Far from being a mere document, Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present, Matthew Akers's film about "the grandmother of performance art" Marina Abramović's massively popular (750,000 visitors) 2010 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, is itself a moving work of art, visually and emotionally powerful. The documentary gives us a crash course on Abramović's pioneering work and details her extensive preparations for the show which, among other purposes, was intended to once and for all assert performance art's proper place as a legitimate and respected art form alongside painting, sculpture, photography, and video art. Abramović at one point remarks that at this late date, she is no longer asked the rather insulting question, "But why is this art?" as much as she used to be. However, she still feels that performance art is still often relegated to the fringes of the art world, and regarded as "alternative." "I'm 63! I don't want to be alternative anymore!" she laments.
Abramović's medium, her canvas if you will, is the human body, both her own and those of other collaborators. Over the years, she has put her body in dangerous and potentially fatal situations, subjecting it to cuts and mutilations, performing such acts as lying in a pentagram of fire, and putting it through a series of endurance tests, one of which forms the new piece she debuts at her MoMA show. The fact that she has gone through bodily endurance tests results in one rather curious episode of the documentary, in which Abramović briefly flirts with collaborating with superstar magician and illusionist David Blaine, who himself has made media spectacles of human endurance stunts. She is quickly talked out of his by her gallerist Sean Kelly, who believes Blaine's art is all about fakery and illusion. "What you do is all real," Kelly says.
Kelly's notion of the reality-based nature of Abramović's art is given ample support throughout the film, which delves into her personal background and relationships; these not only inform and inspire her art, but are well-nigh inseparable from it. Abramović was raised by parents who were in the military; after her father's death, her mother raised her and her siblings with stringent discipline, and with very little affection. One commentator in the film theorizes that this forms much of the driving impetus for her art; her need for love and attention, and the reason that so many of her performances involve interactions with the public, seems to derive from her lack of it as a child.
One major period of Abramović's career and her personal life is her collaboration with the German performance artist Ulay; they created pieces together for the entire length of their romantic relationship, for 12 years from 1976 to 1988. These works took their artistic explorations to a new level, delving deeply into concepts concerning the self and relations with others, and the intersections of personal and artistic identity. These pieces, much like Abramović's solo works, also involved audience interaction; the 1977 work "Imponderabilia," (recreated for the MoMA show) consisted of two nude performers (originally Abramović and Ulay) standing in a doorway in close proximity. Visitors would have to squeeze through and directly brush against their naked flesh. Their tumultuous relationship was often reflected in their performances, and they ended their relationship publicly and in grand dramatic fashion in 1988, by taking an epic walk across the Great Wall of China. Abramović and Ulay started their walk from opposite ends and met in the middle, after which they parted company. Their re-encounter after many years apart is documented in Akers' film, and the weight of their mutual personal history is quite palpable in their interactions.
Marina Abramović's MoMA show, which ran from March through May 2010, was a retrospective in which other performance artists recreated many of her major works, alongside videos of Abramović herself performing them. These other performers were trained extensively at Abramović's home in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, where they were put through fasting, meditation, water immersion, and other preparations. The centerpiece of the retrospective was a new piece performed by Abramović herself called "The Artist is Present." For each day of the retrospective, for 7½ hours a day, Abramović sat immobile in a chair, silent, without taking breaks for eating, drinking, or using the bathroom, while members of the public were invited to sit in the chair opposite her, Abramović and her sitting partner staring in each other's eyes. A probable antecedent for this piece was one performed by Abramović and Ulay entitled "Nightsea Crossing," a series of 22 performances in different venues from 1981 to 1987, where the two performers would sit across a table from one another while spectators watched them. Abramović's new piece performed at MoMA at first also had a table separating Abramović from the other sitter; she later asked that it be taken away, which increased the intense intimacy of the piece. At first, members of the public could sit for as long as they liked in front of her; as the retrospective grew more popular and the media circus around it increased, and as the show began winding to a close, time limits were eventually imposed. One of the most moving passages of the film occurs when Ulay sits opposite Abramović, as one of the first participants. The silent expressions exchanged between them have a portentousness that comes through very strongly to the viewer.
The most remarkable, and rather unexpected, aspect of the piece is the effect it has on those who sit opposite Abramović. Perfect strangers experience an intense emotional bond with the artist for the time that they sit opposite her, and many are brought to tears; so many, in fact, that a Tumblr blog was created called "Marina Abramović Made Me Cry
." The documentary includes a number of montages of the faces, filmed portrait style, of those who sat opposite Abramović, and the collective emotion visible on these faces is very artfully arranged by Akers, and moves the viewer emotionally. The show also had a great impact on the spectators surrounding the scene, many of whom would sit for hours watching, and who often camped out the night before to gain entrance to the museum, either to be a sitter or participate in the scene. The paradoxical nature of the intimacy of the two sitters staring into each other's eyes in silence which occurs in full view of the public also comes through as a powerful theme of the work. Abramović also comments in this work, and verbally in the film, on how modern life moves so quickly, exacerbated by technology and social media, that were are never given space to slow down and reflect. This rapidity has also infected museum-going as well; one commentator in the film notes that the average time spectators spend on looking at even the most supreme masterworks is about 30 seconds. Abramović's work provided a space for the sort of reflection and contemplation seldom afforded in our daily lives; for those that sat opposite her, it was a chance for pure and personal human interaction, one that obviously affected many people very deeply. "The Artist is Present" represented a call for a "slow art" movement, or even a "slow life" movement, offering an alternative to our busy, chatter-filled, heavily mediated existence.
Matthew Akers has created a rather extraordinary work in his own right with Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present. He combines archival material, behind the scenes preparation, and footage of the show itself with breathtaking visual acuity, thorough analysis, and an artistry that nearly equals that of its subject. Unlike many other artist documentaries, this isn't simply a derivative by-product of an artist's life or a museum show. It stands on its own as a monumental work, and almost defies the term "documentary" to describe it. The film doesn't simply record; it draws inspiration from the work that engendered its existence, and communicates its own unique vision to us of the power of great art to move people and transform lives.
Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present
is now playing at Film Forum in New York through June 26. It will also be broadcast on HBO on July 2. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Film Forum's website