“Imponderable. Such imponderable human factors as one’s aesthetic sensitivity/the overriding importance of imponderables in determining human conduct.”
In their fascinating performance piece Imponderabilia (1977), Marina Abramovic and Ulay stand naked face to face in the narrow doorway of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Bologna. To enter the museum they must squeeze between the two naked artists, choosing to face the man or the woman, meanwhile a camera documents their choice. At once humorous and disturbing, the performance is a study of human behavior where the spectators become the subject. The vulnerability that usually surrounds a nude figure is transferred to the clothed visitor squeezing between Marina and Ulay.
In 1975 Marina Abramovic met Ulay, an artist who shared her date of birth as well as her artistic concerns. Over the next two decades they lived and collaborated together, performing and traveling extensively. Their performances explored the parameters of power and dependency within the triangular relationship between each other and their audience.
In one performance, Breathing In/Breathing Out (1977), with their mouths clamped tightly together and microphones taped to their throats, Abramovic and Ulay breathed in turn the air from each other’s lungs, until – almost to the point of suffocation – they were exchanging only carbon dioxide. In another, Rest Energy (1980), they held a taut bow with an arrow loaded and pointing at Abramovic’s heart, with only the weight of their bodies maintaining the tension. Microphones recorded their rapidly accelerating heartbeats.
Text from Lacan
After a 12-year relationship fuelled by passion that could rival the greatest lovers in history, they finally agreed to part ways forever. For their last artistic collaboration they decided to each walk 2,500 miles from either end of The Great Wall of China, and meet in the middle to say their goodbyes. The 2012 documentary, The Artist is Present, reveals the moment when Ulay and Marina are reunited 20 years later in New York on the days leading up to her retrospective show.
Now living separate lives, the chemistry between them is still palpable. On the opening night of her show, when she begins her three-month stint in the wooden chair, staring people in the eyes, Ulay turns up and sits opposite her, creating a seriously epic, utterly real interaction between two past soulmates, brought together again by the art that joined them when they met.
‘We are kneeling face to face, pressing our mouths together. Our noses are blocked with cigarette filters. I am breathing in oxygen. I am breathing out carbon dioxide.’
In their performance piece Breathing In/Breathing Out Marina Abramovic and Ulay blocked their noses with cigarette filters and clamped their mouths tightly together, breathing in and out each other’s air. After seventeen minutes they both fell to the floor unconscious. The viewers could sense the tension through the sound of their breathing, which was augmented through microphones attached to their chests. Is it a beautiful romantic gesture or a comment on how relationships absorb and destroy an individual?
“Something tender and violent at the same time emerges from the performance: the couple are decided to stick together despite the effort, the danger, the damage; but as is the case with human relations of this kind of intensity, they end up with violence, pain, and a part of each other ‘dead’. It is the idea of interdependency portrayed to its extreme.” Interartive