Last November the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles held its annual fund-raising gala. Previously the event had used the tried-and-tested formula of wheeling in celebrity hosts such as Lady Gaga to try to persuade the great and good of Los Angeles to part with cash to fund the museum’s programme. This time, however, the museum changed tack, and appointed the performance artist Marina Abramovic as its creative director. When the guests, who included Kirsten Dunst, Pamela Anderson and Will Ferrell, turned up, they were asked to don white lab coats. They were then led to their tables, many of which featured a live human head poking up through the middle, revolving like a Lazy Susan. Other tables had as their centrepieces naked performers lying underneath skeletons.
Before the main course Abramovic read a manifesto proclaiming that each guest wasn’t ‘just here as a guest of another gala’ but was in fact ‘an experimenter in a strange lab’. The ageing singer Debbie Harry was then carried on stage by a number of shirtless male performers where she belted out the Blondie hit ‘Heart of Glass’. Finally, two life-size nude statues of Abramovic and Harry were wheeled on to the stage. Harry attacked her statue with a machete and removed its heart, which turned out to be made of red velvet cake. The guests applauded. Dessert had arrived.
Abramovic’s gala generated some controversy. The dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer wrote a much-publicised letter, co-signed by several art-world figures, that denounced the event as ‘a grotesque spectacle’ which exploited those who signed up as performers. But the museum’s director, Jeffrey Deitch, seemed unperturbed by Rainer’s protests, and, given that the gala raised $2.5 million for his institution, that’s understandable. What’s more interesting is what the episode tells us about the status of performance art, once the outrider of the 20th-century avant-garde. As Rainer noted in her letter: ‘An exhibition is one thing — this is not a critique of Abramovic’s work in general — but titillation for wealthy diners as a means of raising money is another.’
Rewind to 1961, when Allan Kaprow published the book Assemblages, Environments and Happenings, which began: ‘A critical turning point has been reached in a major area of avant-garde effort…contemporary art has moved out of its traditional limits.’ Kaprow was talking about emerging art practices that were deliberately informal, performative and ephemeral. Kaprow’s first ‘Happening’, staged in 1959, involved the audience moving around a gallery following printed-out instructions, while figures posed, marched, played instruments and painted. Other artists in New York also rejected the dominant trend of Abstract Expressionism. Claes Oldenburg opened ‘The Store’, a performance space on the Lower East Side that stocked various objects made by the artist that looked, in his words, like ‘popular forms of merchandise’. The works of Kaprow and Oldenburg were deliberately antithetical to the commercial success of the large abstract paintings produced by the likes of Jackson Pollock. This new form of art was expressly designed to be non-commodifiable but also, in the eyes of practitioners such as Kaprow, socially and politically engaged.
This potential for political engagement meant that performance was widely used over the next 30 years by artists who had a point to make. These included feminist artists such as Carolee Schneemann, whose work ‘Interior Scroll’ featured the artist drawing a scroll out of her vagina, which she then read from. Performance became the chosen method for politicised artists working behind the Iron Curtain and in apartheid South Africa. Abramovic herself came to attention with works such ‘Balkan Baroque’ (1997), which featured the artist dressed in a white floor-length ball-dress washing huge, blood-stained bones, an act that caused blood to be smeared gradually on to her dress.
The boundary between performance and installation art was a deliberately porous one with works straddling both. ‘Cavali’ (1969) by Italian artist Jannis Kounellis involved ‘installing’ 12 live horses in a gallery in Rome. The high priest of this type of art was the German artist Joseph Beuys, who used the material residue of his performances to construct politically charged installations.
The journey from vaginal scrolls to Will Ferrell applauding the appearance of cake disguised as sculpture began with museum co-option. Museums showed an interest in performance from its beginnings — New York’s MoMA staged a Kaprow ‘Enviroment’ work in an off-site space in 1983. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that museums such as MoMA, Tate and Cologne’s Ludwig Museum started acquiring filmed footage of performances. The second factor was the rise of the phenomenon of ‘re-performance’, the idea that performance art can be restaged years after a work’s original presentation. In 2002 the Whitechapel Gallery staged A Short History of Performance: Part One, which restaged significant works of performance art, most for the first time since their original performance. The season included Kounellis’s 12-horse performance as well as a work by Schneemann called ‘Meat Joy’, which involved lots of raw chicken being flung around. The recruitment of artists who previously insisted that performance works were one-offs to the idea of re-performance was central here. And that included Abramovic: in 2005 she staged a series of re-performances of key works by herself and other performance artists at the Guggenheim.
The idea of ‘re-performance’ meant that a performance could be not just restaged, but that restaging could be sold, which led to the co-option of performance by the market. The first Frieze art fair in 2003 featured a booth by The Wrong Gallery, which contained two children describing and re-enacting works by the young performance artist Tino Sehgal. Part of a new generation of performance artists, Sehgal was the first to move on from selling documentation of his performances (he bans all photography and filming) to instead selling the rights to re-performance. So, for instance, MoMA purchased the rights to an edition of ‘Kiss’ (2004), a work that involves two performers in a balletic embrace over hours. MoMA can now restage this when it wishes in return for the $70,000 that secured those rights.
Sehgal represents the culmination of the journey of performance art from something non-commercial on the margins of the avant-garde to commercial respectability. He is the next artist to be given Tate’s Turbine Hall and his performative installation there will be on show during the Olympics. Sehgal’s practice is sanitised, depoliticised performance art that offers snappy, stylistic bits of participatory entertainment available for acquisition.
And so to the revolving heads. With commercial acceptance, performance art has become acceptable enough to be wheeled out at galas for the titillation of those wealthy diners. And to be fair, Abramovic is not the first performance artist to be co-opted by the museum gala. The Watermill Center on Long Island has handed over its galas to the director and performer Robert Wilson for the past few years. Last summer the gala featured performance artist Ryan McNamara buried along with a fellow performer, so that only their two heads were visible in a clearing in a wood outside the arts centre. Both performers sang ‘Love lift us up where we belong’. Clearly, disembodied heads of performance artists are now the accessory du jour of big museum galas – the question is whether we will ever be able to recover the body.