Marina Abramovic and Ulay's Imponderabilia: the performance that probed human behavior with nudity

Imponderabilia, by Marina Abramovic and Ulay, held in 1977, was one of the most famous performances in art history: through nudity, the two artists wanted to probe human behavior.

In the week between June 1 and 6, 1977, the International Week of Performance, curated by Renato Barilli, took place at the Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna in Bologna: a series of events attended by some of the world’s best exponents of performance art, with the aim of delving into this art form, which precisely between the 1960s and 1970s was born and experienced a period of great diffusion and above all of interest from both critics and the public. On June 2, a performance destined to become among the most famous ever staged was staged: the Serbian artist Marina Abramovic, then 29 years old but already among the most discussed and controversial performers in the entire art scene, and her partner, the German Ulay (stage name Frank Uwe Laysiepen), decided to pose, completely naked, in front of each other at the entrance to the Gallery.

Uno dei momenti di Imponderabilia, la performance di Marina Abramovic e Ulay
One of the moments of Imponderabilia, the performance by Marina Abramovic and Ulay
The performance is titled Imponderabilia and sees the audience forced to enter the museum by stepping over the bodies of the two artists. And since the space is so narrow, visitors do not have the option of passing by looking straight ahead, but must necessarily choose whether to face Marina Abramovic or Ulay. In the book Marina Abramovic. The Artist is Present, published in 2010 on the occasion of the performance of the same name held at MoMA in New York, the artist reportedly described the 1977 performance in these terms: “We are standing, naked, on the main entrance to the Museum, facing each other. The audience that enters the Museum has to pass through, getting sideways, the small space between us. And each person passing by has to choose which one of us to face.” The performance was supposed to last three hours, but is then interrupted in the middle by two young police officers who deem it obscene. And thus. liable to censorship.

There remained a video, moreover posted on YouTube, documenting excerpts of the performance. Most of the audience, particularly the male audience, decided to have their backs to Ulay and therefore enter facing Marina Abramovic: some have tried to explain this choice, which is also preponderant in the female audience, both in aesthetic terms (Marina Abramovic’s body would have been considered more pleasing than Ulay’s, and the audience would therefore have preferred her supple body over Ulay’s gaunt one) and in psychological terms (the naked female body is perhaps more reassuring than the male one). It is noticeable, however, that many people pass by choosing the option of those who had passed just before: thus, here are several women who enter facing Marina Abramovic, and also some men who, preceded by those who had chosen to have their backs to the woman, enter facing Ulay. Almost all the visitors hurriedly walk past, the vast majority not even turning to look back. All the while, the two performers remain completely impassive for the duration of the performance.

Indeed, Abramovic and Ulay’s idea is precisely to focus on the audience, on its decision-making capacity, on its reactions, and in this process nudity becomes, in itself, an aspect that we care little about, although it is itself the focus of the performance: nudity causes embarrassment (and, what is more, we have to imagine that almost forty years ago it caused much more than it does now), so the visitor is faced with a dilemma. But not only that: his or her expectations are in fact changed, for some perhaps even upset. The visitor who had mentally prepared himself for a visit to a museum, and perhaps to witness similar performances, or even to be a protagonist in them, does not imagine that he will be a main actor in the event from the moment of entry, and what is more, that he will have to interact with two naked bodies. For many, having to make a choice, made difficult also and especially because of the nudity, thus becomes an inconvenience.

Marina Abramovic e Ulay, Imponderabilia, Bologna, 1977
Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Imponderabilia, Bologna, 1977

The interesting operation conducted by the two artists consists first of all in having in fact transferred the awkwardness, which we would usually expect from two completely naked people in a context where no one else is naked, to those who are instead clothed. Second, the performers, rather than bare themselves, bare the instincts and often the emotions of the audience. For from the choice of whether to pass by giving face to the man or the woman, from the facial expressions, from the manner in which one chooses to pass, one might guess certain aspects of a person’s character. Aspects that are moreover intimate, which are in fact exposed in public: for example, a visitor who before entering the museum has moments of hesitation and tries to pass quickly while looking as little as possible, publicly exposes the fact that this is for him a situation that is anything but comfortable, because he perhaps experiences a relationship with nudity in an unfree way, because he has received a certain type of education in a certain environment, and so on. In essence, the two artists make certain knots created by society emerge clearly through the relationship between artist and audience, who thus in turn becomes the protagonist of thework of art. And as a result, those who still, almost forty years later, watch the video of the performance are not so much attracted to the naked bodies of the two artists as to the reactions of the people who pass them by.

At this point the title of the performance, Imponderabilia, also becomes clear. The audience, as already mentioned, is suddenly and unexpectedly faced with a dilemma that needs to be resolved quickly: hesitation would in fact already make clear a certain predisposition toward the performance. Thus, it is not possible to “weigh” the elements that should make the audience make a decision that would take time: these elements therefore become imponderables. Simply put: it is not possible to weigh them, to evaluate them carefully. And according to the two artists, it is precisely these imponderable elements that guide and determine human behavior in a variety of situations. According to many, this is not art. But, whether one wants to consider it art or not, it certainly makes one think: and in this sense, Marina Abramovic and Ulay have well achieved their goal.