Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present – Movie Review

Although appealing to narrow slice of art aficionados, “Abramovic’ carries a deeper message, and a warning, to an increasing mechanized and medicated world.

An official section at Sundance 2012, “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” examines the work of the world renowned performance artist as she prepares to be present, in the extreme, for a three month retrospective of her work at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) from March to May of 2010.

New Yorkers remember this as the event during which those attending had to push through a man and a woman, both completely nude, in order to move through the exhibit. The two were so close it was impossible to move between them without touching. This representation of forced touching is a reflection of the artist’s interpretation of her life in performance art. It is a day in and day out interaction with others. This interaction was not so much chosen, as it was dictated.

It is part and parcel of a deal made with God, and the devil, that paves the path to self-actualization that is the only hope for the artist. That particular work was originally performed by the artist herself and fellow performance artist Ulay, whose works also had a place in the retrospective.

After squeezing through the two nudes, the viewers worked their way to the inner chamber where the artist silently engaged them one on one, one at a time. When the exhibit opened, only the most fervent of Abramovic’s fans lined up to sit opposite her in the bare room and reflect with her for the five to fifteen minutes allowed. As time went on, the crowds swelled. By the end of the exhibit, hopefuls lined up on the sidewalk outside of MOMA during the night, dozing fitfully on the cement in hopes of getting a place in line close enough to be inside that day’s quota.

The art maker and the art consumer sat in chairs opposite one another with a small table in between. The two were in the center of a square about the size of a small boxing ring, delineated only by a thin strip of tape on the floor. The tape became their world and their performance art. Towards the end of the three month exhibit, the table was removed, bringing the two closer together. The last interaction was with Ulay, her lover and collaborator for fifteen years.

With every person, the performance changed. There were young and old, children and adults. One woman took off her clothes and was led out. After all, there has to be some security. This is not a circus. Or, is it? That question brings us to the crux of the film, and of the artist’s life. The question of what constitutes art. Perhaps on one level art is contact, itself. Perhaps it is all about the interaction and not about the medium at all.

The artist engaged the public in this way for a grueling three months, seven and a half hours a day, every day the museum was open. Person after person, looking into her eyes, doing their best to plumb her message, and transmitting their own message to her at the same time. Thousands of messages from the public to the artist. The artist was present; although there might have been times she wished she were not.

Debut director Matthew Akers does faithful service in making a lively and engaging film about subject matter that is primarily static. The challenge is to take motionless media and bring it alive with the spirit of the artist, who all agree has spirit to spare. The film covers the feisty 1970’s, those years when the artist’s work including driving around a Belgrade square in a van shouting out numbers over a loudspeaker. It also includes her work of self-mutilation and self-flagellation, her representation of the world’s unspoken attitudes towards women everywhere.

Akers initially was skeptical of Abramovic’s work, aware of the fine line between performance art and performing. As it turned out, the artist allowed him unpatrolled and virtually unlimited access to do his work. He followed her through six countries over ten months shooting hundreds of hours of her interactions with family and friends, including her reconnection with Ulay. The film includes interviews with leaders in modern art including Ulay and Klaus Biesenbach, the MOMA curator who conceived, titled and organized “The Artist is Present.”

The “grandmother of performance art” has much to tell her children. However, her children are impatient and are rapidly learning to interact with flashing machines more than their fellow humans. How much of this much is communication and how much is theatre will be a determination made by each viewer, for himself or herself.

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Directed by: Matthew Akers
Starring: Marina Abramovic, Ulay and Klaus Biesenbach
Release Date: June 15, 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Country: USA
Language: English
Color: Black and White