Seán O Sullivan is a writer and curator whose work focuses on the politics and preservation of localities. He has curated projects and written critical texts dealing with community, ecology and the bonds between people and places. He holds an MA and a BA in Visual Arts Practices from IADT, Dún Laoghaire. He is a former chair of Black Church Print Studio, Dublin. He is Visual Arts Adviser to the Arts Council of Ireland / An Comhairle Ealaíon.
This page: A text on Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s Imponderabilia, examining the misbehavior surrounding its re-enactment.
In this essay, I will compare two performances of Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s Imponderabilia, the first from 1977 and its re-enactment from 2010. These provide an unusually pointed contrast; in the original, the police intervened to prevent the artists’ performance, and in the re-enactment, the MoMA security team escorted various members of the audience from the premises. I aim to examine the reasoning supporting this dichotomy of intervention with respect to the deployment of power as a tool of performance art in the 1970s, in the 2010s, and with direct reference to Abramovic’s oeuvre. I will examine this in context of occasions where Abramovic has asserted authorship over a fully open discursive space, in which her audience may subject her to any act. Finally, this study will isolate a question about the responsibility for authorship of ‘the event’ in contemporary performance art, explaining the value of both planned and unplanned interventions as they apply to authorship.
Marina Abramovic and the Politics of Power:
In June of 1977, Marina Abramovic performed a work entitled Imponderabilia with her partner Frank Uwe Laysiepen, a German artist better known as Ulay. Their performance took place for ninety minutes at the Galleria Communale d’Arte Moderna in Bologna, Italy. In a video recording of the work, Abramovic described Imponderabilia this way: “We are standing naked in the main entrance of the Museum, facing each other. The public entering the Museum have to pass sideways through the small space between us. Each person passing has to choose which one of us to face.”1
The most heavily published images of Imponderabilia depict a parade of visitors shimmying their way between Abramovic and Ulay (See Fig. 1). Having chosen whether to face towards the male or female, the visitors’ rushed through the situation, their faces routinely wore expressions of vivid indifference. The performers remained entirely passive throughout this time. A grainy video recording of the work shows the public following one another in quick succession. They face the performer whom the most recent audience member had faced – regardless of gender;2 the images in Fig. 1 do not acknowledge this fact. The “main entrance of the Museum” that the artist described is not actually part of the building’s architecture. Instead, it appeared to be a fabrication produced for the performance; a freestanding doorway built like an airport metal detector. After ninety minutes of public procession, the Italian police arrived at the museum to interrupt Imponderabilia. They ordered the artists to cease their performance.
Nearly thirty-three years later, between 14 March and 31 May 2010 the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) hosted ‘Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present’, the first retrospective of the artist’s career. The exhibition included Imponderabilia, along with approximately fifty other pieces. In the months before the exhibition opened, Abramovic conducted a workshop where she trained thirty-six volunteers to re-enact her major works. The volunteers were required to sleep outdoors, fast, bathe in a river and remain silent for four full days.3 The press release for a film project based on the MoMA exhibition explained: “There is a strict regimen of individual and group exercises, such as walking backwards in slow motion, counting grains of rice, and observing a single object for hours. The goal is to enable the re-performers to become aware of their limits and to find their own charismatic space.”4
In the 2010 “re-performance” of Imponderabilia, the audience was not required to physically brush against the volunteers in order to enter the gallery; there was an alternative entrance provided by the museum. The performers were not always arranged in a male/female dyad; images from the exhibition show its doorway occupied by two women. And in 1977, Imponderabilia’s thin access space absolutely demanded some physical contact with the performers. However, in the 2010 version, MoMA expanded this space enough to allow an audience member to pass through with no human contact (See Fig. 2). One of the thirty-six performers, while reviewing her participation, noted a sign posted near to Imponderabilia reading, “The doorway has been widened due to museum regulations.”5
Along with the significant attention garnered by the retrospective for its scale and historical significance, newspapers around the US found another reason to focus on the exhibition. The museum’s security team ejected some patrons for intentionally groping the performers in Imponderabilia. “In April alone, three people were removed from MoMA for “inappropriate touching.”6 In April 2010, The New York Times featured an interview with Will Rawls, who was one of Abramovic’s thirty-six ‘re-performers’:
“Mr. Rawls noticed an older man preparing to walk through. “He proceeded to slide his hand onto my ribs and back and then touched my butt,” Mr. Rawls said. “As he was passing me he looked me in the eyes and said ‘You feel good, man.’” […] When his shift was over, Mr. Rawls said, he learned from a security official that MoMA had revoked the man’s 30-year membership and barred him from returning to the museum.”7
In both the 1977 and the 2010 performances of Imponderabilia there was some form of intervention by a security force, made manifest to resolve a practical problem caused by the interaction between the performers and the museumgoers that brushed past them.
Of course, there was an interpersonal aspect to the collaborative performances by Marina Abramovic and Ulay that is important to recognise. In performances between 1976 and 1988, the couple used their relationship as a central thematic element. For example, in Breathing In/Breathing Out (1977) they sat with their mouths connected together and their noses blocked with cigarette filters – kissing as an audience might see it (See Fig. 3). They passed exhaled breath back and forth to one another, and fell unconscious after seventeen minutes. A contact microphone attached to Abramovic’s throat transmitted the sound of their breathing.8 With this in mind, it is appropriate to interpret Imponderabilia with regard for the relationship that defined their works at the time. Museumgoers passing between the two were not only the subject of a socio-political performative experiment; they were also made to ‘interrupt’ the two.
I must emphasise the importance in this claim of an ‘interruption’. In Abramovic and Ulay’s works of the era, the interruption is the moment of principle conclusion. Thus, the implication of an arrival by the Italian police in 1977 is significant, so too is the museum’s security staff ejecting the overzealous elderly patron in 2010. These moments signify a ‘break’ in the couple’s performative connection. In both the original enactment of Imponderabilia and in its 2010 re-enactment, the artists did not plan the security forces’ intervention. The interruption that Abramovic posited with the work was that of the museumgoer passing between the pair. However, the unplanned interruption in the name of public safety delivers an obvious question about the ethics of the work. Intervention by any security force precipitates some manner of ethical question, or potentially, an ethical abrasion. It may seem quaint that Imponderabilia’s nudity could constitute such a grievous socio-political problem as to warrant any form of immediate institutional or state intervention. Yet, Abramovic excels at creating discursive situations framed by questionable ethics. As the New York Times noted: “Her solo work from the early 1970s was hair-raisingly nervy. She stabbed herself, took knockout drugs, [and] played with fire. For one piece she stood silent in a gallery for six hours, having announced that visitors could do anything they wanted to her physically. At one point a man held a gun to her neck. Her eyes filled with tears, but she didn’t flinch.”9
Clearly, the threat of gun violence in response to Rhythm 0 (1974) presents a quite frightening moral upshot. In my view, this moment more than any other in Abramovic’s history should have been subject to police intervention. Imponderabilia presents a still significant, but not mortal, ethical problem. A question as to whether the piece might deploy some form of sexual assault – either on behalf of the performers, or on behalf of the audience. I am interested in precisely this moment of misbehaviour. Abramovic creates an open sphere for discursive interruption, but does not claim responsibility for the audience’s actions. The avowal of responsibility for the audience’s actions does not clearly sit with any party. Their act of brushing past the performers’ bodies was enough to attract police intervention in 1977, and in 2010, the MoMA security team needed to repeatedly insulate the re-enactment from those members of the public who were brazen enough to stop and grope their performer of choice. Before the re-performances, Abramovic knew that an approximation of the 1977 police interruption might again be necessary, albeit with greater discretion. She met with the museum’s entire security team to explain “the meaning of the work and their role in it.”10
Early in her life, Abramovic was involved in a series of Yugoslavian sociocultural protests that demanded a range of democratic freedoms. These politics exerted a clear influence in her performances with Ulay, which were imbued with connotations of a ‘total freedom’, a mind-set that was prevalent amongst young eastern-European revolutionaries who wanted to see everything made possible.11 The fact that Abramovic presents the performers in a state of immobility is important to the ethics of Imponderabilia. For Rhythm 0, she provided this note: “Instructions: There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired. Performance: I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility. Duration: 6 hours [8pm–2am].”12
There are two distinctions between Rhythm 0 and Imponderabilia present in this passage. The first is that in Rhythm 0, Abramovic offered her full responsibility to validate the audience’s total freedom. Incidentally, this freedom led to the violent incident mentioned in the New York Times. Imponderabilia suggested, but did not claim the same total freedom. Indeed, as evidenced by the MoMA security staff’s 2010 interventions, this total freedom was not present.
It is worth noting that Abramovic specifically avoided referring to herself or Ulay as ‘nude’ while they performed Imponderabilia. Instead, she selected the phrase “naked”.13 In this, she denied Imponderabilia any art-historical reference in favour of laying claim to a state of superficial vulnerability. In the original performance of Imponderabilia, the artists’ ‘nakedness’ is what allowed them to exert power over the audience. This power was manifest in the embarrassment of the audience, who arrived at the exhibition to discover that they were expected to brush past the naked bodies of the artists whom they had arrived to see. Their immobile ‘nakedness’ would have removed the audience’s previous social expectations, and removed any possibility of the audience engaging in a passive viewership. It would seem that Imponderabilia used passivity as a power structure.
Conversely, in 2010 the audience was aware that they were not interacting with the artists’ but rather with these “re-performers”. Thirty-three years had passed since the original Imponderabilia; Abramovic was now ‘the grandmother of performance art’. Moreover, nudity no longer held the socio-political power it had in 1977 – the 1970s body art movement was long in the past and in broader terms, Western values surrounding cultural production and entertainment had become acclimatised to highly sexualised imagery during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Stereotypically speaking, the 2010 New York audience was apparently more predisposed towards confrontation with the performers than the Italian audience of 1977 was. The print media played up to this disposition during the exhibition; the New York Post ran a headline reading “Squeezy does it at MoMA.”14
There was an analogous situation in the MoMA retrospective which can offer an insight into Abramovic’s perception of the ethics at play in her own work. This comes from a 716-hour performance entitled The Artist is Present (2010), where she sat immobile in the centre of a large room, allowing one audience member at a time to sit silently in the chair across from her. On the first day of The Artist is Present, Abramovic allowed her performance to be interrupted; Ulay arrived – the two had separated in 1988, and this was a significant moment of reconciliation. She broke character and shared an embrace with Ulay (See Fig. 4). However, on the final day of The Artist is Present a woman arrived whom the artist did not know. She took off her clothes before sitting down and was thus escorted from the building by seven security guards (See Fig. 5).15 This interruption was apparently not legitimate.
There is a crucial pattern present in this trichotomy of examples. Abramovic’s performances submit her endurance within an open discursive space that she has authored; her final articulation arrives at the moment of interruption – the moment where the audience has been surprised by the potentiality within this open discursive space. However, in the MoMA retrospective, the audience’s possible surprise could only exist where Abramovic had authored its existence, and Abramovic herself was not to be surprised. Perhaps she believed that her authorial position was axiomatic, that there should be an interruption, but no dialogue; that the ‘discursive space’ was actually a didactic one. Evidently, Abramovic should only be surprised if that surprise will further legitimate her authority – for instance, if she were arrested or shot.
In this essay, I have discussed the reasons that Marina Abramovic’s Imponderabilia provoked interventions from security teams in both its 1977 and 2010 performances. I have placed Abramovic’s authorship of Imponderabilia in context with elementally comparable works from her practice since 1974, examining her motivation in acceding to interventions that reinforce her authorship, while rejecting those that were incommensurable with her deployment of socio-political power structures through performance art. This essay has ramifications relating to the value and results of authoring an entirely open discursive space within the historical structures of performance art, and I have pointed to specific examples from Abramovic’s history that illustrate the negative consequences of immobility within such discursive space. Finally, I have examined the possibility that Imponderabilia, particularly in its 2010 re-enactment, inferred the presence of an open space for any audience interaction, but did not actually contain this space. The re-enactment did not clarify a formal and ethical limitation of audience interaction, but rather affected an aesthetic similarity with earlier unrestricted works such as Rhythm 0. My conclusion is that Abramovic presented MoMA audiences with an approximation of Imponderabilia whose authorial core had changed without clear signification.