The Performer Laid Bare

Wing-Sproul, performing Nude With Skeleton.Photo: Edward Keating/Contact Press for New York Magazine

I am a performance artist myself, and it’s unusual for me to participate in someone else’s work. When I stumbled on MoMA’s casting call, I responded because I’d been steeped in Marina’s work for a long time. My own pieces are very slow-moving. I’m doing one now called Tidal Culture, where I film my own still sittings by the ocean, and make objects out of algae.

After I sent in a résumé, I met with Marina. It was very conversational, with no formal audition. She was just trying to get a feel for each of us. For preparation, Marina invited us to a retreat at her place in the Hudson Valley last August. It was five days spent primarily in silence and without food. We did a series of durational exercises, practicing how to be slow and fully present and to work through physical discomfort. We slept on the barn floor and bathed in a stream in the morning as a group, always with Marina. We wouldn’t know at the onset of many of the exercises, which included counting grains of rice or sitting blindfolded, whether they would be for fifteen minutes or three hours. We never rehearsed. Instead, Marina would make general notes about energy, tempo, or gaze, with tips like “don’t lock your knees” and other things to keep the blood moving. We are not actors, and these aren’t replicas—they’re reinterpretations, so we’re not trying to reproduce her exact movements.

The first piece I performed at MoMA was Nude With Skeleton, in which the skeleton lies on top of me, moving as I breathe. I don’t usually perform nude, and I am a fairly modest person, but once I enter the work, it stops being about that. What I remember distinctly was the weight of the skull on my head. I was in agony. But I was also really struck by people’s involvement. One day, a woman, probably 65 or 70, stood as close to me as she legally could and said, “You’re so brave. You’re not vain, like me.” And she just talked, confessing her criticisms of herself. That piece tends to bring out a lot in people. Even children: I once had a mother stop with her 3-year-old and say, “Just watch the breath.”

My experience during Skeleton goes back and forth between lightness and gravity. There are euphoric moments and then intensely sad feelings of heaviness. Whatever you’re feeling becomes intensified. Certain truths about things I need to fix in my life are revealed to me. Marina says that in her own life she’s not so disciplined—that the performance gives her structure.

Where do I focus? In Skeleton, I just let my eyes go in a natural direction. If I feel someone slowing down, really wanting to engage with the work, I will close my eyes very slowly and open them and look at that person. And after some period of time, they feel the exchange is complete. People come with a tremendous number of feelings, and I become a vessel—I take in their sadness, guilt, grief, judgment. Sometimes I feel that I’m supporting the audience, and sometimes I feel that the audience is supporting me. Viewers have wept or sort of bowed or mouthed the words “thank you.”

That’s also happened in Luminosity [in which the performer sits on a bicycle seat suspended on a wall, arms outstretched]. There’s no time for any mind chatter in that piece, which brings a survival component with it—“I’m staying up here! And I’m not falling!” The sheer risk forces the mind not to be busy. Pain roots a person. There are times I feel hungry or something physical will happen, and I’ll be like, “Uh-oh! I’d better not pay attention to that.” It doesn’t ever move in and take over. A distracted mind doesn’t dominate.

Imponderabilia [in which two nude performers stand flanking a narrow doorway] is not as still as the other pieces. When people walk through, you’re constantly readjusting, a little bit here, a little bit there. The intent or the energy or the aggressiveness of the audience becomes very visible. First it becomes about “Can I get past these two nude bodies? Do I have the guts to do this?” Some people hold their breath and dive through. They feel it’s an accomplishment just to get through. But by not lingering, they miss the opportunity to slow down and make eye contact with a performer.

I perform six days in a row, every other week. It doesn’t look like it takes a lot of energy, but it’s exhausting, and involves all these decisions. Food, for example: You don’t want to faint because you didn’t eat, but you also don’t want a stomachache from eating the wrong thing. (I work better a little hungry, so I eat breakfast and skip lunch, snacking on staple foods like bananas.) During the initial performances, you experience numbness and pain. We all learn how to make adjustments, push through, hold onto body heat. Nobody ever said, “Don’t break your performances whatsoever.” Quite the opposite: If you feel sick, you stop.

The concerns about our health and safety—whether in terms of the audience or fainting or falling—are very real, and I feel really lucky. I haven’t been ill, I haven’t pulled a muscle, I haven’t had anything interrupt me. I can’t go into details about our security people, the museum guards, but suffice to say that they’ve worked very diligently to ensure that we’re not distracted. And the very few things that have happened [where performers have been touched inappropriately] were not horrific on any level. But that’s as specific as I want to get; to say more is to shift the attention to the behavior rather than the work itself.

Most of all, we are carrying out Marina’s intent. I think for many of us that’s in the back of our minds: Is this what Marina wants? If she were to see a tape of the entire three months, would she be happy?

Jerry Saltz on “The Artist
Is Present”

Performance Artist Tells All
How Did Marina
Abramovic Pee?

How the Red-Velvet
Rope Works

Wing-Sproul, performing Imponderabilia …

and Luminosity.

Photos: Edward Keating/Contact Press for New York Magazine

As told to Rachel Wolff.

The Performer Laid Bare