John Bonafede, an artist who was one of the “reperformers” participating in Marina Abramović’s legendary 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), The Artist Is Present, is suing the museum, claiming it is liable for seven incidents of sexual assault he allegedly experienced while performing there.
According to Bonafede’s complaint, filed on Monday (22 January) in New York state’s supreme court, the alleged incidents all took place while he was performing Imponderabilia (1977), a piece that involves a male performer and a female performer standing completely still and nude on either side of a narrow doorway. During the MoMA exhibition and other stagings of Imponderabilia—including Abramović’s recent exhibition at the Royal Academy in London—visitors have been encouraged to pass between the performers, which often leads to incidental physical contact between visitors and the nude performers.
According to Bonafede’s complaint, he was sexually assaulted seven times by five different visitors while performing Imponderabilia. The lawsuit claims that female performers of the piece, as well as performers participating in other parts of the exhibition, were also victims of sexual assault and “non-consensual sexual touching on a regular basis”.
According to Bonafede’s complaint, he and around 35 other reperformers who had been hired by MoMA for the piece participated in a five-day training process at a private residence owned by Abramović in upstate New York around the summer of 2009. As part of their training, the participants “were, among other austere practices, required to fast, maintain complete silence, refrain from sexual activity and not use running tap water to bathe”, according to the complaint. For Bonafede, the takeaway from the training was that he and the other performers “were expected to ‘tough it out’, regardless of what transgressions might occur during a live performance”.
Even so, the lawsuit claims that MoMA eventually hired a “stage manager” and, around one month into the run of the performance piece, created a handbook that outlined a system to “alert MoMA staff if they were the victims of non-consensual groping or sexual touching, or felt endangered”. According to the complaint, Bonafede reported four of the five alleged sexual assaults to MoMA staff, who in turn ejected the perpetrators. One of them was a corporate member of the museum, according to the complaint, and following the assault his membership was reportedly revoked. In the complaint, Bonafede says these experiences caused him to “suffer years of emotional distress, and substantially harmed [his] mental health, body image and career”.
While the alleged incidents, which took place in the spring of 2010, would have previously fallen outside the statute of limitations for filing sexual misconduct claims, a law that was in effect in New York state in 2019 and until last November last year—the Adult Survivors Act—extended this period from three to 20 years. The complaint also claims that the alleged assaults fall under the purview of New York City’s Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Act, as all of the alleged perpetrators were men and Bonafede was a victim of specifically gender-based assaults. Specifically, male performers of Imponderabilia were subjected to genital groping, the lawsuit claims, and female performers were not, although they suffered other forms of non-consensual sexual contact.
Similar accusations involving Abramović’s reperformers and visitors to MoMA were covered in the press at the time, with irreverent headlines like “Some at MoMA Show Forget ‘Look but Don’t Touch’” and “Grope dopes inside MoMA”. Even so, only minimal modifications were made to the exhibition, beyond the hiring of a stage manager and formulation of a handbook.
Bonafede is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from MoMA, as well as lawyers’ and experts’ fees, plus other costs. Representatives for Bonafede and MoMA had not responded to requests for comment as of press time.