It was not your usual audition process, not even by modern dance standards. There were no age or gender restrictions. There were no particular body types sought. And instead of taking turns on a stage, the assorted dancers, actors, artists, yogis and athletes trying out for a role in performance artist Marina Abramovic's new project — taking place Saturday at the MOCA gala — were each asked to kneel under a cramped dinner table set for eight.
The audition? Poke your head up through a hole in the center of the table and spin around extremely slowly on a Lazy Susan and quietly gaze with intention but no particular emotion at the seated dinner guests — a strangely zen version of Linda Blair's famous head-turning performance in " The Exorcist."
Yes, Abramovi?'s cast of performers for the MOCA gala will do more than entertain dinner guests — they will be joining the diners in a way that promises to be intimate, intense and uncomfortable for all involved.
"The performance will last over three hours," the Yugoslavian-born, New York performance artist warned a group of hopefuls at an audition early this week. "You will not be able to pee. Holding the position will involve a certain amount of pain. You will be vulnerable — someone might try to feed you or touch you."
If this sounds at least a touch controversial, you would be right. Local dancer Yvonne Rainer has criticized the project, circulating a letter calling the performance "exploitative" and "grotesque" and denouncing the pay — $150 plus a one-year MOCA membership — as "sub minimal wages."
Abramovic responded by noting that Rainer had not seen these performances in any form, only hearing about them from a friend or student who had auditioned, "so it's extremely difficult for me to understand how she could presume to make all these allegations." She added that she had not heard any complaints directly from any performers who auditioned — about 200 over the course of four days.
"It's just the opposite," she said. "We've heard from a lot of people saying how happy they are to be part of it because they respect my work. They are not being used. They know that my work is about testing mental and physical limits."
An unflinching sort of physical vulnerability is Abramovic's specialty, which she famously served to visitors who flocked to her Museum of Modern Art retrospective, "The Artist Is Present," in 2010. The show revisited some of the artist's early extreme-sport-style hits in a range of media, including photographs of her 1974 performance in which she laid inside a burning sculpture of a star (she lost consciousness) and a re-enactment of the 1977 "Imponderabilia" in which originally she and her then-lover/collaborator Ulay faced off, naked, within the frame of a doorway, leaving little room for people to squeeze by.
Abramovic also did a much-discussed performance, billed as her longest, running the length of the MoMA show: stationing herself, clothed, in a chair in the museum atrium, with one chair nearby to let a visitor join her in silence and meet her gaze. It was a chance for visitors to test their patience (waiting in lines among other things) and an experience that required great stamina and concentration for Abramovi?.
The L.A. performance, her first in the city, lasts only one night and takes place inside a rented party tent, not a museum. But she is taking it seriously and has spent the last week in town for auditions. She and her choreographers, Rebecca Davis and Lynsey Peisinger, winnowed 800 online submissions to meet 200 people to find 85 performers for the job.
She says she supports the cause, fundraising for MOCA, and is not receiving a fee for the project, only reimbursement for expenses. (The museum expects about 750 guests, at $2,500 and up per ticket.) "If museums don't have any money, there's no culture. It's a miserable state of mind for everybody," the artist said at one point during an audition to performers who sat in lotus pose around her like a small yoga class. She was seated as well, wearing a black dress and suede boots underneath a white lab coat, which will also figure into the MOCA performance: All guests will be given lab coats to wear to involve them more directly in the experiment that she is staging.
She described the MOCA project as an investigation of temporality, intimacy and the power of silence in the spirit of her previous work. "How do you create your own charismatic space without being funny?" she told a group during auditions. "This is all about the gaze, not talking and not reacting. If you create this kind of space, it has an energetic center. It changes the dynamics of the room."
The idea also stemmed, she said, from what she called "gala fatigue." A familiar sight on the New York art scene, Abramovic tends to go to the big museum galas there: the Modern, the Guggenheim and the Whitney. She has also been to the Metropolitan's annual Costume Institute ball, where this year she wore a stunning black gown by Riccardo Tisci from Givenchy.
Yes, they are fun in a manner, she said between auditions, but they fast become predictable. "I didn't want to do another boring dinner. I wanted to do something different. What is new here is that you're not just a guest being feted by the spectacle; you become part of the spectacle."
MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who tapped her for role of artistic director earlier this year, said he finds her work inspiring, crediting her for helping to carve a space for performance art in the museum sector, in large part through reenactments "which essentially treat the performance like a score that can be reinterpreted again and again," Deitch said. "The Museum of Modern Art didn't even have a curator of performance art before."
So, Deitch said, it was "a no-brainer" to offer her creative control over the gala, which artist Doug Aitken directed last year. Abramovic, though, initially had concerns. "I was very worried — I knew that Francesco Vezzoli brought Lady Gaga and did this whole event," referring to MOCA's 2009 gala. "What would I do to make this a real experience?"
Then she struck on the idea of performers as living centerpieces, and the lab coats. She sees them as a "democratic" gesture, designed so that all the guests look alike, for one night anyway: "You won't know who is wearing Chanel or Galliano or Yohji Yamamoto. It's a great equalizer."
Apparently Eli Broad, the gala co-chair with Maria Bell, also liked the idea. "When Eli and Maria visited my studio in New York, I described what I was going to do with the performance," Abramovi? said. "Eli didn't react at all until I mentioned the lab coats. He loved the idea of the lab coats."
She has also planned some other highlights for the evening — including enlisting pop singer Debbie Harry to perform and commissioning lifelike cakes by Kreëmart, which once cast her lips in chocolate as a souvenir for a MoMA event. And she plans to have performers re-do a version of her 2002 work "Nude With Skeleton," in which she laid unclothed underneath a skeleton that would rise and fall with the rhythms of her breath, creating a haunting image for the intertwining of life and death.
But most performers this week were up for clothed roles as those centerpiece-style heads, the nonvocal and non-responsive kind. During auditions, however, some performers were downright chatty. "What if you have to sneeze?" one asked. "I don't think people sneeze when they are focused. When you do a play, you don't sneeze on stage," another said.
And what if a MOCA guest violates the trust created with the performers? "We will have rules printed out for them, and they will be asked to respect the rules," said Abramovic, who said she has developed a signal for performers to use to communicate to the guards if needed. "I'm very strict and controlling. If someone gets drunk and is behaving improperly, they have to be removed. At MoMA, a museum member of 35 years had to be removed.
"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. So we're asking guests for a certain kind of interaction."