Art and Celebrity: Abramovic, Sherman, and Ai Take Center Stage

Ai Wewei recently directed the cover shoot for W Magazine's "art issue."
Strolling through the bookstore this past week, I happened upon an unlikely figure peering out of the fashion magazine section. There she was, Marina Abramovic, performance artist meets fashion model, featured on the cover of the British indie publication  Pop Magazine. Beautifully made up in a black and white large format photograph with an unusual doll draped across her shoulders, Abramovic resembles something of a puppeteer with a doppelganger Marina prop. Bizarre and fascinating—I immediately picked it up. And maybe that was part of the point. Looking at Pop Magazine’s mission statement on-line, a statement they provocatively term a "manifesto" (cue avant-garde associations), the stated purpose of the magazine intersects the world of art and fashion through the lens of pop: “With a bold international perspective and an understanding that the cultural and business LANDSCAPE is being dramatically rewritten, POP looks to join-the-dots and CELEBRATE the world’s key creatives. Fashion and its related universe is a prism through which so much of contemporary CREATIVITY, as well as the evolving celebrity culture, ends up being refracted.” No doubt I have already been noticing the growing partnership between contemporary art and the word of fashion. Earlier this year I blogged about Daphne Guinness and her “performance” piece at Barney’s in NYC. But we are also now seeing the heavy weights in the world of art taking part in this growing trend.

Marina Abramovic on the cover of Pop Magazine--
she appears on all three coversof the Fall 2011 issues.
Cindy Sherman for MAC Cosmetics-- I actually "get" this collaboration.
Take for example Cindy Sherman, who recently partnered with MAC cosmetics to create an advertising campaign for their fall collection. As a cosmetic company, MAC has always touted its outsider status (they were an early promoter of AIDS awareness with their VivaGlam line) and the ubiquitous black packaging and minimal design was seen as very radical when they first emerged on the very girly and "pink" makeup seen in the late 1980’s. As the Guardian noted when they wrote about the collaboration, most makeup campaigns “use beautiful models to impress upon women how wonderful the cosmetics will make them look. Also, to make them feel inferior, ugly, and more likely to reach for their purse.” Clearly, this campaign then with its anti-beauty and satirical approach to makeup (Sherman poses in a series of deliberately unattractive and even clown-like poses for the pictures) questions all of that, but still leaves in place the unsettling reality that the final pictures are created to sell the very product they question.

More Sherman-- but the sad clown face does not deter sales for MAC
Another more recent example involves the very controversial artist Ai Weiwei, an artist who has been featured prominently on my blog and has made headlines all year for his battle to retain his artistic vision and freedom of expression within his Chinese homeland. Just a few weeks ago, Ai was named the most powerful artist of the year by the influential British art magazine Art Review. In  a press release the magazine stated, “Ai's power and influence derive from the fact that his work and his words have become catalysts for international political debates that affect every nation on the planet: freedom of expression, nationalism, economic power, the Internet, the rights of the human being." Almost at the same moment, Ai was also getting buzz for directing the cover shoot for W magazine’s “art issue” one of the most important fashion magazines in the trade. The cover image, which features model Sui He (see image at top of post), was controversial, both for the fact that many Chinese models approached to do the shoot resisted for fear of reprisals from within China for working with such an outspoken artist, and also the subject matter of the shoot, which alludes to the NYC Tompkins Square Riots of 1988, and by connection, Ai’s own arrest earlier this year by the Chinese authority and the recent Occupy Wall Street protests. 

In the end, much like in the case of Sherman and Abramovic, the W magazine cover remains a vehicle through which to sell consumer goods and inspire new trends in the never ending cycle of fashion. This leaves open the question of what message the contemporary artists are also able to put forth in their collaborations. Perhaps a new awareness and audience for contemporary art, yes, but also the risk of diluting or side-stepping the important conversations around the critical practices these individuals are part of. I remain cautiously optimistic for now that the art will shine beyond the spectacle.  

Further Reading:

John A. Walker, Art and Celebrity Pluto Press, 2003.