An artist who appeared nude in a Marina Abramović piece sues MoMA, alleging it failed to protect him from sexual assault

An artist who appeared nude in a highly publicized piece by famed performance artist Marina Abramović is suing New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) after he said he was sexually assaulted during the 2010 event.

In the lawsuit obtained by CNN, New York artist John Bonafede claims MoMA didn’t do enough to protect him and fellow nude artists from assault. The suit comes almost 14 years after the performances took place. (The New York Adult Survivors Act, which allows victims of alleged sexual assault to sue after the statute of limitations has lapsed, expired in November, but the suit clarifies that the case received an extension.)

Bonafede appeared in the 2010 reenactment of Abramović’s “Imponderabilia,” a piece in which two artists stand fully nude in a narrow doorway as visitors are encouraged to squeeze between the two naked bodies to enter the exhibit.

“Imponderabilia” was one part of “The Artist is Present,” a larger MoMA exhibition celebrating Abramović’s storied career. Abramović’s work has often featured nudity, stillness and viewer interactions designed to challenge audiences about their notions of gender, sexuality and the human body.

Bonafede claimed in the suit that he was sexually assaulted by five museumgoers on seven occasions during the two-and-a-half-month run of “The Artist is Present.” He said he reported four of the attendees to security, and MoMA staffers allegedly witnessed the fifth person’s actions. According to the suit, these attendees were ejected from the performance.

But most of the corrective actions occurred after the assaults took place, the performer claims, and MoMA “did nothing to protect (Bonafede) and other ‘Imponderabilia’ performers from being assaulted in the first place.”

“John believes there should be edgy performance art like this in major institutions,” said Jordan Fletcher, Bonafede’s lawyer. “But he also believes that the performers must be taken care of and their safety ensured. That means having conversations about risks ahead of time, and, if something isn’t working, being willing to revisit the issue and change course mid-stream.”

CNN has reached out to MoMA and the Marina Abramović Institute for comment and is awaiting responses. Abramović is not a defendant in the suit.

Bonafede claims in the lawsuit that when performers were training with Abramović ahead of the 2010 exhibition, they learned she had been assaulted during a previous performance. In her 1974 piece “Rhythm Zero,” the artist had famously allowed audiences to do whatever they wanted with her body along with 72 objects, from roses to nails to a pistol with one bullet, for six hours. Attendees cut off her clothes, sliced her with sharp objects and placed the loaded weapon in her hand, positioning it toward her chest.

Bonafede says in the suit he was made to understand during the training that performers were “expected to ‘tough it out’” regardless of how attendees behaved toward them.

Several “Imponderabilia” performers reported being groped during the 2010 exhibit. One performer told the New York Times in 2010 that a patron had grabbed his rear and told him that he “felt good,” and another told the publication they caught an attendee taking a waist-high photo of performers’ nude bodies.

Still, many of the performers said at the time that MoMA “had been extremely vigilant in its efforts to protect them.” Bonafede was not quoted in the article.

Abramović’s “Imponderabilia” was originally staged in 1977 at the Galleria Communale d’Arte Moderna, in Bologna, Italy, with Abramović and her former partner, the late German performance artist Ulay. The piece was restaged in December 2023 at London’s Royal Academy of Arts for an Abramović retrospective.

Of the newest version of “Imponderabilia,” a Time Out London reporter wrote: “It’s so intrusive, so full of questions of intimacy, misogyny and closeness, that it’s almost stomach turning.”

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