2013 was a breakout year for Pop’s latest wild child Miley Cyrus, having shed her G-rated image for a new, more mature direction. Hardly a week went by without a controversy — butchering her hair, dropping Molly and marijuana references, twerking on live TV, NSFW fashion shoots — each one making plain that Miley is not your tween role model anymore. We may dismiss her viewer provocation, exploitation of sexuality, and self-destructive tendencies as headline-grabbing antics, but perhaps there’s more going on here. Similar tactics have been used by contemporary artist Marina Abramovic, the “grandmother of performance art.” Marina also had a stellar 2013, founding a performance art institute, starring in an opera about her death, writing James Franco’s biography, and most famously, inspiring Jay-Z’s recent video for “Picasso Baby.”
If your reaction is “Marina who?” then here’s a brief introduction. Marina Abramovic made a name for herself in the anarchic heyday of Performance Art in the 1970s as an ultra-serious zealot. Performances such as her seminal Rhythm series were notorious for the dangerous circumstances she devised, and her endurance of self-imposed penances. In her legendary work Rhythm 0 (1974), Marina offered spectators the opportunity to pleasure or harm her naked body with a myriad of objects ranging from a feather to a loaded gun, which audience members proceeded to do. Fast forward to 2010: for The Artist is Present, a work staged at the MoMA in conjunction with a career survey and documented by HBO, Marina silently locked eyes, one at a time, with hundreds of thousands of spectators queued up over three months (736 hours total).
Marina is taking advantage of her fame while making a significant shift in her career with some high-profile celebrity collaborations. On the heels of her MoMA show, Marina has found her brand in demand by Lady Gaga, James Franco, and Jay-Z. For his “Picasso Baby” music video, Jay-Z reinterpreted Marina’s The Artist Is Present at Pace Gallery, featuring himself as the Artist, rapping and strutting, and casting Marina as one of many reveling VIP participants. “Picasso Baby” is subtitled “A Performance Art Video,” but is it performance art, a music video, a hybrid?
Caught off guard, viewers often don’t know what to make of these new hybrids. (Critic Jerry Saltz, who was in attendance, went in skeptical and left “elated”.) When artists long for celebrity fame and pop stars flaunt Art World cred, traditionally separate frameworks of interpretation break down and merge together. The Art World badge gives an aura of seriousness to celebrity bearers, but perhaps it’s not necessary anymore, if the boundary between the two worlds is so porous. Perhaps we can stretch out this broad hybridized pop/art framework a bit further, to reevaluate work lacking that aura of seriousness.
“Wrecking Ball” is the centerpiece of Miley’s campaign to reinvent herself. The video has been written off by some critics for its overt raunchiness, but let’s ignore that bias and consider the work from a different perspective. When compared to Marina’s Rhythm series (specifically Rhythm 0), some interesting parallels emerge.
The basic elements of “Wrecking Ball” — a nude female, some dangerous tools, and a set built for us to see destroyed — comprise a mise-en-scène reminiscent of Marina’s Rhythm series. The action takes place in a bare, minimalist cinder block room — a kind of “white cube” gallery space — decorated and atmospherically hardened by icons of hands-on demolition, a sledge hammer, a wrecking ball, and concrete detritus. Marina’s Rhythm series turned the gallery space into a variety of dangerous environments, experimenting with different kinds of threats: environmental (such as the burning star of Rhythm 5, inside of which Marina nearly asphyxiated); social (the audience of Rhythm 0); self-destructive (cutting herself with a knife in Rhythm 10). Rhythm 0 in particular is notable for its use of conventional tools appropriated as weapons.
Miley appears scantily dressed or completely nude in a variety of vignettes: getting friendly with a sledgehammer, bareback riding a wrecking ball, walking toward the viewer during the demolition, or writhing on the rubble. Performing nude is a familiar trope of Marina’s: a challenge to perceptions of vulnerability. That same purpose is narratively served for Miley. Her nudity is part of her power over us, to whom she was previously victim.
Through the sexual innuendo of her performance, Miley spins the tale of our breakup to us, with a gaze punctuated by tears. As the wrecking ball slams into cinder block, bringing down the walls, Miley walks toward us in a seductive confrontation. We wrecked her, and now she wrecks us. In Rhythm 0, Marina put everything on the line, revealing the mixture of fetish, misogyny, and appetite for violence in her audience. Some pleasuring did occur at the audience’s hands, but the part we remember and talk about is the loaded gun held to her head at the end. “Wrecking Ball” offers us the vicarious experience of Miley’s seduction, her revenge, and her self-destruction, while at the same time, we become Miley’s tormentor as she sings to us; Marina’s stripped-down relational aesthetics reverberating through the fourth wall. Miley put it all on the line for us, and we didn’t realize how far she would go, taking us down with her in a blaze of glory.
We may speculate that the full nudity was at director Terry Richardson’s behest, but Miley’s general objectification in “Wrecking Ball” seems like her decision, part of her new identity, and the key to realizing this is understanding that we sexualize her only when she says so. For her follow-up interview with Barbara Walters, Miley dressed in a loose-fitting outfit of long pants and a collared and fully-buttoned blouse. While fashionable, her unrevealing and non-sexual attire is her saying “no.” This also echos Rhythm 0; at the end of the performance, Marina rose and approached surrounding audience members, who scattered.
Is there a direct, causal connection between Marina Abramovic and “Wrecking Ball”? It’s doubtful. But Marina is treading deeper into Miley’s territory, contaminating pop culture, and any explication of current events should take her work into account. Issues of intent and originality are typical cannon fodder and a lazy critique; we fire the gun when we don’t like the work and holster it when we do.
RoseLee Goldberg, the foremost authority on performance art, points out that Marina “recognized that the only way that she could get people to fully experience her work was to make them stop in their tracks, and to be with her in real time, one hundred percent and without distraction.” If a top-tier contemporary artist requires such concessions from her audience, can’t we approach “Wrecking Ball” with the same seriousness? Let Miley take us, as she says, “into [our] imagination a little bit and see kind of what the video really means and the way it’s so vulnerable.”