I walked into this refreshing documentary not knowing much of anything about its subject, dubbed the “grandmother of performance art“, Marina Abramovic. I really should have paid more attention to that girl I dated briefly in college who was all about her. I don’t doubt that she probably made the trek to New York’s famous Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) two years ago to see Abramovic’s performance in “The Artist is Present“, an in-the-moment work that spanned 3 months and that had somewhere in the neighborhood of 750,000 people go and experience it.
This documentary essentially covers that exhibition in New York from 2010 and we’re lead there through archival footage and in interviews conducted with Abramovic by the movie’s director, Matthew Akers. He mostly hangs back and follows her, preferring to have her express herself, whereas perhaps with a director with more experience, maybe she would have been challenged a bit more.
The first half or so of the film digs into Abramovic’s early life, a Serbian born in Belgrade who later relocated to New York, she recounts old stories from her strict parents where she was left at a young age feeling like a life of order and repetition was just not for her. In her formative years, she tells of her deep yearning for affection from the outside world, having grown up with an unfeeling mother who worked in the military and survived WWII, and who was just from a different time when the notion of expressing warmth and love to one’s child was seen as “spoiling” them. They weren’t abusive folks, just strict military parents; her father a decorated national hero, her mother an army major, the two of them anti-fascist partisans acclaimed in Yugoslavia at the time.
Tall, striking, charming and whip-smart, we spend time with Abramovic in her studio, at home, and even in the bathtub as she passionately explains her art, its evolution, the use of the body, the power of the mind, and the notion of the dividing line between an audience and the artist.
In the 60′s and into the 70′s, Abramovic joined the European avant-garde where she became somewhat famous for her fearless and sometimes violent performances. In one archival video we see her sitting at a desk with one hand with its fingers spread wide open and palm down while the other hand wields a knife that she begins hammering down in-between her fingers. And then she accelerates the pace in a thrilling piece where we find ourselves fascinated by what we’re seeing, but disturbed by the fact that at any moment she just might stab herself. Sometimes she would injure herself, and we see a few clips of such footage as well.
In another performance, she lays out an array of objects and tools and over the course of that performance run she has people choose an object and use her body as a canvas or as an outlet to experiment with that object in an exercise having to do with control and interaction.
In addition to her own testimonials here, the film collects interviews from art historians, dealers and curators, most notably Klaus Biesenbach, the energetic impresario who helped put together the MoMA performance and who once shared a brief love affair with Abramovic.
The meatier love story embedded within the film was one shared throughout the 70′s and 80′s between herself and German performance artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen, known as Ulay. They clicked immediately (indeed, they appeared to be one of those couples that even looked alike) and were lovers as well as artistic collaborators. Ulay enters the film throughout this sequence to help narrate both their personal and professional lives, and I was struck by how ready he was to admit that his philandering, among other things, was responsible for the disintegration of the relationship, even if it appeared beforehand that the two were shooting stars meant to go their own way at some point anyway.
The dry, gray-bearded Ulay is the best supporting player in The Artist is Present, and his reunion with Abramovic at MoMA is touching. But the real power here lies in the fascination with the MoMA piece that provides the title of this doc. For 3 months, the daily spectacle of Abramovic sitting economically in her chair while one visitor is allowed from the rope lines to take their turn across from her in that large, open gallery space is fascinating on its terms for watching the connection or lack of connection between the individual audience member and herself. But also in a macro sense, we’re pulled into the ultimate strangeness of the logistics of herding all these people as well as staging the entire performance.
I watched in mostly stunned silence, contemplating whether I could participate in such a performance. If the audience and the artist lose their dividing line, is it still performance? Is it art, or just an experience made for public viewing? Perhaps a more gifted documentarian, such as Werner Herzog or Errol Morris might have been able to get inside those questions better, but that’s a minor quibble in an overall intriguing documentary about Marina Abramovic, a subject, an individual, a performance artist you’ll never forget after you’ve seen this movie.
*** (out of 4)