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.