Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present

Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present


Reviewed by: Sophie Monks Kaufman

The Artist Is Present would be perfect in a double bill with Steve McQueen’s Shame because everything about Marina Abramovic is the opposite of shame. In 2010, for seven hours a day, for six days a week for three months, the Serbian performance artist sat silently on a chair in New York’s Museum of Modern Art while members of the public queued to sit on the chair opposite.

Even viewed on a screen, the enigma of a 63-year-old woman placing herself in this situation is compelling. “People ask why is she doing this and that’s endlessly interesting,” says exhibition curator Klaus Biesenbach.

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This was the final exhibit in MoMA’s extensive career retrospective also featuring re-performances of a selection of nearly four decades worth of controversial works. Matthew Akers’ all-seeing documentary cleverly mimics the form of the museum’s retrospective by saving the most revealing facts about Abramovic until professional and personal context is established.

Originally from Belgrade, Abramovic grew up in a military household to which both her discipline and unquenchable thirst for rebellion in the form of performance can be attributed. As the ever-insightful Klaus, one of many warm but analytical interviewees, soberly announces: “She needs the audience like she needs air to breathe. It’s the gasoline she runs on.”

Akers appreciates the link between the personality of the artist and the extreme nature of her performances. This is a woman who carved a pentagram onto her stomach with a razor and walked 2,500 kilometres along the Great Wall of China, meeting her lover, Ulay in the middle for one final time before a split. The documentary gives you the space to examine your attitude towards Abramovic. Is she brilliant and innovative or self-important and insane?

Abramovic welcomes the documentary, appearing frequently in frank interviews and allowing the film crew into her home while the artists that will re-perform her work for the MoMA retrospective are given extreme training. Like a friendly drill sergeant, she guides her underlings through the psychology behind hardcore performances. Essential are “stamina to conquer weakness” and the creation of a “charismatic space”.

Charisma is certainly not something that Abramovic lacks. The reactions we see by those who queue to sit opposite her are extraordinary; people cry and fall in love, one girl strips naked to make herself as “vulnerable to her as she makes herself to others”. Actors James Franco and Orlando Bloom join the queue and as the three months draw to a close, queues twist outside the building with people camping out all night for the chance to sit in Abramovic’s space.

As the last day of the exhibit dawns, the film hits its home strait and we see a shared desperation for connectivity that says something unbearably sad and unavoidably true about people. The power of art, artist and filmmaking reaches a critical mass at just the right moment and then it’s over, leaving you surprisingly shaken. The artist is present. It’s recommended you check her out.

Reviewed on: 07 Jun 2012
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Marina Abramović prepares for a major retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York hoping to finally silence four decades of skeptics who proclaim: 'But why is this art?'
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Director: Matthew Akers

Starring: Marina Abramovic, Ulay

Year: 2011

Runtime: 106 minutes

Country: USA

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