There is much more to Marina Abramović than just being a ‘crazy’ and controversial performance artist. The feature-length documentary, Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, invites the audience to go behind the scenes as she prepares for a major retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010.
The grandmother and diva of performance art is shown to be an inspiring and revolutionary artist that challenges the audience. For over forty years Abramović has been pushing the limits and fending off questions about the legitimacy of her work as art. With The Artist Is Present she silences the critics once and for all. As she says in the film: “It is one thing to be ‘alternative’ when you are 20 or 30 or 40, but excuse me, I’m 63! I don’t want to be alternative anymore!”
A snapshot of her art throughout the years is shown in between preparations for her MoMA retrospective, which will include re-enactments of her most famous pieces by young performance artists. Controversy has shrouded Abramović’s career, so it was no surprise when Fox News took issue with a recreation of ‘Imponderabilia’ (1977) where audiences squeeze past a naked couple standing in a doorway.
She is renowned for creating performances that are designed to shock and are detrimental to her own health and safety. In ‘Lips of Thomas’ (1975) she cuts a star with a razor blade into her stomach and whips her back while in ‘Rhythm 0’ (1974) she tests how far the audience will go when given the chance to interact with her with one of 72 objects, including a loaded gun, feather, honey and scalpel.
However, the centrepiece of the show, ‘The Artist is Present’, was the longest-duration solo work of her career and the most mentally, emotionally and physically demanding — even though it was ‘just’ sitting for 7.5 hours a day for three months. As she says, “the hardest thing is to do something which is close to nothing”. With this monumental piece Marina sought to access a shared humanity and create an intimacy with the audience while engaging in “energy dialogues”.
At first the audience was cautious to take part, but by the end of the three month exhibition they had become hysterical and jostled with each other in order to get a chance to gaze into the eyes of this groundbreaking artist, many even waiting in line for hours before the gallery opened.
As art critic Arthur Danto so rightly observed, it was interesting to note that “for most masterpieces people stand in front of it for thirty seconds. Mona Lisa: thirty seconds. But people come and sit here all day.” Her work had unexpectedly profound effects. It moved not only her audience to tears with this intense attention but also the cinemagoers who were left questioning themselves why they were even crying, when they were not even there.
Abramović may have set out to access this shared humanity but I doubt even she expected to be able touch people in this way and evoke such strong emotional reactions, leaving us in a deep ruminating thought for days after seeing the exhibit or film.
The documentary intertwines Abramović’s love affair with artistic soulmate Ulay, with whom she collaborated on provocative art about male and female relational dynamics. In ‘Relation In Space’ (1976) they violently collide with one another repeatedly. Their professional and romantic relationship culminated in 1988 with ‘The Lovers – The Great Wall Walk’ (1988) where they walked 90 days to meet each other and upon seeing each other broke up. With this backdrop, it’s a touching moment when Ulay sits opposite Abramović and they shed a few tears together.
A series of talking heads including Abramović, Ulay, the curator Klaus Biesenbach, art critics and friends, who speak candidly about the seductive, outrageous and charming Marina and her dedication and commitment to her work. Through these interviews a portrait of the Serbian artist emerges that shows the audience that her life and work are more entwined then you would have otherwise thought, including how her childhood impacted on her in later life.
The Artist Is Present is an emotionally powerful film that is well executed and briskly edited. It takes the audience on a journey and draws them into the drama and stillness surrounding Abramović. It shed light on the art world, the artists, critics and the audience and how they all interact. This compelling film will move you in ways you had not imagined and in the words of Ulay, you will be left with nothing, “only respect”.
Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present screens at 2pm, Saturday November 24 at the Tribal Theatre. To book tickets go to http://tix.biff.com.au/. The Brisbane International Film Festival is on until November 24.
This article is also available on scenestr at http://www.scenestr.com.au/lifestyle/arts/arts-brisbane/marina-abramovic-review