The Naked Truth of a Nude Art Exhibit

As I encountered the two nude women in the doorway, I hesitated. The other people in the room watched, expecting me to do something and I felt the pressure. The women faced one another silently, and though I didn’t speak, I had to interact awkwardly and slip between them; contact between bodies impossible to avoid. It was the most aware I’d ever been of myself while crossing a threshold, despite it being the women who weren’t clothed, I was the one who felt naked that day at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

The nude women in the narrow doorway are living pieces of art in “Imponderabilia”, a performance art exhibit at MoMA that opened last Sunday and continues through May as part of “The Artist is Present” career retrospective of Yugoslavian creator Marina Abramović. Other performance pieces of the collection include a nude woman reclining with a fake skeleton on top of her, as well as two clothed people sitting across from each other touching fingertips, or sitting back-to-back with hair wrapped together. The artist herself will also be taking part in the exhibit, by literally being present during open hours of the museum, sitting at a table silently, across from members of the public who are free to take a seat.

Along with Abramović’s own appearance, the longest solo performance of her career, her sound pieces, photographs and video of work that couldn’t be recreated at MoMA – such as when she and her former collaborator began at opposite ends of the Great Wall of China and walked until they met one another, three months later – make the collection nothing short of remarkable.

But it’s the butts that get all the buzz.

Every news item I turned up during my search about the “Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present” MoMA collection led with the nude doorway pair from “Imponderabilia”, a piece she introduced in Bologna, Italy, in 1977. Yes, that’s also what I used for my hook because sex sells, although this time ‘sex’ is referring to gender and not intercourse.

Even when it’s naked and not “nekkid” (a difference Southerners understand as not having clothes on verse not having clothes on and being up to something), we Americans aren’t so cool with full-body fleshiness. Nudity obviously isn’t a new thing for us since, aside from “never nude” Tobias Fünke, we all have to encounter our naked selves daily. Yet we’re still squeamish about nudity as a people – especially when it’s in an unexpected context.

Head to a “gentleman’s club” or clothing optional beach (a lifestyle for some and a frisky vacation adventure for others), and you know what you’ll see, but catch Janet Jackson’s bedazzled nipple during the halftime show, or see a mom openly nursing in a shopping mall, and our peepers are suddenly popping. We try to say we disapprove of the exposure because of the standard Helen Lovejoy “Won’t somebody please think of the children” line, but really it’s our own uncomfortable case of the ickies that’s getting to us. Even for seen-it-all Manhattanites, who live in a place where female toplessness is technically legal but rarely exercised, the nude bodies at the MoMA is just a little off-putting for most.

I won’t say whether this distinction is arguably reasonable or just goofy, but it is what it is and that’s why Abramović’s exhibit succeeds so well. Even though I’m traditionally skeptical and oozing with sarcasm over ‘performance art’, “Imponderabilia” works because it demands a reaction that goes beyond a thoughtful ‘deconstruction’ of the work.

For me at least, it was an internal gut-check about whether or not I quite literally wanted to bump uglies with these two, and it forced others to either face discomfort or take the long way around sans stripped models. While the day I went, it was two women in the doorway, the genders of the exhibitors will be mixed and matched throughout the run of the show so that even the most enlightened museumgoer may encounter their own unique hang-ups.

In the end, the bare bodies turn the viewer into the exhibit, and when we feel exposed by a work, the art has exposed something of a naked truth in us, and there’s no butts about that.