Last night, Marina Abramovic transformed the already typically transformative MOCA annual gala, testing her audience with a strange play on objectification and the human body that put many of those in attendance visibly on edge.
Marina required every guest — no matter the Chanel gown or tuxedo tailored just for the occasion — to don a white lab coat before entering the tent where dinner was to be served. Inside, they were confronted by tables that were adorned by either A) a naked man or women lying prone on a sort of high-tech, constantly spinning lazy susan while being smothered underneath a skeleton, or B) a rectangular table festooned with two human heads that poked up and out from the tabletops, expressionless but still blinking, gazing blankly out on the crowd. (Will Ferrell's reaction when he came face-to-face with one of his unexpected dinner companions was pretty priceless.) For dessert? An anatomically correct cake in the form and size of a human body.
The surgical undertones and references to the Other were clear in Abramovic's confrontational but playful "experiment," but beyond the plainly visible portion of the art, what was more interesting to me is the influence of the work that cannot be completely seen. While I didn't stay for the completion of Marina's performance piece, since I hadn't shelled out for a seat at the dinner, I didn't witness the full unfolding of this strange trial of viewer vs. viewed.
Clearly, there were the obvious themes of examination and objectification suggested by the lab coats, disembodied heads, and bodies on display. However, I would have loved to see how the presence of two unknown observers at each table impacted the behavior and conversation of the guests. It's also impossible to believe that Marina wasn't also poking at least a bit of fun at the gala's well-heeled guests, many of whom found themselves having paid $2,500 for the privilege of eating dinner alongside a faceful of unkempt genitals. (Nope. No Brazilian waxes here, folks.) But there was a darker element to the effort. After all, Marina pointed out in a recent LA Times article, "we are creating a vulnerable position with respect to the performers. You could do anything — you could take the fork and stab it in their heads." Luckily last night's event included no random acts of violence, that I know of, but the possibility created a certain tension that permeated the evening. Who really had the upper hand in the situation, though? The guests, who could have easily manhandled their disembodied dinner guests? Or the performers, whose silent observation completely shifted the behavior and experience of the ticketholders?
Dita von Teese perhaps said it best with a Tweet from inside the festivities, writing: "A favorite quote of mine: 'this must be art, because it sure ain't entertainment'. -Pogo"