The invitation said “Join us as we set in motion the global platform ArtForFreedom, inspired by Madonna and Steven Klein’s film,” and promised a showing of a video collaboration with BitTorrent and Vice.
But of course, dozens of celebrities and journalists and wet-eyed superfans don’t typically trawl Manhattan’s West Side Highway at 11pm on a Tuesday night in search of a video, no matter how snazzy the branding is.
Below, eight things that happen when one of the most famous women on the planet puts on a surprise performance-art show at a downtown gallery:
1. The entrance to the giant-white-box space is hung with a thick curtain of industrial metal chains, endangering reams of beautiful-people dental work. Beautiful people are immediately soothed with cocktails, served by silent men in gas masks.
2. Sean Penn strides in with security detail, reminding us fondly of this. MC + SP 4eva!
4. Madonna arrives in a blast of flashbulbs and gives an impassioned, not entirely cohesive speech defending the freedom of artists– including Pussy Riot and Chinese dissident Ai Wei Wei – to make art without persecution. She admits that she is “kind of nervous… I think it’s because I care so much about this.”
5. The audience is commanded to sit on the gallery floor for the showing of a sumptuously shot 17-minute black-and-white video featuring more manifesto-type words, torn fishnets, firearms, impossibly bendy dancers, and Madonna in Betty Page bangs behind bars. Dingbats who stand up are severely reprimanded.
6. Video ends. Dancers come out and perform before projections of politically fraught and sometimes startlingly graphic images: lynchings, prison-camp transports, warfare. The dancing is beautiful and the pictures are maybe a little bit hard to handle in this context.
7. Madonna is dragged from the audience by sexy “cops” and her own son Rocco and deposited onstage to sing a nearly a cappella German-cabaret-style version of Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars.” There is possibly a small tear in the space-time continuum.
8. Madonna exits the stage and poses for photos with famous friends and fans. More flashbulbs pop, catching the light on her grill. She departs in a swirl of security personnel and last-ditch iPhone pics. The Madgic has left the building.
Do we have a better understanding of “Freedom of speech, freedom of choice, freedom of experience,” and that “We live in a world where basic rights are under attack”? Maybe. Are we more aware now of the plight of the artist in society? Possibly.
But I think maybe my friend Kevin put it best: “It was so weird and so fun! I had to pee so bad!”