Digital Image 2010 MoMA, N.Y.
What Heather Kravas experienced now is what Marina Abramovic experienced then. Back in 1977, when Abramovic and her lover-collaborator Ulay were not famous, they created a piece of performance art called Imponderabilia by standing, naked, in a narrow doorway at the entrance to a gallery in Bologna, Italy. They got their feet stepped on and their nipples brushed by bags as people squeezed by—so did Kravas, for two and a half months this spring at the Museum of Modern Art, as one of the army of "re-performers" of Abramovic's past works during the most sensational art show of the year, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present.
Abramovic—at this point a performance-art superstar known for all manner of feats, including walking the Great Wall of China as a breakup ritual, having an arrow drawn and pointed at her heart, fasting and living in public for weeks on end, and inviting viewers to use an array of tools on her body in any way they chose until she was almost shot—was, in fact, present at MoMA. And it's not as if she had it easy: The 63-year-old sat at a table in the galleries for 716 hours (every hour the show was open for the entire run) while people lined up to sit across from her. People cried, wrote about it, were photographed: Younger people tended toward serious expressions, older people (especially older women) tended to smile. A man named Paco had the number of times he sat with Abramovic—21—tattooed on his arm.
Kravas, a performance artist from Pullman, Washington, who lives in Seattle for part of the year, was in MoMA's other galleries, performing. She did four pieces: Imponderabilia, the nude doorway piece from 1977; Point of Contact (1980), in which two standing performers face and point, their fingers almost touching; Luminosity (1997), which has a naked performer perched, arms spread, on a bicycle seat mounted on the wall; and Relation in Time (1977), two performers sitting back to back with their hair tied together.
The re-performer gig began with an interview with Abramovic in a dark room; no one could figure out how to turn on the lights. Kravas and a few others were asked general questions, sniffed out, and hired to work the show. The conservatism of the museum environment was quickly revealed. The naked doorway at MoMA was only one of several possible entrances, and the doorway was widened, a betrayal the performers mitigated by moving subtly, secretly, closer together.
In the very first week, performers were fainting. They were not overly concerned, but the museum's HR department immediately shortened their shifts from three hours to one or two. Security guards were overprotective, too, but in a sweet way—they had to be reminded that bags smacking already-sore boobs was part of the deal. Only this way could the re-performers stay true to what was going on. "My job, I felt, was just to be exactly who I was in that moment," Kravas said.
During those long hours, Kravas was alternatively bored, pissed, and joyful. She began to cry when, in a painful moment, she shifted her back, and the performer whose hair was tied to hers responded in a way that made the pain worse. It seemed a signal of those moments between two people when communication is impossible.
One day, naked and high up on the bike seat with her arms spread wide, Kravas noticed a woman standing beneath her, and Kravas suddenly had a strong feeling that this woman had recently lost a parent. They locked eyes, and Kravas silently tried to open up, to get across the message that for these few moments, she would be whatever this woman wanted her to be. The woman, leaning on her husband, began to cry and shake. After a long time, Kravas decided to let the woman go. She turned her eyes away. Later, in the break room, she cried and shook, too.
Heather Kravas is working on a performance for 60 women called They Follow Me Everywhere! It will premiere at PS122 in New York next year.
This article has been updated since its original publication.