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  • Lying with a Speaking Spine: Reperforming Marina Abramovic's Nude with Skeleton
  • Gwyneth J. Shanks (bio)

I lie in stillness, the curve of my lumbar spine flatting to reach the smooth surface below me on each exhalation. My spine speaks in breathy whispers, whispers that attest to a longing to reach up and merge with the exposed plastic skeleton's spine that lies atop my body. My spine reaches up to this other, this plastic twin.

The bony protuberances of my body—my shoulder blades, my vertebrae—pulse upwards against my skin, seeking a way out. Likewise, this other spine reaches down, attempts to burrow through my flesh—its plastic bones feeling the vibrations of my spine's whispered calls. My flesh is caught in the middle of this spinal desire to merge. The flesh's desire to remain unmarred ignored, as the plastic bones sink into my chest, the bony vertebrae digging into my breasts, sternum, stomach like so many small sharp shovels.

My spine speaks of this experience—of these whispered, breathy calls to its plastic other, speaks also of the impossibility of those calls. My spine is still, after all, encased in my fleshy body. My spine, my body, speaks of, testifies to this experience; weeks later, my body still bore the bruises, the marks of the two spines' desire to intertwine.

On 12 November 2011, I lay on a large, shiny, white, rotating, circular dining table, one of six women who reperformed performance artist Marina Abramovic's Nude with Skeleton.1 The six of us, along with some eighty other performers, were part of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Arts 2011 Gala. I lay almost four hours, naked in the center of one of six VIP tables at the Gala, a life-size plastic skeleton atop my body. The reperformance of Nude with Skeleton was, in Abramovic's explanation, an offering of mortality to the guests. In the piece a naked (female) body lies in stillness, a life-size plastic skeleton atop her body. This juxtaposition is meant to literalize an ever-present specter of mortality: the decayed skeleton body lying atop a still-breathing alive body. Abramovic's intention for the Gala, as she articulated it to the performers, was to transform the typically entertaining space of a museum gala into one of discomfort for the guests. Along with those of us who reperformed Nude with Skeleton, other performers crouched [End Page 109] beneath dining tables, only their heads visible: the performers a grotesque perversion of table centerpieces. All of us were instructed to stare back at the guests seated around our respective tables. The hope was that the dinner guests might feel the uncomfortable, voyeuristic power of their own gaze as the "art" stared back.

As a performance studies scholar, I find myself uniquely situated to critically engage with the 2011 MOCA Gala, attending to the problematic economic and gendered components of the event, which can be seen as emblematic of larger art world practices. Drawing upon the theoretical tools performance studies offers—an attention to material conditions, time, and the corporeal, among others—this essay critically attends to the politics of the performance through my sensorial experience. My reperformance of Nude with Skeleton at the MOCA Gala could never only be about my bodily experience, could never only be about the endurance feat of durational performance. Rather, like Maurice Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological body, which is constituted by and through its existence in the material world, my reperformance was uniquely constituted by and through the environment of the Gala.2 The first part of this essay, entitled "Material Gaze," charts the material conditions of the Gala, exploring the relationality—the gaze—between performers and guests. The essay's second half, "Paradoxical Flesh," theorizes my own sensorial experience, drawing upon the work of theorist José Gíl, as a means to explore the political efficacy of durational performance.

Like Nude with Skeleton, which juxtaposes the fleshy living body with a plastic skeleton, I envision this essay's move between criticality and experiential prose as paralleling the work's distinct elements. My experience of reperforming the work underscored the extent to which, sensorially, these...


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