Art is only as important as the context that surrounds it. I am neither condemning nor endorsing this statement as truth, but merely asserting its validity as an prevailing mindset. Take, for example, Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed violin virtuoso, who in 2007 staged himself as a common street performer in a D.C. Metro station for a social experiment conducted by The Washington Post. Bell’s act, which regularly plays to standing ovations at sold out venues around the world, only persuaded seven people to stop and listen.
In a replicated experiment in 2013, infamous London street artist Banksy set up an art stall in central park to sell his pieces for $60 each. (For comparison’s sake, in 2011 the Banksy original Bird with Grenade sold at Christie’s in London for $228,043.) A meager three people participated in the sale. So while some can argue the purist stance that art should hold its value even when removed from the context in which it lives, we have proved as a society that this “standard” and alleged moral high ground isn’t always representative of our current cultural perspective.
With that precedent established, it is important when speaking of the performance art piece #IAMSORRY, when speaking of Shia LaBeouf (one of the collaborators and, for all intents and purposes, the ‘public face’ of the exhibition) to take into account the context surrounding it. This piece, which, yes, in isolation could seem as the demented ramblings of a spoiled child-star turned millionaire, but, much like an abstract painting, begins to take shape as great art the further back you stand from the canvas.
Much of the media commentary on #IAMSORRY has been fleeting and ephemeral, a by-product of a society of skeptics that determined “breakdown” is a more marketable buzzword than “art.” LaBeouf’s collaborators on the exhibit, artists Luke Turner and Nastja Säde Rönkkö, have been largely, and embarrassingly, ignored, although the bottom of the press release plainly reads “#IAMSORRY is a collaborative project by Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner.”
If Marina Abramović’s name is mentioned, it is usually in an ill-pronounced and off-handed remark about LaBeouf’s attempted fascination with plagiarism, and the most popular media coverage seems more content to laugh, to blame, to sweep everything under the rug of mental illness, than to ask why, to ask what #IAMSORRY says, and not give up immediately when the boy behind the curtain refuses to answer plainly.
The performance art piece is simple in its construction, but in presentation houses itself inside an increasingly complex cloud of calculated ideology and execution. And just as scholars before us looked to history, politics, social movement and cultural developments to understand the vast dramatic works of our past, we too must turn the page in our examination of #IAMSORRY, and appropriate the context surrounding the work as a lens through which to view it.
First, we must address the seemingly obvious question of the hour: Is LaBeouf in the midst of a mental breakdown? Supermarkets have been lined for weeks with tabloid stories surrounding the spectacle of events perpetrated by LaBeouf this winter, and many an article has been written surrounding the speculation that he might actually just be crazy.
James Franco, well known himself for diving from the shallow pool of Hollywood into the intellectual reclusiveness of the art world, felt the need to write an open letter to LaBeouf via the New York Times. Franco seems empathetic, if uninformed, in his letter, and ultimately poses more vague questions than actual opinions:
“Indeed I hope and, yes, I know that this idea has pretentious or just plain ridiculous overtones – that his actions are intended as a piece of performance art, one in which a young man in a very public profession tries to reclaim his public persona.”
In this statement, Franco seems to belie the heart of the argument, although what is not clear, at this point, is how this argument has any merit at all. LaBeouf has come out and said plainly that his stunts have all been a part of a larger performance art piece culminating in #IAMSORRY, and has taken to twitter to re-tweet people who drew comparisons to Joaquin Phoenix and his similar path with his 2010 project, I’m Still Here.
Among the many theories, the one that people seem to have the hardest time accepting is that what is happening here is exactly what LaBeouf, Rönkkö and Turner say is happening, which is that this is a well-orchestrated piece of performance art, plain and simple. Ultimately, art exists on its own, independent of public opinion, and it is neither the artist’s obligation nor business to hold themselves accountable to their critics. So to like what LaBeouf is doing or not is anyone’s prerogative, but to say that it isn’t art is just uninformed.
To speak of #IAMSORRY without addressing the work of Marina Abramović does both an incredible disservice. It is obvious to the point of intention that LaBeouf (and team) mirrored much of Abramović’s former works in his latest creation. The concept of allowing the audience to choose implements from a table to bring into the exhibit, and setting no rules for how they were allowed to behave and interact, is the premise behind Rhythm 0, Abramović’s 1974 performance. But the basic staging of #IAMSORRY, in fact, the entire atmosphere regarding the piece, recalls The Artist is Present, Abramović’s 2010 three-month epic at MoMA. While LaBeouf and camp have made no mention of Abramović in the artist’s statement or subsequent press, it seems as though that may very well be their statement.
After all, the general assumption is that the title of the piece refers to an ‘apology’ for LaBeouf’s previous issues with plagiarism. (He fell under heat this past December for plagiarizing Daniel Clowes’ comic Justin M Damiano in a short film entitled HowardCantour.com, and then again plagiarizing his apology on twitter, this time appropriating the sage words of someone on Yahoo Answers.) So one could say that by appropriating Abramović’s material without any accreditation, this piece is just the latest stunt in the meta-cycle that is LaBeouf’s current artistic representation of original thought.
The whole saga was in fact bookended by LaBeouf skywriting ‘#STOPCREATING’ on January 10 in reference to phrasing from a ‘cease and desist’ letter penned by Clowes’ legal team and, on February 17, the day after #IAMSORRY concluded, LaBeouf followed up with another skywriting memo over Los Angeles – this time ‘#STARTCREATING’. In the quick assumption to generalize #IAMSORRY as a plagiarized rip-off of The Artist is Present or even Rhythm 0, those people ignore both the larger context of LaBeouf’s commentary and the acute differences between these pieces.
The table of props presented to viewers at the start of #IAMSORRY were all directly related to LaBeouf and his career, (i.e. a Transformers toy, a whip, a bowl of tweets relating to his recent actions), while Abramović’s implements were far more general, (i.e. a loaded gun, a feather boa, a knife). The props LaBeouf chose seem to direct our attention towards his past, inferably making the piece a commentary on himself as a public figure and an artist, and on celebrity culture, rather than the wider cultural implications of Rhythm 0, which has been compared to the Philip Zimbardo Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiment for their revelations about human nature and the applied theory of how easy it is to dehumanize a person who won’t fight back.
In this comparison the pieces do seem to coax similar reactions, and while Abramović’s performance was notably more violent (viewers stuck rose thorns in her stomach and, at one point, a man pointed the loaded gun at her head), the disintegration of boundaries and social timidity was present at LaBeouf’s exhibit as well. It wasn’t until the second day that someone reported that “nothing would happen” if you ripped the bag off of his head and, a little while after that, that no one would stop you from taking “selfies” with LaBeouf.
By the time the weekend rolled around, there were talks in line of people hitting him, smashing light bulbs, screaming, and laughing about the idea that they would hold all the power in the forthcoming situation. Even Sunday, when LaBeouf removed the option of the prop table and performed without the bag on his head, it was this crucial element that largely distinguished #IAMSORRY from The Artist is Present.
Abramović’s MoMA piece was heavily guarded, and no one was to speak, bring their own props, or touch Marina in any way. The records of this enforcement can be seen in the documentary Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, where one girl is dragged away from the exhibit by multiple guards just for attempting to strip nude before she faced Abramović. The lack of rules is largely a mitigating factor in distinguishing the two, but the ultimate difference between the pieces, between LaBeouf and any of Abramović’s pieces, is the nature of the private exhibition. #IAMSORRY dictated that only one person enter the gallery at a time, and that while in the installation no one else could watch, there were no security guards, no cameras – it was a truly private moment. (And yes, people brought in cameras in the form of iPhones, but to be fair to the integrity of the exhibit, there was a sign on the wall that asked “No Photography.”)
The exclusivity of this format bred suspicion and doubt. Ultimately there was no way of knowing what was true, and no way of knowing what it was and what you could do until you did it and, in that way, that small gallery transcended to almost myth. A competition of sorts was brewing, and it seemed like everyone each thought that they had had the most intense experience with LaBeouf, that they had made the deepest human connection with him. And while that wasn’t great for many of the friendships in line, it created an interesting social environment for the piece to live, and arguably a more intimate experience than Abramović’s (unless you subscribe to the Fitzgeraldian notion that large parties are much more intimate). Ultimately, while there can be no doubt LaBeouf borrows ideas and inspiration from Abramović’s past work, #IAMSORRY is not a direct rip-off of any of her pieces, and is rather something entirely of its own.
Additionally, the mere fact of Luke Turner’s involvement in #IAMSORRY seems to present a metamodernist context through which to understand the piece. Turner, a London-based artist and co-editor of Notes on Metamodernism, has collaborated with LaBeouf elsewhere, on a piece called The Metamodernist Manifesto, which was first published in 2011, and currently exists at metamodernism.org, listing LaBeouf as the primary author.
Metamodernism was first introduced in 2010 by cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker as a way to understand the current condition of human philosophy that has befallen us in the wake of the decline of postmodernism. The premise of metamodernism is formed around the concept that all things in life oscillate, and that we are swinging back and forth currently between modernist and postmodernist ideologies. The manifesto states,
“We propose a pragmatic romanticism unhindered by ideological anchorage. Thus, metamodernism shall be defined as the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons. We must go forth and oscillate!”
#IAMSORRY seems to be itself swinging like a frenzied pendulum between opposing thematic elements: LaBeouf wears a bag over his head that reads “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE,” yet people are lined up around the block just to see him wear it… his face is [originally] covered, but he is crying and seems to present an emotionally open front… you can do whatever you want within the exhibit, but there will be no record of you ever doing it… LaBeouf is sorry, and yet he again borrows from an artist uncredited… he is listening and reacting to what the audience has to say, and yet he wears earplugs… The list goes on and on.
But it is not that #IAMSORRY is ill-planned or poorly defined. It situates itself directly and purposefully in-between these paradoxes, and invites the viewer to join it in that space, and that is what makes it a truly metamodern piece of art.
Hal Rudnik’s borderline sociopathic video record of the exhibit aside, there exists little internet proof of what transgressed inside the rooms of #IAMSORRY. Drive past the Cohen Gallery on Beverly Boulevard today and you’ll find no evidence that anything out of the ordinary happened there, nothing left of the shanty town that was erected the week before.
When I left my house Saturday morning at 10am, I said that I would see how the line was, and if after an hour of waiting I didn’t get in, I would leave. After all, I had better things to do with my life than wait in line to see an actor I only moderately cared about. But not even 20 minutes in, something changed. I bonded with the people surrounding me over a mutual hatred of downtown L.A. parking cops (as people often do), and pretty soon everyone was sharing pomegranate sorbet from a bakery down the street and discussing the forthcoming piece. That discussion gave way to a larger conversation about art, a conversation on creativity and, before I knew it, I wasn’t just waiting in line for #IAMSORRY, I was an active participant in a dialogue about artists and culture and the current medium of expression.
Hours passed by unnoticed, and when 6pm rolled around and someone suggested the idea of sleeping over, I didn’t hesitate for a second. After all, what else would I be doing? Time became our currency, and we, like the followers of The Artist is Present, came to identify ourselves with numbers, boasting pridefully of the hours we had slept on the pavement, tracing and retracing the sharpie markings on our hands that represented our place in line. We fought, we drank four-dollar gas station wine, we established leaders and unspoken rules of conduct. Neighbors routinely came out to tell us to keep the noise level to a minimum and that also, we were insane. Cars rolled by with their windows down, at first curious, and then disbelieving – why would we wait so long for a performance art piece?
Who were we with our blankets and our integrity stickers and American Apparel sweatshirts? Were we the ‘ultimate LaBeouf fans’ that the media had made us out to be? Were we pretentious millennial art-snobs living out the ultimate first-world luxury of being able to dedicate days on end to discussing art? Or were we the naive foundations of a LaBeouf-centric cult, cleverly chronicled by the hashtag ‘Shiantology’? Possibly all of the above, but beyond that the spirit of artistic collaboration flourished. Poems were written, ideas conceived, music passed around and shared on dying iPhones, even LaBeouf, through the course of the night, lifted his phone to the mail slot of the gallery door, playing songs through faded speakers for those of us on the sidewalk to hear.
By the time my number (11) was called on Sunday afternoon, the memories of #IAMSORRY were already ingrained in me, and the negative space surrounding the piece became just as important as the positive space inside the gallery. Inside, the minuteness of the room was overwhelmingly apparent, and initially uncomfortable. I was taken aback by this silent man in the tuxedo staring at me. I remember laughing nervously and focusing attentively on his hands, which were dirty. I remember thinking that was odd. I found myself telling him about my experience waiting over the past two days, about the people I had met and the things we had written.
He never lost my gaze, nodded occasionally, and laughed out loud at the parts that were funny. I remember thinking that I could have sat there for hours, if only because he was the most attentive audience I had ever had, and the gallery began to take the shape of something more resembling a confessional. When my voice caught as I was talking about how much I believed in the necessity of art, he took my hands and began to cry. After 15 minutes in the exhibit, I left, with tears running down my cheeks and questions flashing through my mind.
What the hell had just happened? I found myself fixated on knowing LaBeouf’s intentions. Was he really listening or just reacting based on gesture cues? Was he crying because of what I had said, or because he was sad, or just emotionally prostituting himself as a demonstration on human connection? And did that make my emotional reaction any less real?
Had #IAMSORRY actually succeeded in creating a space for raw human connection, regardless of who was sitting on either side of the table? I had become the girl I laughed at days before, who waxed dramatically about how the piece had changed my world view and now referred to LaBeouf as an ‘artist’ not ‘that kid you know from Holes’. I had actively made the choice to take time out for art. To slow life down and force myself into the intimacy of human connection, to the fierce desire to create and to experience life at its most alive. Ultimately, I waited 26 hours to spend 15 minutes in the gallery, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Yoko Ono, no stranger to performance art, wrote, “Controversy is part of the nature of art and creativity.” The controversy surrounding #IAMSORRY could, and maybe should, be held up as a mirror for our current societal understandings and qualifications of art. Why are we so strict to relegate people into narrow-minded categories – artist, actor, celebrity – and why then, when people step over those boundary lines, is our first instinct to tell them to run back?
The terms ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ often get thrown around the art world, and while #IAMSORRY was literally stuck at a crossroads between the BuzzFeed headquarters and a Mexican restaurant called El Coyote, it seemed to find itself situated directly between highbrow and lowbrow as well. There were girls shading themselves with High School Musical 2 umbrellas, tearfully clutching fan-made posters adorned with glitter glue and pictures of LaBeouf in Transformers. And yet others were postulating on the upcoming Lars Von Trier epic Nymphomaniac, and planning to recite aloud to LaBeouf the 2012 New York Times article The Devil in Marina Abramović, taking on the character of Andrew Goldman and addressing LaBeouf as if he were the subject.
Perez Hilton and TMZ were on scene, buzzing to cover the event, yet at the same moment the New York Times was publishing an op-ed piece regarding the work. #IAMSORRY does seem to situate itself between highbrow and lowbrow, LaBeouf between celebrity and artist, those of us who attended between observers and participants, and yet it does not attempt to create a space for itself here.
In truly metamodern fashion, #IAMSORRY oscillates between the two banks in rapid and deliberate succession and, for that, does not apologize. LaBeouf, Turner and Rönkkö have created a truly transformative piece of art that forces us as observers to slow down and look at ourselves, LaBeouf offering his person up as a mirror to reflect our own implications and humanistic natures, and, like Abramović, seems to be making a statement about the power of basic human connection.
In a pivotal moment in the documentary Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, during the last month of her residency, we see the doors to MoMA open in the morning and the public rush, abandoning all pretenses of decorum to the point where a guard has to yell, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please do not run!” And in that moment, that guttural clashing of established artistic institutional practice and animalistic determination on the part of the waiting, it was so clear that what Marina had done transcended the generalizations of modern art and became essential and necessary to those clawing their way up to see her – she had created something that felt imperative to the human condition, art connected to the essence of being alive.
And that spirit, that indispensable fire and dedication to art as a cultural imperative, was reincarnated in some regard that week at the Cohen Gallery and, for that, for the imprint it has left on those who experienced it, those who read about it, those who refused to go, or waited but never got in, for that, #IAMSORRY will hold up as an important contemporary art piece long after TMZ and James Franco have given up on it.
A version of this article was originally published on bigO.
Photos courtesy of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, copyright the artists.