Yes, he spoke to a truck in a movie, but the unique work that Shia LaBeouf is producing surely makes him as an artist we should listen to.
I first became aware of Shia after his supporting turn in 2005’s Constantine. Spoiler alert: In that film, the former Disney child star proved his mettle in the realm of grown-up comic relief, before suffering a gruesome death. Since then, LaBeouf has occupied a broad spectrum of roles, ranging from Autobot confidant, to WWII tank crewman, by way of a daring quest for the Crystal Skull and a spin as a Wall Street protege. Despite the eyebrow-raising selection process, LaBeouf has consistently demonstrated verisimilitude and vulnerability, but perhaps the most fascinating sector of Shia’s already storied career is his increasingly provocative experimentations in the field of performance art. Enter LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner.
Performance artists Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner have been collaborating with LaBeouf since the latter’s embroilment in a plagiarism controversy concerning a 2012 short film — an incident that seems to have sparked the initial flames of Shia’s artistic exploration. Since then the trio have have mounted a series of demonstrations, described by Dazed as “a multi-platform meditation on celebrity and vulnerability.” In 2014, the trio mounted #IAMSORRY, an interactive experiment where LaBeouf covered his face in a paper bag, sat silently in front of a table and invited the public to interact with him on a one-on-one basis. Later that year, LaBeouf skipped rope in public for over an hour and broadcast the entire thing on Skype. At SXSW, he transmitted his heartbeat online for a week. In November 2015, under the banner #ALLMYMOVIES, the artists encouraged the public to join LaBeouf at New York’s Angelika Film Center as he screened all of his films consecutively, in reverse chronological order, over the course of three days.
In 2016, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner travelled to Sydney and mounted the #ANDINTHEND performance, during which the trio collected messages from the public, requiring only that each message begin with the words “And in the end…”
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These messages were then transmitted online via live stream and showcased on a 60-metre-long LED display mounted on the exterior of the Sydney Opera House. As the trio have continued to make their voices heard, astute observers have started to take notice. Speaking about #ALLMYMOVIES, Rolling Stone‘s David Ehrlich wrote that “sitting a few feet behind [LaBeouf] and watching him stare up at his own gargantuan reflection, his method finally began to make sense of his madness.” Likewise, writing for The Conversation about one of the trio’s subsequent efforts, Beatriz Garcia noted that “at the heart of this performance was a fascinating paradox about the nature of authenticity, fame and personal connection that no visitor can escape.”
Given LaBeouf’s turbulent rise through Hollywood, it’s not difficult to pigeonhole bad-boy Shia as a petulant celebrity, desperately trying to distinguish and re-define himself. But doing so dismisses not only the artist, but the art. What may have began as a counter-cultural dalliance has evolved into a full-blown existential reflection on celebrity and creativity. And that’s just the beginning. Prior to 2017, LaBeouf’s experimental performances were indulgences at worst and thought-provokingly slanted at best. But with the advent of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s new installation, #HEWILLNOTDIVIDEUS, the trio have effectively transitioned into the turbulent world of politics and current events. An interactive installation designed to coincide with the Presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, the piece utilises two cameras installed outside of a wall of the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. Passersby and onlookers are encouraged to repeat the phrase “He will not divide us” into the lens, for all the world to see and hear. The piece is expected to last for the duration of Trump’s presidency. Last week, LaBeouf found himself behind bars when he attacked a Neo-Nazi instigator who attempted to wrangle control of the installation.
Alongside reports of acid-fuelled method acting, self-inflicted dental harm, physical altercations and questionable hygiene, these works paint the picture of a constantly oscillating creative force which refuses to be caged. While their early work dabbled in abstract deconstruction, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner have charged to the frontline of the performance art world to join the fight against some of the most chilling developments on the world stage. It doesn’t matter what you once thought of Shia – we’re all in this together now. On Friday the 27th, he returned to the site of #HEWILLNOTDIVIDEUS and encouraged observers to participate in the experiment.
I think it’s fair to call Shia a genuine artist now.