The human form, disrobed and displayed in all its glory, is arguably the most enduring motif in the history of Western art. Museums dedicated to art both ancient and modern are filled with nudes rendered every which way: painted, chiseled, molded, sketched and photographed. They’re just usually not living and breathing. But come March 14, New York’s Museum of Modern Art will host daily performances of five seminal works by Marina Abramović, three of which feature performers in the altogether. In Imponderabilia (1977), two players stand opposite each other, au naturel, in a narrow doorway. Visitors must brush past them to enter the exhibition—an early, if awkward, example of interactive art.
“This is America!” the Yugoslavian-born Abramović trills jovially in her heavily accented English, on a rainy fall day in New York, as she considers the potentially embarrassing encounter in what will be the first live exhibition of nudes in the museum’s history. “Is going to be riots! I have so many meetings with the security of MoMA and how we’re going to deal with things.”
In all fairness, yes, Americans have a more delicate relationship with nakedness than Europeans, but Abramović acknowledges that when she and her former collaborator and lover, Ulay, performed the piece at a museum in Bologna, Italy, the police showed up six hours into it, asked to see their passports (which they obviously didn’t have on them) and promptly shut down the performance. This time around, regulations mandate that MoMA provide a second route into the exhibition—one with a wider opening to allow for wheelchairs—a measure Abramović finds understandable but disappointing. “I hate that alternative because in the original piece there was no alternative—you go here,” she says, seated in her midtown office as she points to a photograph of Ulay and herself, face-to-face in the passageway, while a man turned slightly sideways tries to negotiate the cramped space. Even so, Abramović has come up with one small tweak: Though the original conceit paired a man and a woman, she now plans to mix up the couples taking turns performing Imponderabilia so that some are same-sex.
At 64, Abramović is the doyenne of performance art, a true believer who has literally risked her life more than once in fealty to her work. Decades after her peers segued exclusively into other—typically more lucrative—art forms, she is still constructing new performances, though she does dabble in other mediums. For the MoMA retrospective, the 36 hired players will rotate every two and a half hours to allow for breaks, while Abramović herself will perform a new work nonstop during museum hours for the duration of the exhibition. That’s seven and a half hours a day, five days a week; 10 hours on Friday. For three months. “The idea is that we are there before the museum opens, and we are there when the museum closes,” she says. “The attitude is the same as toward a painting—the performance is always there. It’s never been done that way for three months, ever, in history.” Her new performance, The Artist Is Present, is technically a solo performance, but it will depend on a multitude of other “players”: Museumgoers will be allowed to take turns sitting with Abramović in the atrium, though she will remain silent (and fully clothed). The concept, she says, is a play on the wording of gallery announcements from a bygone era. “You know in the old days you have this invitation for a painting exhibition, [and it says] ‘The artist will be present at the opening.’”