Friday, June 7, 2013

Imponderabilia: Re-enacting Abramovic

By Kate Barry


Imponderabilia was first performed in 1977 by Marina Abramovic and Ulay at Galleria Comunale D’Arte Moderna, in Bologna, Italy, for the duration of ninety minutes before the police shut it down. It was first created and performed during the height of second-wave feminism of 1970s, a time that brought about changes in mainstream society’s understanding of sexuality, a time dubbed the sexual revolution.

In North America this era brought feminist consciousness, public nudity, birth control, gay and lesbian rights, as well as ideas of “free love” (sex outside the institution of marriage), into a wider consciousness. Harkening back, I am reminded that many iconic performance pieces from this era employ nudity as a transgressive strategy, most notably Vito Acconci’s Trademarks (1970), Hannah Wilke’s S.O.S. — Starification Object Series (1974) and Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975). In this essay, Imponderabilia: Re-enacting Abramovic, I share my experience reenacting the performance while claiming for a feminist perspective when considering the significance of this important work.

Abramovic’s performance Imponderabilia is ephemeral — it is about being in the moment and experiencing live art. In my personal experience, Imponderabilia is physical and sexy. It’s a performance where two artists stand naked in the main entrance of the museum, facing each other, creating a space of uncertainty between the audience and artists. If the audience wants to enter the gallery space their single option is to pass sideways through the small space between two naked artists.

In 2010, I reenacted Imponderabilia during Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, at Hart House, University of Toronto, in a performance organized by the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery and presented in conjunction with the exhibition Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980, curated by Barbara Fischer. I performed Imponderabilia for a total of five hours.

A diverse group of six artists of different genders, ages, shapes, sizes and racial backgrounds reenacted the piece. During Nuit Blanche we performed for one-and-a-half-hour segments, from 7 pm until 5 am. I performed Imponderabilia standing across from Gail Zamozniaka, a Toronto-based performance artist and yoga instructor, for such an interval. I also performed for three-and-a-half hours across from Francisco-Fernando Granados, a Guatemalan-born, Toronto artist and performer extraordinaire.


















According to Abramovic, “the process is much more important than the result in performance art, everything is about process.” In this spirit, prior to the event, we went through an intensive two-day training process designed by Abramovic and led by two performers, who reenacted the piece during the 2010 Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Artist is Present. The training process was designed to slow us down and bring us fully into our bodies. In one exercise, for example, we wrote our names for one hour without removing the pencil from the paper. In another, we sat blindfolded in a park for one hour. During the preparation we were also asked to fast during the day, and in the evening we were fed light, wholesome foods like fruits, vegetables, rice, water and herbal teas in order to purify our bodies. According to the Abromavic, the preparation for Imponderabilia trains the artist to be fully present in his or her body in order to gain a greater sense of interconnectedness with their performance partner(s), and the audience. [1]

What I learned from performing the piece is, Imponderabilia’s ability to utilize the artist’s body and physicality as an artistic medium allows for a questioning of patriarchal norms about sexuality, confirming that nudity can still be considered a subversive or trangressive act. Since radical resistance and cultural change depend upon destabilizing the status quo, nudity can still be considered a tool of resistance and a revolutionary strategy, broadening our awareness of sexuality and specifically its relationship to gender.

I think members of the public — like those at the University of Toronto campus — were more comfortable with the idea, or fantasy, of nudity in relation to the female body, since we are socialized to see naked female bodies in culture and art history. One direct example of this was that, when I performed Imponderabilia with a male partner, nine out of every ten passers-by would not face him, but instead faced me while making the passageway between us. 

Moreover, the female body has a tradition of being mediated through social hierarchies. In the canon of art history, for example, the female body is framed as an object to be looked at and consumed. Yet, when a real naked female body is positioned in a performance space, it can most often disrupts expectations and norms around beauty, age, race, ability and objectification of female bodies.

While performing Imponderabilia, problems arise because the female nude is no longer mediated through pop culture or art history, but is instead confronted face-to-face. The presence of nude bodies, in the Hart House performance space, transformed the viewing experience from audience members looking at the body as object to audience members encountering it as subject.

While hundreds of audience members peacefully passed through us, many audience members could not bring themselves to pass through at all! Still others passed through with much hostility. This unknown territory of actual bodies still unnerves people.

Thirty-three years after Imponderabilia was first performed, it continues to bring the politics of the body to the forefront by illustrating how the audience’s relationship to nudity destabilizes the dynamic between artist and audience. In Imponderabilia, nudity is used as a strategy to disrupt patriarchal norms in mainstream popular culture and art history, demonstrating it be considered a feminist and revolutionary action.


[1] During the training sessions we also created code-words for our safety, so that a volunteer, coordinator, security guard, or another performance artist who heard the code-word could intervene. And yes, I was paid and treated well.