Known to many as the Godmother of Performance Art, for nearly four decades Marina Abramović has been challenging, confronting and shocking the art world with her fearless and completely unique performance art.
The film follows the progress of the 2010 MoMA retrospective dedicated to the Serbian performance artist’s work. The documentary begins as Abramović puts the final touches to her exhibition, following the self acclaimed ‘grandmother of performance art’ (she was 63 when the film was made) whilst she creates and performs her newest piece – as well as showing glimpses of her background and private life. The MoMA exhibition features pure performance art: with re-performances, photographs and videos of her seminal works – as well as one new addition to her oeuvre.
The film traces a move away from her more theatrical style of performance – in Rhythm 5, 1974, she lay inside a five pointed star, lit it on fire and subsequently passed out due to lack of oxygen, in other pieces she cut a pentagram into her stomach and whipped herself – showing Abramović create The Artist is Present as a piece which is quietly intense: forgoing shock for other, more lasting emotions. Sitting at a wooden table, on a simple wooden chair – in a similar posse to Whistler’s Mother in Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 - the artist invites members of the public to sit opposite her at the table, one by one, repeating this ritual daily for three months; eventually she removes the table to increase her vulnerability and directness with the audience members. Abramović then stares into the eyes of her visitors unflinchingly, creating what she calls “an energy dialogue” with the audience.
The results are shocking – the film shows people moved to tears, unconsciously raising their hands to their hearts; often Abramović herself is seen with glistening eyes. It is the longest duration solo work of her career, and the physical and emotional strain she suffers is clear throughout the film; she says that at first, the mere thought of performing the piece “made [her] nauseous.” Critic Arthur Danto observes that the piece represents an entirely new experience in the History of Art – “for most masterpieces people stand in front of it for thirty seconds. Mona Lisa: thirty seconds. But people come and sit here all day“; indeed a woman stays in the seat for over three hours, infuriating the waiting people.
By the end of the documentary, director Matthew Akers has created an almost religious icon out of Abramović – her long dress is priest-like, and the audience seem to transform the museum into a place of worship, staring at the artist with the most extreme reverence. This is the main flaw in this otherwise inspiring film. The delirium and excitement of the crowds are seen – with some people sleeping on the sidewalk to get a chance to sit at the table – but only a glimpse of one of the most exciting questions raised by Abramović’s work are seen: is it art?
Akers celebrates the artist, and praises her genius for making people slow down, and reconnect, in a busy world. However, he does not pause to question the deeper reasons behind her work. Interestingly, on the extras, footage is seen of people dismissing her piece, saying it was uncomfortable and unnecessary. However, all that makes the final cut are exclamations of life changing art. A small clip of a news channel complaining about the amount of nudity in the re-performances is featured, but no criticism is heard, and the issues of feminism and identity which Abramović’s work raises are relatively ignored.
Despite this shortcoming, the film is still a hugely enlightening study of a sub-genre of Art which is often dismissed, and goes a long way in establishing Abramović’s position as a ‘serious artist’ making important works. Her motivation behind her pieces is also explored – from her childhood, to a painful divorce from her husband and collaborator Ulay – revealing a softer side to the seductive figure of the modern art-world. However, throughout the film – as ex-lover and MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach explains – “Marina is never not performing”, and this charisma and intelligence is preciusely what makes the film so watchable.
Available on DVD and digital download on 3 September 2012, courtesy of Dogwoof, Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present is a rare insight to the artist preparing for arguably the most important moment of her life. The DVD release will include amazing clips of previously unreleased footage including MOMA audience reactions; interviews with the MOMA curator and Marina’s biographer; as well the recent insightful BFI interview with director Matthew Akers. With performance art now in the forefront of the contemporary art world, this DVD is a must for art lovers and a rare chance to understand the spectacle that is Marina Abramović. In anticipation of its release, the film will be showing at The Tanks on Wednesday 29th August.
Buy your tickets for the Tate Tanks screening here.
Find out more about the film here.