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A face-to-bag visit with Shia LaBeouf

EntertainmentMoviesArts and CultureArtistsShia LaBeoufMuseum of Modern ArtCannes Film Festival

Shia LaBeouf is at a loss for words — today, anyway.

Inside the inner sanctum of Los Angeles' Cohen Gallery — a bare, echo-y room within a room, no bigger than a walk-in closet — LaBeouf sits silent and erect at a plain, plywood table. He wears a black tuxedo jacket and a rumpled paper bag with eyehole cutouts over his head. Scrawled across the bag: "I Am Not Famous Anymore." It's the same outfit he wore on the red carpet Sunday at the Berlin premiere of his newest film, Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac: Volume I."

Now, like a man in an interrogation room, LaBeouf sits facing forward, his palms flat on the tabletop on either side of him. He makes direct eye contact through the slits in the bag, which appear stained around the eyes, as if from tears. 

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The former Disney star braved a storm of allegations in December when he used uncredited work by graphic novelist Daniel Clowes in his short film, "HowardCantour.com," which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2012. He's since apologized on Twitter — though many pointed out that some of his apologies appeared to be borrowed themselves.

On Tuesday at the Cohen Gallery, LaBeouf took his remorse to the next level with an appearance billed as an art installation in collaboration with Finnish performance artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö and artist Luke Turner. Titled "#IAMSORRY," the project, whether a publicity stunt or performance art piece, was a less-than-subtle nod to two of artist Marina Abramovic's most famous works: "Rhythm 0" and "The Artist Is Present."

In her 2010 Museum of Modern Art piece, "The Artist Is Present," Abramovic sat similarly still and silent facing visitors, who stayed for minutes or hours, depending on how long they chose to face the artist. 

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As the #IAMSORRY hashtag multiplied on Twitter Tuesday afternoon, a small crowd of reporters and LaBeouf fans and foes waited outside the Beverly Boulevard gallery for a turn with the actor, who is scheduled to appear in the space through Sunday. Guards were positioned at both the front and back doors and guests were allowed in one at a time.

The rules were strict: no photography or recording of any kind. Enter through the front; exit through the back. Choose one item from a table by the entrance to bring inside — among them, a pink ukulele, a bottle of Jack Daniel's, a bowl of tweets lambasting LaBeouf, a Clowes book, a bullwhip — similar to Abramovic's setup for "Rhythm 0." Stay as long as you want. Ask whatever you want — but LaBeouf wouldn't be talking.

Some in the crowd wore their own paper bags, or padded office envelopes, over their heads,. "I was never famous," read one bag. 

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Some in line joked about how to address LaBeouf. "What if I pulled the bag off his face?" said one young woman. "I've always wanted to kiss a man with a bag over his head," joked another.

A teary-eyed older woman with salt-and-pepper hair, and wearing a lime-green cape, was more somber.

"I'm a mother — and I can see he's struggling," said the woman. "If he was my son, I'd want people to reach out. So I came down to talk with him."

Inside the empty gallery, LaBeouf sat stock-still and silent. His eyes were watery; his breathing was audible.

When asked if he is truly sorry, he just stared through the holes in the bag. 

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I joked and prodded and even questioned whether this masked man was, in fact, Shia LaBeouf. No answer.

Then I sat, silently, for a few minutes, meeting LaBeouf's eyes directly. A single tear rolled down his face.

Goodbye, I finally said after the so-called "interview." When I extended my hand, LaBeouf took it and gave a long squeeze, before a guard ushered me to the sidewalk.

Outside the crowd was antsy. Some exiting the gallery reported that LaBeouf produced a tear for them too.

Appropriately, as LaBeouf's arty installation was both a riff on plagiarism and a performance about performance, one member in the crowd was there to offer the actor more acting work.

"My boss sent me down here," said Caroline Fox, 23. "He's the creator of a new comedy show — and he wanted me to ask Shia to be in it!"

deborah.vankin@latimes.com 

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