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Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present

Director: Matthew Akers
Cast: Marina Abramović, Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen), Klaus Biesenbach, Davide Balliano, Chrissie Isles, David Blaine, James Franco

(Music Box Films/HBO Documentary Films; Film Forum: 13 Jun 2012; 2012)

With Marina, she’s never not performing.
—Klaus Biesenbach


In planning Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, her 2010 performance retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, the artist goes through a number of steps. As she explains the project to an interviewer, she’s training 30 young artists to re-perform what she calls five “historical pieces,” pieces that she’s performed herself in the past. She’s also bringing together a number of photographs and recorded performances to show, drawn from some four decades of work, some solo, some with Ulay. And she’s conceiving a new piece, one that, on its surface, consists of her sitting with audience members—self-selecting, one at a time, for as long as each participant wants—for seven hours a day, six days a week, from 14 March through 31 May.


She also works with a camera crew. This last results in the film Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, opening at New York’s Film Forum, and including an in-person appearance by filmmaker Matthew Akers on the first night, 13 June. The Serbian-born Abramović has long worked with film crews to preserve performances, but this is the first time she’s doing so to preserve the process of coming to the performance. The film makes clear that each step of creating a performance is performance.


The revelation isn’t necessarily news, but it’s remarkably compelling, inviting audience participation in ways that might be much more uncomfortable and self-exposing than previous Abramović pieces. For Rhythm 0 (1974), for example, audience members chose one of 72 objects to use on her body (some tools were designed to provide pleasure for her, while others, like a whip, scissors, and a knife, allowed for other sorts of interactions), and for 1977’s Imponderabilia, re-performed for the 2010 show), audience members were allowed/invited to squeeze between two nude performers standing in a doorway. The new concept is at once simpler and potentially more disturbing, as audience members simultaneously view and are viewed, gazing at the artist who gazes back, and are, of course, viewed by other viewers, as well as the documentary cameras, which shoot them from across the room and in close-ups.


The idea is that these viewer-participants “can take this experience and do whatever they want with their own life,” Abramović explains to the young re-performers who gather for a workshop at her home in the Hudson Valley. Chopping carrots, taking away their cell phones, and leading exercises, she goes on, “The whole idea is to slow down with your body and your mind, to zero gravity, if its possible.” Her students listen carefully, gazing on her (in their own close-ups) or providing brief commentary in interviews (“Like, I’m going with my instincts on this, and it feels right to trust her”). The film indicates their three days of workshop in a montage of exercises, nude bodies in water and in proximity to one another, accompanied by a rolling piano, as the artist narrates, “The proposition here is to empty yourself, be able to be in the present time, with your mind here and now. And then something emotional open, and that’s what we are looking for in this work.”


And that’s what the documentary can never convey, the present.


This essential contradiction is film’s own, of course, being recorded and past as soon as it is recorded. If Akers’ film doesn’t grapple with the problem directly, it does offer a series of moments, variously past, for its own viewers to consider. Some of these moments are mightily conventional, title cards to bridge between events and places, voice-overs illustrated by footage of performances, conversations among collaborators pounding through concepts, and—perhaps least compelling, observations of Marina’s personal past, her “need to be loved,” her familial and romantic histories. As confessional as her story might be, it is also, yes, performance.


Some of these conventional moments are entertaining or moving, as when Abramović considers a proposal by David Blaine to create an illusion of her injury during the MoMA exhibit. She’s intrigued, she tells her dealer and sometime collaborator Sean Kelly, by the notion of “People who don’t know what happened—was accident? not accident?—questioning, you know, maybe reality is not reality.” Kelly listens and then pronounces it “the totally wrong thing to do.” When he explains, ““Your work doesn’t have anything to do with illusion. It’s all real,” she agrees in an instant, “Done. You’re right.” 


While you’re relieved that she’s not going to be working with David Blaine, the film is here working its own illusion, creating drama and a sense of anticipation as to where the piece is headed, whether Abramović will be able to endure it (for it is grueling, in its eventual form), and how it might be received (as curator Chrissie Isles suggest, performance art as it emerged in the ‘60s was a deliberate “challenge to painting,” and Abramović ‘s performance is especially active, seductive, and provocative, soliciting critical controversy). But the movie’s more profound tension has to do with the structure of such drama, the illusion that can’t be real and yet seems real, or invites belief in its realty.


In part, as MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach puts it, this has to do with the artist’s performance of time. “Marina is an artist that visualizes time, using her body in the space with the audience,” he says. “By the mere duration, she brings time in as a weight, a weight on the performer’s shoulders taking a piece out of the performer’s life as a value.” His striking assessment draws attention to a basic component of performance, its existence in and as time, its marking of time, and its granting value to time. The film changes the temporal parameters, transforms the present into perpetual past (maybe performing as present), allows viewers access to process, by definition movement in and as time.


The film’s framing of time is at once mundane and remarkable, another performance. If Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present suggests that the artist is “never not performing,” in Biesenbach’s phrasing, it showcases as well that viewers—consumers—are also performing. Your experience is a function of time, produced by time and in time—present, for a moment, anyway. In this context, the film and exhibit might also be titled, “The Audience Member is Present.” It’s both as real and illusory as the original title.


Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present invites you to consider the performance—the 2010 MoMA performance, the re-performances that build in past and present into their designation. It offers a series of performances by other sorts of artists: Ulay sits across from Marina, and her eyes fill with tears; James Franco (of all people and of course) sits across from her and then performs his own bit for observers who include a journalist (“The connection with Marina is so strong”). As such celebrity sightings underline their work as performers and perhaps yours as a viewer, they also remind you, being poignant and entertaining and maybe heavy-handed. Recorded and re-viewed, Marina’s performance is more perpetual than present.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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Marina Abramović is one of the most provocative artists of our times. This documentary shows you why.
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