A closer look at the artist’s collaborative performance piece with then-partner Ulay as it makes its way to London next year
When Marina Abramović and Ulay walked from opposite ends of The Great Wall of China in 1988 to finish their 12-year romantic relationship, it was also the nail in the coffin of their collaborative and artistic partnership.
For more than a decade, the pair had travelled through Europe and over to America to perform at the request and invitation of various galleries and museums. Abramović and Ulay’s controversial performance collaboration, Imponderabilia, was one such occasion. Having first been performed in June 1977 at the Museum of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Bologna, it will be revived in London for Abramović’s 2020 retrospective at London’s Royal Academy, albeit with a few changes.
The performance piece, which involved the lovers standing and facing each other while naked in a doorway which Ulay had built cases into to make it narrower, forcing visitors to walk through the two artists with skin on skin contact if they wanted to get inside the space.
Naturally, there’s a lot more to the story than meets the naked eye and below we pay homage to the original performance through the lens of five things you might not have known about it.
THEY HAD TO DEMAND PAYMENT FROM THE MUSEUM, WHILE NAKED
Moments before the performance was due to start, Abramović and Ulay realised that they hadn’t yet been paid – which they had been promised in advance. Stark naked, Ulay ran into the museum’s office and demanded the 750,000 lire ($350). But having no pockets or place to keep the money on him, he wrapped it within a rubbish bag secured with elastic bands to make it water-tight and hid it in a toilet tank. Naturally, throughout the entire performance, which was planned to be three hours, all he could imagine was someone flushing it. Despite the stress, Abramović claims that she and Ulay were the only artists to have been paid for it.
THE PERFORMANCE HIGHLIGHTED THE IMPORTANT ROLE OF ARTISTS
What is art if not questioning the meaning of life? Or in this case, museums. The relationship between artists and museums, and ultimately their co-dependencies was a point of interest to Abramović, who came to the realisation that “if there were no artists, there would be no museums”. She continued: “From this idea, we decided to make a poetic gesture – the artists would literally become the door to the museum.”
The gap in which they physically became was dubbed the ‘birth canal’, using their bodies and their physical awareness and sensation to create an experience of touch as you pass through, like the process of a baby passing through a birth canal. In this case, the artists are the birth canal of the museum, bringing life into it.
THE AUDIENCE WAS CENTRE STAGE, EVEN IF THEY DIDN’T KNOW IT
The name Imponderabilia translates to ‘imponderable’, meaning a factor that is impossible to predict or estimate. On the museum’s wall, Abramović and Ulay had printed: “I’m imponderable. Such imponderable human factors as one’s aesthetic sensitivity. The overriding importance of imponderables determining human conduct.” The purpose of the performance was not the actions of the artists themselves, but the reaction of the visitors, who unknowingly become the protagonists of this performance. Capturing the raw reaction with hidden cameras in the museum, visitors weren’t aware they were being filmed until they had passed through the gap.
Imponderable asked how would the audience react to the skin contact? Would they try to avoid the touch? Or initiate it themselves? Most importantly, which way would they face? Most participants chose to face Abramović rather than Ulay, including both police officers when they came and shut it down.
IT WAS SHUT DOWN BY POLICE
While slated to last three hours, the performance ended abruptly after only 90 minutes as local Bologna police put a stop to it. The police informed them that according to city laws, the performance was deemed ‘obscene’.
Although this was their first run-in with the police, it was certainly not their only controversial work together. Abramović and Ulay often explored the chance of death, like their 1977 Breathing In/Breathing Out in which they blocked their noses with cigarette filters and shared oxygen to one another through mouth-to-mouth contact before they eventually passed out. While 1980s Rest Energy saw Ulay holding a bow and arrow at Abramović’s heart.
IT’S BEEN REVIVED, BUT IT’S NEVER BEEN THE SAME
Imponderabilia at London’s Royal Academy will not be its first international debut. Among many re-enactments of the performance was the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010, but with models rather than the artists themselves. Although in this version of events, the imponderable factor was not present. The models were placed so far apart this time that the visitors could barely touch them as they walked through and model pairs were often of the same gender.
The performance piece will come to London as a part of Abramović’s 50 years of pioneering performance art at London’s Royal Academy – an institution which has only on two occasions featured live nudity, this being the first time it will appear in the main galleries. However, like MoMA’s iteration, Imponderabilia won’t feature Abramović or Ulay. However, Abramović is said to be working very closely with the institution to cast models and choreograph them.
With the retrospective running for close to three months, Royal Academy artistic director Tim Marlow told press Abramović would not be participating in performances for the duration of it. “Her concern at the moment is as much looking forward to the legacy of how performance art can exist when the performer is no longer around,” he said. “Her main concern is how her own work will be reperformed, as theatre is, as music is, in the future.”
However, he was keen not to rule anything out. “Never say never with Marina, but one thing she won’t be doing, because we won’t let her … she won’t be in the galleries for 80 days. Will she be in the galleries doing something? Almost certainly.”