MoMA Moves to Dismiss a Lawsuit Brought by a Marina Abramović Performer

John Bonafede filed a lawsuit against the museum in January, alleging he was repeatedly assaulted.

Marina Abramović at "The Artist is Present" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 2010. Photo: Will Ragozzino / Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has moved to dismiss a lawsuit filed against it by an artist who performed nude in a work by Marina Abramović.

John Bonafede, the performer, sued MoMA in New York Supreme Court in January, alleging he was sexually assaulted while performing in Imponderabilia (1977) during the 2010 retrospective, “The Artist is Present,” and that the museum did nothing to prevent it. In the performance, a nude man and woman stand opposite each other in a doorway, requiring viewers to squeeze past them.

In a memorandum supporting the motion to dismiss filed on February 27, the museum argued that Bonafede “elected to perform” in the artwork “with the expectation and understanding that MoMA patrons would have inadvertent contact with his naked body.”

“In accord with procedures established by MoMA, when certain MoMA patrons went well beyond the expected inadvertent contact and touched [Bonafede’s] genitals, he signaled MoMA security,” the memorandum read.

The museum said that it forced patrons in such instances to leave the museum and cancelled the membership of one museum member. Lawyers for MoMA called it “unfortunate” that patrons “inappropriately touched” Bonafede but said his arguments “do not give rise to any legal cause of action.”

Performer John Bonafede lies nude underneath a skeleton in the 2010 retrospective "Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present" at the Museum of Modern Art.

John Bonafede performs in “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art, 2010. Photo: Will Ragozzino/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

MoMA noted that none of the five men accused of groping Bonafede were employees of the museum and laid out its legal arguments using case law for why the motion to dismiss should be approved in the remainder of the 25-page document.

In one part of the document, MoMA lawyers said that Bonafede’s claims under New York’s Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Act fail because he cannot plausibly allege that the museum had a “gender-based animus against him.” The museum also shot down claims of a hostile work environment.

“MoMA hired a stage manager to serve as a liaison between the performers and MoMA curators,” the museum argued. “Performers and MoMA staff created a signal system to alert security in the event performers were inappropriately touched, the protocols for which were included in the performers’ handbook.”

The 2010 restaging of Imponderabilia was performed for the wildly popular Abramović retrospective titled “The Artist Is Present.” And while the performers stood only 18 inches away from each other, that gap was wider than the initial 1977 performance to allow people in wheelchairs to fit through.

The piece was “faithfully restaged” again in 2023 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London at the request of the estate of original performer Ulay, who had a 12 year-long partnership with Abramović. The latest restaging offered a secondary door for those uncomfortable with squeezing past the performers and access to a therapist for the performers.

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