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My Encounter With a Naked Man at MoMA

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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I went to see the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and ended up squeezing myself between two naked people. It was a day of unexpected encounters at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

For me, the best art experience is the unanticipated one, and somehow I’d not realized that the much-lauded retrospective of performance artist Marina Abramović would be at MoMA, through May 31, along with the work of my favorite photographer. So while I’d read many reviews of her current MoMA show, encountering her work was still a surprise.

Our first experience was “The Artist Is Present,” which has Abramović sitting in a chair opposite a museum visitor within a large empty square of space. Abramović, clad in a long white dress, sits all day, and the visitors can sit as long as they like — occasionally they sit all eight hours that the artist is, frustrating the hundreds of other people who are waiting in line to do the same.

It was a revelation to even observe the two people observing each other. In the middle of this bustle-bustle city — and a museum crowded with visitors — it created a moment of stillness. Abramović and her partner in any given moment aren’t doing anything. They’re just being. And it was marvelous.

A few floors above, in the main part of the Abramović exhibit, I experienced “Imponderabilia.”

The work involves a naked man and a naked woman facing each other on the inside of a doorway. You have to face either the man or woman as you squeeze between them; you can’t pass through facing front.

I watched for 10 minutes before doing it myself. Every other museum-goer, male and female alike, faced the naked woman as they squeezed through the slim aperture between the pair, who do nothing but stand, hands at their sides, and look straight ahead.

Me? I faced the man, of course. And could not help but brush against him as I got through the very narrow passage. It was at once anonymous and intimate, slightly embarrassing and exciting.

It also got me to thinking: Why did everyone else face the woman? Perhaps because we are far more accustomed to being exposed to imags of naked (or almost naked) women, in art and on television, in magazines and on billboards. It seems more comfortable, more commonplace. Less outrageous and less challenging.

Abramović’s work is powerfully provocative. It certainly got me thinking of many things – including, after experiencing “Imponderabilia,” about how unexceptional it is to encounter the image of a naked woman in our culture, and how different an experience it is to confront a naked man.


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