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Catholics Pray and Dancers Protest Unfair Wages at Marina Abramović Exhibition in Poland

An unholy alliance has formed between Catholics protesting debunked conspiracy theories linking Abramović to Satanism, and the Polish dance community, who have been complaining of mistreatment and unfair wages leading up to her career retrospective The Cleaner.

An advertiser for Marina Abramović’s The Cleaner outside of the CSW (all photos by the author)

TORUŃ, Poland — What do ultra-religious Catholics and the dance community in Poland have in common? A loathing for Marina Abramović, it seems.

On the occasion of her largest-ever European retrospective at the CSW (Center of Contemporary Art) in Toruń, Poland, an unholy alliance has formed between  Catholics protesting Abramović’s alleged ties to Satanism (long since debunked as a right-wing conspiracy theory), alongside the Polish dance community, who have been complaining of mistreatment and unfair wages.

During the exhibition opening, dozens of Catholics sat outside of the CSW in prayer, silently stating their opposition to the exhibition.

Occultist conspiracy theories aside, the mistreatment and opaque working conditions offered to performers to reenact some of Abramović’s most iconic works, appears to be more fact than fiction.

In January of this year, an open letter condemning the conditions offered to performers for Abramović’s blockbuster show began to circulate via Facebook. It has so far garnered over 100 signatures, including artist Arek Pasożyt; performer Monika Wińczyk; professor Jacek Staniszewski from the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk; and Dr. Dorota Chylińska from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń. The open letter, addressed to Abramović herself, sent ripples through the Polish art and dance community, reading in part: “Did the curators tell you that in your re-performance you will use the bodies of quasi-slaves, of people lacking money who will agree to whatever remuneration they are offered, even if it’s demeaning?”

A big issue is, of course, remuneration. For reenactments under one hour, performers were offered a rate of €25 per hour (~$28 USD), which increased to €40 per hour (~$45 USD) for works longer than one hour. Travel and accommodation expenses, as well as insurance (a first in Poland), were also included.

A reenactment of a performance by Abramović and her former artistic and romantic partner Ulay

The problem, it seems, stems from the fact that performers had largely been kept in the dark about compensation and scheduling up until the very last moment. In Poland, the average payment for performances of a similar nature is between 200 zl – 600 zl (about $50-150 USD). The problem, protesters allege, is the comparatively high cost of the exhibition itself (approximately $140,000 USD according to Wacław Kuchma, Director of the CCA in Toruń).

For its part, the CSW in Toruń has been on a celebrity art shopping spree as of late. Under Kuchma, the CSW in recent years has hosted blockbuster and expensive exhibitions by the likes of Bryan Adams (as a photographer), and David Lynch (as a painter). As such, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Kuchma has become the Chris Dercon of Poland. (Dercon, who served most recently as the short-lived director of the Volksbühne in Berlin, was forced to step down after programming expensive celebrity-cum-art projects that led to wide-scale protests).

A reenactment of Abramović at the 1997 Venice Biennale

In an article published in Krytyka Poltyczna by the performer, actor, dancer, and choreographer Łukasz Wójcicki, he describes in detail the casting process and his decision to withdraw from the exhibition. He calls attention to the fact rehearsals were unpaid, in addition to the lack of clarity around scheduling (performers were asked to keep their schedules open from March to August). After learning of the fate of other performers who had previously worked with Abramović, Wójcicki says the uncertainty and lack of meaningful remuneration, relative to the total cost of the exhibition itself, led him to withdraw his participation.

He cites the case of Sara Wookey, who was invited to participate in the reconstruction of Abramović’s performances at the annual donors’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles in 2011. Wookey wrote an exposé that went viral detailing the degrading working conditions, the lack of insurance and workplace protections (which concerned, among other things, protection against possible aggressive behavior from the audience), and scandalously low wages ($150 USD).

“Ultimately, I was offered the role of one of six nude females to re-enact Abramovic’s signature work, ‘Nude with Skeleton’ (2002), at the center of tables with seats priced at up to $100,000 each,” Wookey noted at the time. “For reasons I detail here — reasons that I strongly believe need to be made public [despite having signed a nondisclosure agreement] — I turned it down.”

Abramović says that her company, Abramović LLC sp. Z o.O., headquartered in New York, effectively outsources organizational and financial formalities to the gallery with which the organization enters into a contract. In this case, the CSW in Toruń. By outsourcing these responsibilities, Abramović basically functions as a multi-national factory of dance and performance art.

Abramović speaking at the opening

Exorcisms and concerns over wages aside, many in Toruń greeted Abramović like an idol.

The Cleaner maps with molecular intensity Abramović’s body of work spanning her 50-year career. At the private preview, she stated matter of factly her views about art and spirituality. “I grew up very spiritual,” she said, referencing her Serbian Orthodox grandmother. “As an artist it is very important for me to go deep down.” Referencing to the exhibition’s title, The Cleaner, she said that it encompasses a “very personal, deep history. The deeper you go into yourself, the more universal you get.” But it wasn’t always easy for Abramović. She told the crowd of curious onlookers, “You have to sacrifice everything to be an artist: family, everything, it takes all your energy.”

Marina Abramović. Do czysta / The Cleaner continues at the Center of Contemporary Art “Znaki Czasu” in Toruń, curated by Lena Essling, Tine Colstrup, Susanne Kleine, Wacław Kuchma, until August 11.

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