Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
Matthew Akers, director
Feature length documentary w/Abramovic, Ulay
It’s hard to believe that the still strikingly beautiful Marina Abramovic is 65 years old and is now called “the grandmother of performance art.” But it’s true. It’s been 38 years since the Serbian artist placed 72 objects in front of her including a gun, a rose, scissors and a scalpel and invited the audience to do anything to her body for the next six hours. Of course, gradually intensive violence took place all over her body—but Abramovic survived and soon after moved to Amsterdam where she met Ulay, who became her soul mate and artistic partner until 1988. They parted in the most dramatic way possible, walking from either side of the Great Wall of China, meeting halfway, hugging, and declaring quits to their relationship.
Matthew Akers has created a stunning documentary of Abramovic, capturing the contradictory spirit of an artist who has tested her body and soul far beyond normal expectations only to find herself—shockingly—one of the most glamorous figures in the contemporary visual image world. Akers followed Abramovic as she created “The Artist is Present,” her brilliant performance piece, which highlighted a retrospective of her work at New York’s prestigious Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). In it, Abramovic sat silently, looking intently at the changing occupants of the chair across from her, initially gallery goers but increasingly her fans, for the entire three-months of the exhibition.
The piece could define the conflicting nature of performance art. To disinterested observers, it looks like a stunt, but if you participate in Abramovic’s (or any fine artist’s) provocations, you find that you’re caught up emotionally in the situation—and you learn things about yourself. Akers’ camera catches a myriad of responses to the apparently simple situation of sitting opposite to Abramovic, silently, for minutes at a time. People laugh, some cry, others try to make Abramovic speak or change expression. The encounters are intense and, quite often, emotionally draining.
Adding fuel to Abramovic’s stressful but exciting retrospective is the return of Ulay into her life. For the first time in two decades, the once inseparable duo meet—and it is Ulay who inaugurates the silent dialogue of “the artist is present.” Using the material acquired by MOMA for the retrospective (and other sources), Akers shows some of their collaborations as well as some solo work that Abramovic has made since their split-up.
Moving to the U.S. after the break-up with Ulay, Abramovic has gradually become an icon in the American art world. She’s now a wealthy, influential woman, who dresses stylishly and attends some of the best Manhattan parties. Akers’ doc shows that, despite her material success, Marina Abramovic is still a radical soul. His film is a strong, valid statement about the changing nature of art in the 21st century. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present is a film well worth seeing—and supporting.