MoMA Sued by Artist Who Performed Nude in Marina Abramovic Work

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A performance artist has sued the Museum of Modern Art, saying that officials neglected to take corrective action after several visitors groped him during a nude performance for the 2010 retrospective “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present.”

The allegations were submitted this week in New York Supreme Court, with the artist, John Bonafede, seeking compensation for emotional distress, career disruption, humiliation and other damages.

Mr. Bonafede had participated in one of Ms. Abramovic’s most famous works from the 1970s, “Imponderabilia,” which requires two nude performers to stand opposite each other in a slim doorway that visitors are encouraged to squeeze through to enter an adjoining gallery.

According to his lawsuit, Mr. Bonafede was sexually assaulted seven times by five museum visitors. He reported four of the individuals to MoMA security, which ejected them from the galleries, the lawsuit said; the fifth assault was directly observed by security.

Mr. Bonafede said in legal filings, however, that MoMA officials “turned a blind eye” to the assaults and created a hostile work environment where performers were expected to submit to the actions of unruly audience members. His lawsuit comes nearly 14 years after the exhibition; New York’s Adult Survivors Act, which gave people an additional window to file sexual misconduct claims, expired in November, but there was an agreement to extend this case.

“John believes that there should be edgy performance art like this in major institutions,” said his lawyer, Jordan Fletcher. “But his goal here is to make sure that performers are properly taken care of and that their safety is ensured.”

A MoMA spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Ms. Abramovic also has not spoken about the allegations, though she is not being sued by the plaintiff.

The 2010 retrospective was one of the most defining museum shows in recent history, helping to further legitimize performance within the art world and turning the Serbian artist into a global celebrity whose tough preparation for the exhibition was memorialized in the 2012 documentary “The Artist Is Present.”

But the exhibition was grueling for many performers. Some participants reported fainting in the galleries, and the museum later shortened their schedules to prevent exhaustion. Others complained that guests were inappropriately touching their bodies and making rude remarks about their appearances.

At the time, MoMA said that it was “well aware of the challenges posed by having nude performers in the galleries,” and that discussions had taken place “to ensure that the performers would be comfortable in the galleries at all times.”

Mr. Bonafede, 50, is a performance artist who presents works in small venues around New York. He is also a student of Tibetan painting, and helped found a nonprofit organization for children in East Tibet.

Ms. Abramovic first staged “Imponderabilia” in 1977 with her lover and collaborator Ulay. She recently presented the artwork during a retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts, in London, where it was staged with some minor alterations and a rotating cast of 37 performers. If visitors were uncomfortable passing between a naked man and woman, they were allowed to walk through another entryway to the left and skip the experience.

Ms. Abramovic told The New York Times that she had “millions of meetings” with the Royal Academy, compromising so that pieces like “Imponderabilia” could be staged. She said the changes left her feeling conflicted about modifying her artworks.

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