Shia LaBeouf’s art exhibit, #IAMSORRY, found the actor offering penance for his repeated crimes of plagiarism by taking yet another page from someone else: Marina Abramovic, whose “The Artist Is Present” LaBeouf recreated by sitting silently in an L.A. gallery with that now-infamous paper bag over his head, allowing visitors to confront him with a variety of props and instruments of torture, including pliers and a bullwhip. But according to LaBeouf, his show was the site of a far greater assault than the one against art. The actor now says he was he was raped by a woman who forced herself on him, while his girlfriend was waiting in line just outside.
LaBeouf made the claim during an interview with Dazed—conducted, in what has become his preferred medium, silently in person but loquaciously online, with LaBeouf and the reporter staring wordlessly at each other with GoPros strapped to their heads, and conducting their every exchange via email. LaBeouf, who has appeared downright jovial in other recent interviews reflecting on his unusual year, took a far more sobering tack here, sharing some of the “unsettling” moments from the exhibit. Most notably, he says one woman—with her boyfriend right outside the door—“whipped my legs for 10 minutes and then stripped my clothing and proceeded to rape me.”
In the unedited email exchange posted on his website, LaBeouf says that the “hundreds of people” waiting in line saw her walk out with her “lipstick smudged”—including her boyfriend, whom he says “I image [sic] was quite hurt by it.” On top of that, he says, it was Valentine’s Day, and his own girlfriend, Nymphomaniac actress Mia Goth, was waiting in line to see him after five days of LaBeouf living in the gallery with no communication between them. “When she came in she asked for an explanation, and I couldn’t speak, so we both sat with this unexplained trauma silently,” LaBoeuf wrote. “It was painful. The hardest part of the show. It fucked our Valentine’s Day.”
Since LaBeouf’s allegations went public, they’ve become the subject of much uncomfortable debate. Deposed CNN journalist Piers Morgan was perhaps the most public voice to enter the fray, calling LaBeouf’s claims “a supposed ‘rape’ for cheap PR,” and arguing that inviting patrons to do whatever they wanted, then sitting silently while he was being assaulted in the name of “art” is “repulsively offensive to real rape victims.” Prompted by Morgan, two of LaBeouf’s collaborators have since responded.
In a series of tweets, Nastja Säde Rönkkö offered some “important clarifications” about #IAMSORRY, saying that claims that visitors “could do whatever they wanted” (which was oft-repeated in original reports from the event) are false. Rönkkö also says that, “as soon as we were aware of the incident starting to occur, we put a stop to it.”
Meanwhile, Luke Turner—whose Metamodernist Manifesto was co-opted by LaBeouf at the start of all this—responded directly to Morgan, saying that the reason the alleged rapist had been allowed to leave was that “it wasn’t clear at the time precisely what had happened.” He added that, actually, she “ran out, rather than simply walking away,” and their “priority was to ensure everybody’s safety in the gallery.”
Adding to all the confusion is the fact that these reports seem to contradict each other. LaBeouf’s fellow artists say they didn’t know what was happening, yet they also say they put a stop to it. They say they ”ensured” LaBeouf’s alleged attacker left, yet they also say she was gone before they had a chance to stop her. And of course, no one among those “hundreds of people” who saw her exit with “smudged lipstick” in front of her waiting boyfriend—people who kept up a steady stream of tweets, blog posts, and the like from the exhibit—ever made mention of the incident. Nor did Shia LaBeouf—until now. There’s also the fact that Shia LaBeouf has spent the past year turning so much of his public life into performance art, all in a self-professed need for attention, which has trained onlookers to question whether his words and intentions are pure—or even whether they’re his own.
But to question any of these details, as the vitriolic response to Morgan has shown, is to enter into the always-uncomfortable arena of casting doubt on a sexual assault allegation—specifically, whether choosing not to break from his performance, to stay silent and go along with the assault in the name of his “art,” is a form of consent. To even ask that is, albeit under very unusual circumstances, to blame the victim. Timed as it is in the midst of the continued controversy surrounding Bill Cosby, LaBeouf’s story could also be seen as commentary on the way society treats rape accusations, particularly when they involve a celebrity. But, again, to even suggest there may be some other, “artistic” purpose to LaBeouf coming forward with this would be to trivialize a charge of sexual assault.
For his part, LaBeouf has yet to say anything further, leaving everyone bitterly divided in debate about how they should react. It’s a state to which we’ve by now grown quite accustomed.