Gaga’s Nudity As Art – Part of a Denser Performance Movement
Let’s start with the big news–Lady Gaga has released a video in which she appears naked. It’s not a music video; instead, it’s intended to promote a Kickstarter campaignby Serbian-born, New York-based performance artist Marina Abramovic.
The video depicts Gaga over the course of a three-day retreat at Abramovic’s rural upstate New York compound, practicing the “Marina Abramovic method”–a “series of exercises designed to heighten participants’ awareness of their physical and mental experience in the present moment.” Over the course of the video, Gaga wears a variety of outfits, and eventually, nothing at all. If you haven’t been following recent developments in Lady Gaga’s career, this might seem incredibly surprising coming from an artist known for her elaborate clothing and presentation. To bare all like this is, to say the least, out-of-character… right? Actually, the answer to that question is more complicated than it seems. First, watch the video, and then we’ll talk about it.
Gaga’s gearing up for the release of her fourth album, Artpop, currently scheduled to come out in November (the first single comes out in just over a week–believe me, I’m excited), and over the past few months, she’s emerged from the medically related hibernation she underwent at the conclusion of the Born This Way tour cycle. For the first time in her career, paparazzi started catching the exact sorts of casual-attire photographs of Gaga that she’d always managed to keep out of the press in the past. However, they didn’t look like a simple case of not bothering to care how she looked. When she showed up on the streets of New York in a bra and miniskirt, or at an art opening in Beverly Hills wearing a silver dress and little makeup, it was obvious that these clean, minimalist outfits were an aesthetic choice.
Several years ago, at the height of my Lady Gaga obsession, I used some downtime at my shitty retail job to scribble in a notebook about Lady Gaga and her unfailing habit of showing up in public fully made up and wearing one of her signature elaborate outfits. Never one to be caught by photographers leaving Starbucks in sweatpants, Gaga dressed to the nines even if it was just to catch a plane. Lady Gaga’s constant elaborate outfits made clear that, even at the dawn of her celebrity, she knew that she was always onstage. Once you’re a target for the paparazzi, anything you wear out of the house could show up on the front page of Huffington Post–and Gaga knew this. Therefore, we have to assume that her recent move towards more conventional outfits, almost total lack of makeup, and even honest-to-god nudity is an intentional one.
The Abramovic video is not even Gaga’s first nude appearance of 2013. Last month, word hit the internet that she had posed nude and makeup-free for a spread in V Magazine. The issue is not available yet (as far as we know), but images from the shoot have made it to the internet, so this video isn’t even a first. It does have in common with the V Magazine shoot that it does not present Gaga’s nudity in the most flattering of lights–both still image and video depict her flaws as well as her positive attributes, in the kind of honest revelation that is extremely uncommon in this age of airbrushing and Photoshop. (I have some theories about the less-than-flattering aspects of these shots being intentional, and what they may mean for Lady Gaga’s current artistic direction, but I’m going to hold off on airing those for now.)
Indeed, the most noteworthy element of this video might not be the nudity it contains, but the fact that Gaga has done it to support Marina Abramovic. Legendary in performance art circles ever since her intense, violent Rhythm performances of the mid-70s, Abramovic received a great deal of mainstream attention in 2010 with her three-month exhibition, The Artist Is Present, staged at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with a major retrospective of her work. During the 736-hour work, Abramovic sat silently in a chair at a table, while spectators took turns sitting opposite her. The performance was widely reputed to be extremely powerful and emotionally affecting, and drew some high-profile celebrity spectators, including… Lady Gaga.
However, Lady Gaga is not even the first pop cultural icon to overtly reference Abramovic this month. Only a week ago, HBO premiered Jay Z’s 10-minute extended video for “Picasso Baby,” from his new album Magna Carta Holy Grail. Jay Z filmed the video at Pace Gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, and in the video, he performed the song on a small stage, in a room full of spectators, many famous in their own right. As he performed, each spectator came and sat on a bench in front of the small stage, looking directly into Jay Z’s eyes from less than 10 feet away. If that isn’t overt enough, Marina Abramovic herself was present at the filming, appears in the video several times, and is hugged by Jay Z as the performance ends.
While the video for “Picasso Baby” adds up to one long reference to The Artist Is Present, it seems to be a case of Jay Z using a high-art reference point to add depth to a primarily pop-cultural piece of art. Lady Gaga’s Abramovic Method video stands in direct and obvious contrast–unlike “Picasso Baby,” this video will not please fans of her pop work who don’t understand or enjoy the more difficult, high-culture aspects of it. Gaga’s most popular work has always contained elements with pretension towards high art, but fans who just wanted to ignore the more difficult reference points in her work–Andy Warhol, surrealism, French new wave films–were free to do so. In this video, they are not. Other than some keening a cappella hums, there isn’t a bit of Gaga music in this video. It consists of long, static shots in which Gaga stands, sits, or lies down in one position, unmoving. Sometimes she’s naked, and the salacious aspect of that nudity is the only thing that makes this video noteworthy on a pop cultural level. If you’re not watching it to see some skin, you better be watching it to see some slow, difficult high art–otherwise you will be disappointed.
The Marina Abramovic Institute’s Kickstarter campaign is attempting to create a permanent artistic and educational institute where support is provided for works of art that involve performances of long duration. Since they’re trying to create an actual building from the ground up that is designed to facilitate these specific goals, they need a lot of money, and the kickstarter’s goal is $600,000. At close to the halfway point of the 30-day campaign, they’re less than halfway there. For Gaga to step in and contribute this incredibly revealing video is, as we’ve discussed, somewhat in step with her current public image, and therefore may have some promotional benefit to the early stages of Artpop press cycle. However, considering both its lack of traditional pop appeal and its overt difficulty as a work of art, the video seems much more like an attempt by Gaga to participate in Abramovic’s project on Abramovic’s terms, rather than to make reference to Abramovic’s work in service of her own ends.
It’s always been clear to those paying attention that Gaga is a true believer in the importance and power of high art, and her attempts to make these concepts accessible to fans who love her catchy pop singles are admirable. But this video seems much more like a case of Lady Gaga lending her high-profile public image in order to promote an artistic endeavor that, by its very nature, has almost no hope of attracting mainstream attention on its own behalf. Gaga’s every bit the shrewd self-promoter that Jay Z is, and I won’t deny that for a second. But this video proves that she’s willing to use her public image to help out others as well. In fact, she’s apparently willing show the world her naked body in order to support art that matters to her–even when she knows most of her fans won’t dig it. That’s commitment.
Where’s the meat-dress clad nonconformist who wooed us with Euro-pop ballads…September 21, 2016
- ARTPOP: Lady Gaga Gets Weird (Even For Her), But The Backlash Is Unmerited, November 13, 2013
- Gaga Launches new Album, Debut’s Flying Dress, Plans for Space, November 11, 2013
- New Gaga Ft. R. Kelly Asks you to “Do What You Want”, October 21, 2013
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