Interview with Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre

HBO

Where did you first meet Marina?

Jeff Dupre

It was by chance. I was invited to a dinner party and was seated next to her. She had a captivating personality and explained to me that she was planning a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and that MoMA had never done a retrospective of a performance artist, ever in their history. I was sitting there thinking, she’s a great character, and it’s a great subject for a film. MoMA was taking a risk in putting on the show, and she was planning on taking a big risk herself in performing this major new piece. So I asked her if I could make a documentary about this project she was embarking on. And she was very interested, and over the next couple months it all came together.

Matthew Akers

Knowing that performance art is ephemeral, I was skeptical about how to make a film about that. When I expressed this to Marina she was unfazed. She said, you know, it’s a question I’ve faced my whole life, so that’s a good thing that you guys are skeptical. She’s fearless, and she trusted us. And we trusted that she would not restrict us in any way, and that she would be true to her word, and let us make our own film.

HBO

The way Marina uses herself in her work often transcends the notion of “performance.” How did you approach that?

Matthew Akers

What I didn’t want to do was make an art film for the rarified art world. I wanted to make a compelling film. And so how do you do that with something that’s ephemeral? So when you see her flagellating herself, it’s provocative and stylistically interesting, but you don’t really know what it’s like to be there witnessing it in the space with her. So when she started the performance, “The Artist Is Present”, it was pretty shocking. There was a palpable energy in the air. She’s offering herself up in what is an extremely physical, but also psychologically and emotionally difficult performance. And leading up to that, it was very hard to understand how powerful that was going to be. So the skepticism was still present, up until the day she sat down.

Jeff Dupre

The biggest challenge for us was how to structure the film so that we could help people navigate their way into her world and her work. You see her evolve as an artist, and you see her realize that the work doesn’t need to be complicated.

Matthew Akers

As she says: “People don’t understand that the hardest thing to do is to do something which is close to nothing.”

Her commitment to her work eclipses everything. Including love.
HBO

Does her personal history inform her work?

Jeff Dupre

It totally does. Both her parents were war heroes in Yugoslavia, under Tito. They fought against the Nazis. And I think Marina has always been trying to find a way to measure up to her parents, the sacrifices they made, and their heroism. And she does it through her art.

Matthew Akers

She clearly made a decision, at some point in her early adulthood that she was going to give everything over to the art. And while that war-torn and heroic past motivated her initially, I think it informed who she became, and she fully gave herself over to that.

Jeff Dupre

Her commitment to her work eclipses everything. Including love.

HBO

Her work gives new meaning to the notion of giving everything you have for your art.

Jeff Dupre

Absolutely. And generosity and vulnerability. These are some of the key ways of understanding what she’s about.

Matthew Akers

And being a mirror, which is a huge message in the film, which she talks about: when she sits down, she’s just a mirror for other people’s emotions, and other people’s psyches. And if you think of art as a construct of the mind—all art—when you look at a painting, you’re taking away some mental construct of that. So the revelation about performance art and its validity came from the idea that when you sit down in that chair across from her and you look at her, you’re really projecting on to her. You’re projecting yourself. I think a lot of the emotional response to that work, and to her – the tears and the joy comes not necessarily from a deep connection only with her, but also a deep connection with yourself.

Marina talks about how the presence of the camera crew, the presence of the people watching the performance, the person sitting in front of her, that all of those eyes on them set up an atmosphere of no escape. Suddenly, you’re sitting there with her, and you’ve got all these eyes on you, and you have no place to escape to, so she’s really just calling you to be present, and to be present with her, and to be present with yourself, and to face yourself.

And so when I think about what I take away from this performance, from that performance, there are these concepts that relate to me, and how I behave in the world, like whether or not I have a genuine connection, and am I present, and what do I think about time? It becomes a reflection of myself. And it still ruminates with me. And you take that away. Just like any great work of art.