Marina Abramović and the White Artist's Gaze

Her bizarre description of Aboriginal Australians emerged shortly after Vanessa Beecroft’s bizarre statements about black people.

Marina Abramovic at her 2010 exhibition "The Artist Is Present"
Mary Altaffer / AP

In advanced copies of the performance artist Marina Abramović’s forthcoming memoir, one passage presents the Aboriginal people of Australia as if they are something other than human:

They look like dinosaurs. They are really strange and different, and they should be treated as living treasures. Yet they are not.

But at the same time, when you first meet them, you have to put effort into it. For one thing, to Western eyes they look terrible. Their faces are like no other faces on earth; they have big torsos (just one bad result of their encounter with Western civilisation is a high sugar diet that bloats their bodies) and sticklike legs.

Outrage ensued after the excerpt leaked online, giving rise to the hashtag #TheRacistIsPresent, a reference to Abramović’s 2010 MoMA performance The Artist Is Present. Abramović quickly posted an explanation on Facebook: “The description contained in an early, uncorrected proof of my forthcoming book is taken from my diaries and reflect my initial reaction to these people when I encountered them for the very first time way back in 1979. It does not represent the understanding and appreciation of Aborigines that I subsequently acquired through immersion in their world and carry in my heart today.”

The scandal comes a week after another major art-world figure, Vanessa Beecroft, drew reproach for a New York Magazine profile by Amy Larocca wherein Beecroft talked about her collaboration with Kanye West in strange racial terms:

“I have divided my personality,” she says. “There is Vanessa Beecroft as a European white female, and then there is Vanessa Beecroft as Kanye, an African-American male.” Later she tells me, “I even did a DNA test thinking maybe I am black? I actually wasn’t. I was kind of disappointed, and I don’t want to believe it. I want to do it again, because when I work with Africans or African-Americans, I feel that I am autobiographical. If I don’t call myself white, maybe I am not.”

That quote was just one of many in the article that betrayed an obsession with black peoples’ bodies, an obsession that has been a long-running theme in Beecroft’s divisive career. “Perhaps what makes this statement, and so many others quoted in the Larocca profile, so uncomfortable is that Beecroft repeatedly expresses an interest in being black, but in a way that is totally divorced from the social issues connected with being black,” wrote Carolina A. Miranda in a response published in The Los Angeles Times.

These controversies involved different contexts, but both arose from well-off white European artists participating in a very long tradition of fetishizing otherness. Whether in an old diary entry or not, Abramović treated a nonwhite peoples’ physical features as not only repulsively exotic but deterministically so—a bodily manifestation of some soul-level difference. Beecroft did something similar. She suggested that race is not socially constructed but intrinsic, though she wished that through art she could mutate her DNA. She fantasized about blackness being a fun costume that she, sadly, has not been allowed to wear—a point of view insensitive to the reality of racial inequality and that is probably shared by some people who put on blackface.

Interestingly, both Abramović and Beecroft stand as some of the art world’s most high-profile collaborators with hip-hop. Abramović participated in Jay Z’s 2013 performance-art piece and music video for “Picasso Baby,” though she later falsely accused him of not holding up promises to donate to her charity. Beecroft has been a full-time collaborator of West’s for years, designing his fashion shows and music videos and wedding decor. If West finds Beecroft’s views on race objectionable, he hasn’t said so. These partnerships have obviously been creatively fruitful for the rappers, have elevated the artists’ public profiles, and could perhaps been seen as signs of the art world’s notorious insularity easing.

But these two recent statements raise the specter that less has changed in Western art over the centuries than might be thought. The stereotypical dynamic of what happens when white artists set out to draw inspiration from people they consider “other” is made plain in the story of Paul Gauguin, who moved to what he called the “primitive and savage state” of Tahiti and then exaggerated and fetishized aspects of its people to enormous later acclaim. In 2016, many might assume there is more sensitivity at work when, say, Beecroft turns an image of a Rwandan refugee camp into a Kanye West clothing display. But perhaps that’s a damaging, uncritical first reaction, somewhat like Abramović’s impressions of Aboriginal people in 1979.