Shia LaBeouf’s Occluded Artistic Mirror

Shia LaBeouf’s musical/spoken word/interpretative dance/aerial acrobatic piece reduces to absurdity the concept of the actor as a predator, then obliterates the message with a meta-finale of the actor himself, the lone audience member of that spectacle, applauding with a slow, steady beat and a dead-eyed stare.

“Shia LaBeouf” Live by Rob Cantor, featuring The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, The West L.A. Children’s Choir, and The Argus Quartet

LaBeouf’s video calls to mind a lesson from my college theatre history class in which I learned about a stage production that ended with the performers turning on their own audience with menacing applause. It was Peter Brook’s seminal 1966 production of Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss that, as legend had it, sent audiences running from the theater in alarm.

The play/meta-musical features actors who play wards from the Charenton Asylum who, in turn, mount a play-within-a-play-within-a-play about the French Revolution. The show ends with inmates, agitated by the revolutionary machinations, revolting against asylum bureaucrats, doctors, and their wives and children.

Peter Brook’s 1964 production of Marat/Sade was hugely controversial, despite being popular with audiences and acclaimed by critics. (Image Source: Daily Mirror, 20 August 1964)

Peter Brook pushed his production one step further and staged a revolt of the actual actors against the actual audience, preceded by the actors breaking the fourth wall with ominous clapping directed at their observers–the same kind of clapping LaBeouf uses in his video.

The threat of bloody revolution breaking down a fourth wall, behind which it had remained sanitized for ages, frightened an audience who no could no longer maintain a distance between themselves and the artists – or the brutal topic.

Fifty years later, Marat/Sade retains a reputation as a notoriously difficult production to mount. Brook’s success at audience shock has been nearly impossible to replicate. Director Anthony Neilson took a crack at the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011, pursuing relevancy by including inmate electrocution and water boarding, Guantanamo Bay-style. Audiences walked out, but for the wrong reasons. Bored by shock tactics, some said Neilson’s handling of the long, didactic play pushed the audience too far. Neilson knew he had a difficult task, saying he was “well aware that the ‘We want our revolution now’ side of the show chimed exactly with the height of the American civil rights movement.”

Then again, it hasn’t been since the 1960s when police and protesters have clashed in streets daily.

Enter Shia LaBeouf’s self-titled spoken word/musical extravaganza at a time when American civil rights protests have captured worldwide attention. Not since the 1960s have protesters marched with such frequency, facing such militarized opposition. With revolutionary phrases bouncing around Twitter, it was easy for me to see LaBeouf’s mimicry of applause–such an elitist action in itself this restrained, polite, aristocratic gesture of approval—as a menacing gesture to every viewer who stumbled upon his video.

LaBeouf has met mimicry with drastic consequences before. His performance art pieces this year, modeled after Marina Abramović’s famous audience-engagement pieces, The Artist is Present and Rhythm 0, broke the wall between his audience and his artistry.

Abramović performing in The Artist Is Present at the Museum of Modern Art, March 2010. (Image Source: Shelby Lessig )
Abramović performing in The Artist Is Present at the Museum of Modern Art, March 2010. (Image Source: Shelby Lessig)

In The Artist is Present, Abramović engaged her audience one at a time with her undivided attention in complete silence. One-by-one, spectators could enter the space and seat themselves opposite Abramović, waiting for them at a table in a long gown, cordoned off to denote the entire space as her artistic territory. After the spectator has taken a seat, Abramović would look up from her meditative pose and make eye contact for as long as the spectator chose to remain in mutual eye contact with her. Spectators in line watched as the mirroring elicited a wide range of emotional responses from the person—previously a spectator, now a part of Abramović’s art.

In November 2014, Shia LaBeouf employed this tactic in a performance piece with writer Aimee Cliff, titled #INTERVIEW, in which the actor and writer sat face-to-face in silence for an hour while filming each other with cameras strapped to their heads. The video was later released online.

It was in preparation for this piece that LaBeouf revealed to Aimee Cliff that he had been raped at a Los Angeles art gallery during a previous Abramović-like exhibition, #IAMSORRY, in February 2014, in which he seated himself in a closed-off room with a bag over his head to make himself completely available in any way to people who entered.

Unpredictable things can occur when left vulnerable to the will of an audience, Marina Abramović has warned. In her 1974 piece, Rhythm 0, she made her body available for her audience to manipulate. In her self-titled book, she noted:

“I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly six hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.”

If this sounds familiar, then perhaps you’ve read Shia LaBeouf’s statement about an incident during #IAMSORRY:

“One woman who came with her boyfriend, who was outside the door when this happened, whipped my legs for ten minutes and then stripped my clothing and proceeded to rape me… There were hundreds of people in line when she walked out with disheveled hair and smudged lipstick. It was no good, not just for me but her man as well. On top of that my girl was in line to see me… So it really hurt her as well, as I guess the news of it travelled through the line. When she came in she asked for an explanation, and I couldn’t speak, so we both sat with this unexplained trauma silently. It was painful.”

LaBeouf’s artistic collaborator later added that the woman “swiftly exited” the gallery before she could be apprehended.

Even in this context, critics claim that LaBeouf is mocking his audience again. #IAMSORRY was one of LaBeouf’s public admissions of plagiarizing the work of comic book writer Daniel Clowes, yet the piece itself borrowed heavily from Abramović’s The Artist is Present. His public admission of rape echoes Abramović’s reflections about her experience during Rhythm 0. Some have asked: is LaBeouf piling mimicry and plagiarism events one atop another as some sort of artistic statement? In using “#stopcreating” in his Twitter apologies, Time reported,“Shia LaBeouf has been accused of plagiarism and then of plagiarizing his apologies for plagiarism.”

    LaBeouf in #IAMSORRY, in which he sat with a bag over his head in silence with members of the public, one at a time, in a closed room. (Image Source: The Guardian)
LaBeouf in #IAMSORRY, in which he sat with a bag over his head in silence with members of the public, one at a time, in a closed room. (Image Source: The Guardian)

Despite the veracity of LaBeouf’s rape claim—a matter that, for the sake of survivors of rape, I truly hope the actor speaks with honesty—his art has questionable objectives. In this regard, Abramović has been forthright: “I am not interested in dying. I am interested in how far you can push the energy of the human body, how far you can go, and to see, actually, that her energy is almost limitless. It’s not about the body, it’s about the mind [sic] to push you to the extremes that you never could imagine.” LaBeouf’s intentional exposure to vulnerability has been more about the cult of celebrity. One of the co-creators of #IAMSORRY said the piece “explores how people use their interactions with celebrities on social media to promote themselves and vice versa,” a trifling objective considering the level of vulnerability involved.

Which leads me back to LaBeouf’s haunting ending to his “live” musical for which he is the sole audience member and what led me to think of Marat/Sade’s most frightening quality. After all, why wouldn’t I be considering revolutionary tactics right now? The social networks buzz with talk of feminism backlash, civil rights abuses, and comparisons to the actively enraged U.S. not seen since the 1960s, a time when a contemporary director of Marat/Sade could challenge audiences once more and a new Marina Abramović could challenge the “I Don’t Need Feminism” movement with a few props and a digital camera. Why shouldn’t LaBeouf be able to pull off the disturbing effect that artistic mirroring can elicit?

Upon reflection, I’ve come to believe that LaBeouf neglected to consider the outermost layer of the artistic experience, the layer that Peter Brook so successfully created then destroyed to shocking effect: the distance between “meta” art and its overly-assuming audience.

LaBeouf’s performance pieces hold at their center his privileged existence as a white, male celebrity. The pieces are designed to draw in participants, but distance his audience. His performance art takes place in a closed room without observers. The minute observers enter his artistic space they become a part of the art itself, and, along with LaBeouf, cut off from the electric changes during the act of being observed. His on-camera staring interview invites no one to observe the process live, only permits it after the interview is over and then only by anonymous viewing. The musical video takes place in a theatre, designed for audiences, yet in the end, only Shia LaBeouf is seated in the cavernous space. All the other seats are empty. How do you reach your audience with your objectives if you don’t even acknowledge that your audience exists?

Like James Franco, who is making a nuisance of himself by applying his celebrity to meta-art projects, Shia LaBeouf’s string of performance pieces only adds to the fad of white males exercising their celebrity status to attempt a larger cultural contribution other than their well-known roles in stoner and action blockbusters, respectively.

If LaBeouf’s attempts at audience-engaging art continue to fall flat, the steady beat most perceptible won’t be the actor’s pounding applause at his own vanity. It will be the beating of the revolutionary drum that continues unabated in the streets of Ferguson, New York, and Oakland. Like the revolutionary drum heard by the audiences of Marat/Sade, this new drum, too, will rob us all of our aristocratic applause, sending us all screaming into the streets– with or without Shia LaBeouf.

Image Credit: The Guardian

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