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."