John Bonafede, an artist and re-performer/participant in Marina Abramović’s renowned 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), The Artist Is Present, has filed a lawsuit against the institution. Bonafede alleges that the museum is responsible for seven incidents of sexual assault he endured while performing in Abramović’s exhibition.
The complaint, filed on Monday in New York State’s supreme court, asserts that the alleged incidents occurred during Bonafede’s participation in Imponderablia (1977). This performance art piece involves a male and female performer standing motionless and nude on either side of a narrow doorway, inviting visitors to pass between them, often resulting in inadvertent physical contact.
Bonafede claims to have been sexually assaulted seven times by five different visitors while performing Imponderablia. Shockingly, the lawsuit contends that female performers in the same piece, as well as those involved in other segments of the exhibition, also fell victim to sexual assault and “non-consensual sexual touching regularly.”
The lawsuit details that Bonafede and approximately 35 other re-performers hired by MoMA for the exhibition underwent a rigorous five-day training process at Abramović’s residence in upstate New York in the summer of 2009. Participants were subjected to a rigorous programme that included fasting, maintaining silence, abstaining from sexual activity, and refraining from using running tap water for bathing.
Despite the challenging training conditions, Bonafede’s complaint argues that MoMA eventually hired a “stage manager” and developed a handbook outlining procedures to alert staff if performers were victims of non-consensual touching. Bonafede reported four of the alleged assaults to MoMA staff, leading to the ejection of the perpetrators, including a corporate member of the museum.
These disturbing experiences, as outlined in the complaint, had lasting consequences on Bonafede’s emotional well-being, mental health, body image, and career. While the incidents occurred in the spring of 2010, they would have exceeded the statute of limitations for filing sexual misconduct claims. However, the Adult Survivors Act, in effect in New York state from 2019 until last November, extended this period from three to 20 years.
The lawsuit also argues that the alleged assaults fall under New York City’s Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Act, asserting that the incidents were specifically gender-based. The lawsuit claims that male performers of Imponderablia faced genital groping, distinct from the experiences of their female counterparts.
Similar accusations involving Abramović’s re-performers and visitors to MoMA were reported in the press during the exhibition, prompting minimal modifications to the exhibition’s setup.
Bonafede is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from MoMA, legal fees and other associated costs. As of press time, representatives for Bonafede and MoMA have not responded to requests for comment.