Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Imponderabilia", Marina Abramovic & Ulay, 1977

We've studied Marina Abramovic before, but I thought this video related to our study this week on persona/personality, particularly the topic of persona. In this performance/installation, Abramovic and Ulay stand nude, flanking the entrance to a museum. Abramovic describes the piece: "The public entering the Museum has to pass sideways through the small space between us. Each person passing has to choose which one of us to face".
In Imponderabilia (1977) Serbian artist Marina Abramovic and Ulay collaborate to create a performance piece in which they, completely nude, flank the entrance to the Galleria Communale d'Arte Moderna in Bologna, Italy. Visitors wanting to enter the museum are forced to squeeze through their bodies. The aspect of nudity is not foreign to Abramovic's pieces – Nude with Skeleton, Freeing the Body, and Relation in Space are just a few of her many videos that feature the artist as nude. Often these pieces focus on the artist. Imponderability, however, is meant to draw attention to the participants in the performance.
Abramovic's piece encapsulates the subject of “persona” in an interesting way. Abramovic and Ulay expose themselves completely to the public's view – in effect, this is the public image of themselves they are presenting to the viewer. Yet, what the piece seems to be exploring is the reaction of the public to this persona. While watching the video of this performance, it is not the blatant and unabashed nudity that captures one's attention; instead, it is the reaction of the public to the situation they find themselves in that catches the eye. Each visitor to the museum must make two important decisions. First, he must decide whether or not to enter the museum. Second, he must decide which figure to face when passing through the entrance. The taboo nature of nudity makes these decisions seem critical. Do I want to squeeze my way past two nude bodies? If I do, whom shall I face? These are the questions that are posed to the visitors in line to enter the museum.
Through this piece, Abramovic exposes our understanding of what a proper public persona is, and our subsequent reactions if that expectation is not met. While the distinct characteristics of personas often vary with different individuals, some variables generally remain the same. Nudity as an aspect of one's persona is not common, prompting a public reaction riddled with uneasiness and uncertainty. Abramovic made sure that this point was understood, as the text on the wall facing the entrance reads: “'Imponderable. Such imponderable human factors as one's aesthetic sensitivity/the overriding importance of imponderables in determining human conduct”. An imponderable is defined as “a factor that is difficult or impossible to estimate or assess”. When presented with a deviation from personas that the general consensus regards as normal, such as nudity, individuals are unsure how to act. Furthermore, individuals must make the unusual decision between different types of nudity: male or female. Observing the visitors entering the museum, it becomes quickly clear that most visitors choose to face Abramovic, suggesting that the female nude form is less threatening or serious than the male nude form. Visitors pass through quickly and do not make eye-contact with Abramovic or Ulay, rarely looking back after they have passed through.
The study of public reaction to unusual personas explored in Imponderabilia not only exposes the instincts that are ingrained in society, but also shapes the personas of those who enter – each decision that the individual has to make upon entering shapes who they appear to be, a concept that is furthered by the presence of a camera documenting their choice. The characteristic of vulnerability that normally accompanies the persona of a nude figure has been transferred completely to the clothed visitor passing between Abramovic and Ulay.