Known for her extreme performance-art installations, many involving nudity and punishing bodily deprivation, Marina Abramović is one of the few artists of her generation still active in the field. A glamorous art-world icon, a lightning rod for controversy and a myth of her own making, she’s tired of the “alternative” label after four decades of skepticism, and happy that the retrospective is the crowning achievement of her career, providing her the best opportunity to put performance art on the mainstream map. “Performance art has never been a regular form of art,” she says. “It’s always been alternative since I was born, so I want it to be a real form of art and respected before I die.”
In addition to Abramović herself, the film features interviews and scenes with collaborators, art commentators, friends and fans, including: art critic Arthur Danto; Chrissie Iles, curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Abramović’s gallerist, Sean Kelly; writer Tom McEvilley; illusionist David Blaine; and actor James Franco.
MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ THE ARTIST IS PRESENT also includes extensive archival footage and images of her life in the year leading up to the MoMA extravaganza. Revisiting her controversial beginnings in the early 1970s, the film features documentation of her early work, including video of Abramović driving a van around a public square while shouting numbers from a megaphone, taking psychoactive drugs to challenge social attitudes towards female mental illness, and mutilating and flagellating herself.
The MoMA retrospective exhibit occupies several floors of the museum, most of them dedicated to earlier chapters in Abramović’s career, with images and videos of installations, many involving fellow performance artist and former romantic partner Ulay. She also trains 41 young artists to “re-perform” some of her early installations. For example, in “Imponderabilia,” two artists stand face-to-face, completely naked on opposite sides of a doorway, which others can only squeeze through by brushing against the couple’s naked flesh, a piece originally performed by Abramović and Ulay.
In the new exhibit, Abramović sits in a chair under bright spotlights opposite an empty chair, where members of the public can sit as long as they want, gazing into her eyes. A seemingly endless number of people line up for the opportunity to sit with her, many sitting multiple times on different days, several for as long as ten hours, some even after waiting all night. It is the longest-duration solo work of her career, and by far the most physically and emotionally demanding one she has ever attempted. When she conceived it, Abramović says she knew instantly it was the right piece, because the mere thought of it “made me nauseous.” Exceeding the museum’s and the artist’s own expectations, the exhibit becomes a blockbuster, must-see event.
One of the most emotional scenes occurs when Ulay, the man with whom she shared an intense and colorful history spanning more than 12 years, occupies the seat opposite Abramović. The two lived in a van in Europe and performed together before their relationship ended in suitably dramatic fashion: They walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, met in the middle after covering over 1,500 miles apiece, and then said good-bye.
Sitting opposite each other in the MoMA exhibit, neither can hold back tears. Eventually, to cheers from the crowd, she reaches across and extends her hand to touch him, something none of the other sitters are permitted to do, and they hold each other. This moving moment highlights the two sides of Marina Abramović — the flesh-and-blood woman and the art-world icon — who is driven by passion, hungry for admiration and riven by contradictions.
MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ THE ARTIST IS PRESENT received the Panorama Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival. It will open at the Film Forum in New York City on June 13 and the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles on June 15, courtesy of HBO Documentary Films and Music Box Films.
Matthew Akers was the producer and a lead cinematographer on the series “Circus,” a producer and camera operator on the Emmy®-winning series “Carrier,” and a producer and camera operator on the Peabody-winning series “Nimrod Nation.” His previous HBO credits as cinematographer include “Back in the Hood: Gang War II,” “Heir to an Execution” and “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.”
MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ THE ARTIST IS PRESENT is an HBO Documentary Films presentation of A Show of Force production; directed by Matthew Akers; produced by Jeff Dupre and Maro Chermayeff; director of photography, Matthew Akers; co-directed by Jeff Dupre; edited by E. Donna Shepherd; co-edited by Jim Hession; original music by Nathan Halpern. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.