06 Nov 2005

The Last Taboo

Performance artist Marina Abramovic really wanted to present, during a week of appearing at the New York Guggenheim Museum,

her most radical work, called “Rhythm 0.” Performed only once in Naples in 1974, its premise was terrifyingly simple: She agreed to stand in a gallery for six hours while anyone who came in could choose any of 72 objects around her – including knives, scissors, a needle, a loaded gun – and do anything they wanted to her with the objects. It was her only work in which she essentially ceded control over her body, and over the pain to be inflicted, to her audience. The participants became involved slowly at first, but after a while Ms. Abramovic’s clothes were cut off, and her body marked, burned and cut. Finally, a man took the gun and made her put it up to her head, trying to force her to squeeze the trigger. She didn’t resist, but a fight ensued as other spectators intervened. “This was the only performance where I was really ready to die,” she said

But she will not get the chance to demonstrate that proposition at the Guggenheim, at least in so stark a fashion. She and Nancy Spector, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, had long discussions about the dangers involved in the piece, about the difficulty – or near impossibility – of getting permission for the gun and about whether the piece could be staged without it.

“The risks really outweighed anything else,” Ms. Spector said, “and then it really came down to the legal questions. We just couldn’t find a way to have a loaded gun in the museum.

Art, and the New York-chapter of the contemporary Community of Fashion, are prepared to tolerate public exhibitions of nudity, games of dominance and submission, and experiments in sadism on the part of volunteer amateurs in the name of art. No form of sexual perversion or psychological depravity will be denied entry to shrines and temples of High Culture today, as long as any sort of crudely forged passport purporting to be issued by the muses is presented. A loaded pistol is something else again.

It was not the possibility of injury really. Ms. Abramowic had desired to top off her week at the Guggenheim with a real show-stopper. She had been hoping to re-enact a “near mythical event in the canon of performance art:” the crucifixion presented in Venice, CA in 1973 in which the victim arranged to have his hands nailed to roof of a Volkswagen. Alas! the original “artist” declined to extend the necessary permission to copy his work.

No, it was the insurance, along with, of course, the inflexibility of the museum staffs’ hoplophobia. Social taboos concerning sex, bourgeois morality, the dignity of the human body can all be compromised in the service of art; but, in the final analysis, not Gun Control.


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