Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Nudes at MoMA: Why are we Surprised?

There has been a flurry of articles recently about the scandalous behavior of a few patrons of the Museum of Modern Art. (Sample: NY Times) It seems that some, even members of the museum, forget the near universal protocols about not touching the art. The art work in this instance is two live nude “performers.” Their performance is to stand still while patrons walk between them to enter the museum. And, occasionally, they get touched. (The FOX news headline uses the word “groped.”)

Of course this kind of thing makes good copy, but is it really any surprise? In fact, I suspect that the artist must expect this kind of transgression and that one reason for doing an art performance with live nudes is to provoke the audience. Much of Marina Abramović’s art, which has involved, among other things, self-mutilation, is much more provocative than this. In fact, I think it is ironic that, in the context of Abramović’s oeuvre, human nudes in a public space are pretty subtle and sedate.

My own personal reaction, I suppose, should be to feel cheated. I was in New York recently. I went to MoMA and I saw Abramović herself in the atrium gallery (picture below) performing her headline piece: “The Artist is Present.” But I did not see, nor know about, the two nude performers. I haven’t seen a single mention in any of the articles about this “scandalous” situation that the nudes are not situated at either of the main entrances and that most patrons can and do enter, as I did, without encountering them.

I did enjoy seeing “The Artist is Present.” I was clearly not alone in my reaction, for the performance space, delineated with tape, was constantly surrounded several ranks deep. More people watched from the various balconies and windows above. What we all watched was the artist sitting on a chair at a table. Like the nudes, she didn’t move. Unlike the nudes, this piece has an interactive component. When the chair opposite Abramović is unoccupied, the audience is invited to enter the space and sit there. Abramović does not react to this regular occurrence in any way. While I watched, the chair was never unoccupied for more than a few moments. Crowd pleasing minimalistic performance art. An interesting concept, no?

As for the nudes, when will our society get over its Puritan aversion to the human body? And what a hypocritical culture! Simple standing nudes are considered outrageous, while the overt sexual content that comes into our homes on TV is acceptable.

For more on “The Artist is Present” go to MoMA.


  1. Oh Eddee, how super that you got to see Abramovic. She is such an icon. Does she have oodles of "aura"? Can you feel it from a distance?

  2. I don't know about "aura" but, although she never moved a muscle, the whole room was full of energy. The contrast between her still presence and the respectful attention she was getting from the ever-shifting audience created a palpable tension. It was quite fascinating.