12:49 pm Jun. 13, 2012
She’s there, on screen, a gorgeous and astonishingly well-preserved 63 years old, appearing both as a talking head and a performer, leading the viewer in, through, and around the film’s subject, 2010’s landmark MoMA retrospective of her work.
But if you were one of the lucky estimated 750,000 visitors who made it to the event—and its central exhibit in the atrium, in which Abramović sat immobile in a chair for seven and a half hours each day, silently gazing into the eyes of audience members who waited in long lines to take turns sitting across from her—you understand that her project of pure-presence-and-nothing-else performance art is built to resist the disembodiment of adaptation. Performance is ephemeral by definition, and Matthew Akers’ film, whose two-week Film Forum engagement comes in advance of its airing on HBO, is necessarily a watered-down simulacrum of the real thing. Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present offers us a Marina in snapshot form—well-composed, glossy, and depthless—which is almost to say no Marina at all.
By placing the so-called “grandmother of performance art” front and center, Akers manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of the plodding biopic. His movie might be best experienced as a behind-the-scenes guide to high-profile event planning. How did Abramović urinate during those seven-and-a-half hour sits? How did the museum ensure her security? How did she train the performers who restaged a series of her original pieces? Did she ever crush on one of her audience partners? You get answers. (But don’t expect further details about some of the creepy and aggressive audience behavior reported by the New York Times.)
Akers becomes entranced by Abramović’s intensity, a process the movie treats as all but inevitable. So while the director doesn’t push the artist especially hard—she certainly had enough on her plate at the time—he manages to expose a couple of her infrequent lapses in judgment. When the illusionist David Blaine proposes the staging of a fake ritual murder in MoMA’s atrium, she immediately assents. Her wise and trusted gallerist wastes no time nipping this idea in the bud.
Abramović has a penchant for theatrics (though given the amount of real knife-play—and real blood—in her work, that descriptor might be insufficient), which her most perceptive critics helpfully disentangle from her more daring performance work.
“When you perform, you have a knife and it’s your blood,” says MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach in the film. “When you’re acting, it’s ketchup and you don’t cut yourself.” A collaboration with Blaine—who traffics in illusion, the very opposite of presence—would have been an embarrassing lapse: all ketchup.
The documentary’s most affecting section chronicles Abramović’s epic love affair with Ulay, the single-named German performance artist who shares her birthday and her taste for extremity and endurance. In the 1970s they lived out of a camper van and traveled Europe staging a series of groundbreaking and emotionally draining performances, essentially creating a new art form. Their romantic and artistic partnership lasted more than a decade, dissolved in a mist of infidelities, and ended with a dramatic flourish: the two walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, met in the middle, then parted ways.
The movie includes their reunion after nearly twenty years apart, and despite the depth of emotion on display, the way in which Akers presents it (one camera in the car with Ulay, another in the apartment with Marina) feels discomfitingly like something staged for a reality show. A much more poignant capstone to the Great Wall piece is Ulay’s visit to the “Artist Is Present” exhibit, also captured on camera; his sit-down session with the artist elicits thunderous audience applause and brings the stone-faced Abramović to tears.
The movie, Akers’ first, lacks every one of Abramović’s artistic virtues. It’s briskly paced, uncomfortable with silence, and far too amiable. It risks no confrontation and requires no stamina. Performance art—particularly Abramović’s—is oppositional, but Akers’ goal is to render it comprehensible. His framing of the retrospective doesn’t always do the best job of ushering the unconverted toward enlightenment. I’m not sure why we need to hear the self-satisfied bluster of James Franco—a far less disciplined sort of performance artist—or the hysteric philistinism of Fox News’ Megyn Kelly in place of (possibly) less photogenic critics who might be able to put Abramović’s work into historical perspective. And the most fascinating sociological element remains mostly unexplored: What does it mean for media-saturated denizens of the country’s most populous city to line up overnight for a chance to return the gaze of another human being? Did the show offer us changing definitions of “living in public?”
MoMA’s retrospective remains endlessly fascinating, one of the most rigorously unmediated (and democratic) major art events in New York history, and the documentary of its enactment, while hardly a sufficient substitute experience for those who couldn’t see and feel the exhibition in person, attains a kind of power by proxy. When not drafting a mash note to its alluring subject, Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present gives us a bit of critical distance from an event of overwhelming immediacy. It can’t meet Marina head on, because it doesn’t exist in the present tense.
’Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present’ is playing at Film Forum through June 26. All photos courtesy HBO Documentary Films & Music Box Films; first and third images by David Smoler; center image, of Marina Abramović & Ulay, 'Rest Energy' (1980), by Rudi Monster.
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