May 4, 2010  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Bodies in the Galleries: Thoughts from an Ex-Dancer on Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović and Ulay in Imponderabilia, 1977. © 2010 Marina Abramović. Courtesy Marina Abramović and Sean Kelly Gallery/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Friends and family keep asking me recently, “What do you think of the Marina Abramović show?” The exhibition has sparked a lot of conversation, especially one aspect of it—yes, the “naked people.”

Some viewers have been shocked by the bodies in our galleries, but I didn’t expect to be one of them. Beyond the occasional cartwheel, there hasn’t been much call at MoMA for my performing skills… but before I was a MoMA wordsmith, I was a modern dancer, performing for several years mostly with the Regina Nejman Dance Company.

Dancers become comfortable with the body to an unusual degree. There’s the co-ed quick costume-changing backstage, the impolite contact of dance partnering, not to mention you spend a lot of your life wearing spandex. And yet I discovered that Abramović’s reperformers—clothed and unclothed—ruffled my composure, too.

Imponderabilia (1977), the Abramović piece in which two nude performers flank a doorway, has gotten a lot of press. Brushing past the genitalia of strangers in a crowded, public place—could anything be more nightmarish for a New Yorker? Recently, playing hooky from my desk, I breathed in, to be thinner, and slipped between the man and woman performing that afternoon. Safely through, I realized my heart was pounding. Other visitors hurried through nonchalantly, pretending they were going that way anyway; the performers, standing with knees slightly bent, never broke their bubble of concentration. (A good trick for the endurance stander, to avoid wobbling or fainting: don’t lock your knees.)

Feeling surprisingly rattled, I moved on to Point of Contact (1980). Two clothed men stood face to face in a brightly lit recess, raised index fingers nearly touching. It’s a quiet pose that looks like nothing but must be muscle agony after a while. Drops of sweat rolled down one man’s flushed, bulging forehead. The other man’s eyes glistened, and my own eyes filled in sympathy. Tears? Or perhaps his eyes watered from the strain of stillness, from the heat of the overhead lights, from the effort of not blinking uncontrollably under the gaze of the crowd.

Left: Abramović and Ulay in Point of Contact, 1980. Right: Abramović in Luminosity, 1997. © 2010 Marina Abramović. Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Further on, a nude woman perched high on a wall like a pinned butterfly (Luminosity, 1997). Some visitors looked a little horrified, but she didn’t seem humiliated or uncomfortable. Infinitesimally, she was in motion: windmilling her arms very slowly, flexing her knees, curling her spine, walking her toes to and fro upon the supports for her feet. I couldn’t see it, but I guessed that every muscle in her body was participating, to keep her flat against the wall with no apparent effort. Her face gleamed. She was in control. She was utterly there.

Watching her, I thought about works of art in MoMA’s collection that once shocked viewers by showing human bodies in a way that violated “decency.” (Picasso’s aggressive Demoiselles d’Avignon comes to mind.) I looked at this woman’s body with the close attention I might have given one of the Monet canvases downstairs, seeing the way her hair brushed over her shoulders, constellations of moles on her skin. No airbrushing, no abstraction. I found myself terribly moved by this living, breathing woman. Her action felt real, emotional, and intensely brave.

The author, rehearsing Regina Nejman

I’ve gone a little way out on a limb myself. I’ve clambered across viewers’ laps (in a performance workshop with Miguel Gutierrez). I’ve appeared in front of coworkers and my mother-in-law in wigs and underwear; ran and somersaulted in stiletto heels; and danced in extreme slow-motion inside a narrow plastic cylinder for 30 minutes. I’ve danced with a metal bucket on my head (ouch); in the dog days of August, in a tiny theater with no air conditioning, I’ve withstood grueling performances on a stage slick and treacherous with sweat. But these incursions and small feats of endurance took place inside the theater, a relatively safe space where both performers and audience knew the rules. (And yes, I was always wearing some sort of costume.)

Nude or clothed, it’s different to perform in a crowded museum gallery, separated from the milling audience by only a taped-off rectangle on the floor (or, in the case of the Imponderabilia performers, not even by that). Gazing at these performers, I thought about intimacy and vulnerability, fear and love, skin and hair, youth and age, closeness and distance, eye contact and human contact. I thought about what it might be like to be on the other side—to be the artwork looking out.

Abramović has said that her own body is the subject, object, and medium of her artwork. In a reperformance, it follows that the medium, at least, has changed; like a choreographer using dancers, she has expanded her tools and materials to include other people. Marina Abramović is present everywhere in this exhibition, both in body and spirit, but she’s not the only one. The reperformers—bodies, minds, artists—are fully, go-for-broke present too.