serenity and concentration to the normal situation of a gala” and of bringing “the performance into an everyday life situation.”

If this is an “everyday situation,” there should definitely be a reality show at her place.

Most of the performers themselves were quick to defend Abramovic, stressing their need either for money or a potential shot at glory. A sad commentary on both the financial plight of many artists and the utter worship of fame, which overcomes personal values and rationality.

One concept artist in attendance, Piero Golia, denied any exploitation claiming, “Where I come from, it’s considered an honor to work for a great artist.”

Abramovic and other celebrated, famed artists are allowed free-reign in the art world as unchecked mentors and given extraordinary privilege and power in their own sphere. She is aware of this and requests that she be considered the “grandmother” of performance art. Strange she should wish to be grandmother rather than mother, when she describes her own grandmother of being overly strict and religious. It is one of the things she has been trying to “overcome” with her arduous performances, along with the zealous, ultra-communism of her parents.

“The Artist is Present,” Abramovic at MOMA 2010

Abramovic also admits to wanting to be loved, respected and attended to. So much so, that in last years’ massively advertised “The Artist is Present” at MOMA New York, she sat gazing into the eyes of visitors at close reach for 736 hours without moving or speaking, a truly Houdini-like feat. This was attendant with nude younger models also, as the press dutifully noted, but with less obvious complaints from the public there. Although Abramovic takes her performances very seriously and is a giant in the modern art world, the extent of self-absorption and projection alone seems to have shown its edges with these last two exhibits.

MOCA is probably not shedding many tears over a few enraged patrons or a little bad press when this kind of stunt has proved so successful for them. According to their own documents, in less than two years they have tripled their endowments, doubled attendance and added trustees and board members galore. MOCA is particularly proud of their galas, which they bill as “a single-evening, experiential artwork” by the most “outstanding visual artists” in the world – and the press! Each one has raised millions and dazzled with stars like Lady Gaga, the Bolshoi Ballet, Gospel choirs and even farm auctioneers.

The current MOCA exhibit, by the way, is “Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles” based on a successful tabloid photographer of the 1940s. The show goes on.

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