On paper, the documentary’s premise seems like an exercise in art-house tedium: film a woman sitting in a wooden chair, moving as little as possible, and engaging in a staring contest with other people eight to 10 hours a day for three months. And action!
But, as the subject of the movie—legendary performance artist Marina Abramović—is fond of pointing out, context is everything, and even an incredibly simple act like sitting still for a really long time can become profound, inspiring, even transcendent if you go about it the proper way. “I understood that by doing nothing, you reduce, reduce, reduce,” Abramović, 65, said, seated in a Park City hotel atrium Saturday. “All you have is your state of being. That’s what performance should be: pure energy flow.”
The documentary Marina Abramović : The Artist is Present premiered at Sundance on Friday to rapturous response, exerting strong appeal not only to the type of high culture lovers Newt Gingrich might deride as “elites” but also to people who think the hoity-toity world of performance art and its goofball intellectual antics are so much emperor’s new clothing.
The pleasures of The Artist is Present are twofold. The movie provides a mesmerizing career overview for a pioneer that Chrissie Isles, curator for the Whitney Museum of American Art, classifies as “one of the most significant artists of the second half of the 20th century.” The Montenegro-born, New York-based Abramović has a reputation that rests on provocative performance pieces such as carving a pentagram on her stomach before a mesmerized audience, flagellating herself with a whip until her back bled, driving a truck in a circle for 16 hours while shouting into a megaphone and leaving potentially violence-inducing implements on a table (a scalpel, scissors, a loaded gun) that would allow her audience to harm or kill her. The works explore relationships between audience and performer, physical endurance, sexual violence, and the fluidity of time – a prolific oeuvre spanning more than 40 years that has generated no small amount of controversy, earning Abramović the nickname “the grandmother of performance art.”
But it is an epochal art event that provides nearly half of The Artist is Present’s action. As part of a 2010 retrospective of Abramović ’s work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (the museum’s first ever retrospective for performance artworks), the artist spent months sitting at a wooden table staring into the eyes of whoever came to sit down across from her—thousands of people. “When she had this idea, I thought, ‘God, she’s going to kill herself,” MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach recalls in the movie.
In typical indie film world kismet, the movie came from a dinner-party seating fluke. The Artist is Present producer/co-director Jeff Dupre (the TV documentary series Circus and Carrier), happened to have been seated between Abramović and Biesenbach as they hashed out plans for the retrospective. The light bulb went on above Dupre’s head. “I was instantly smitten by Marina,” he said. “They explained that MoMA had never done a retrospective of a performance artist, so that was going to be unprecedented. And that it was a big risk.”
He enlisted Matthew Akers, who had worked as cinematographer on several projects for Dupre but never directed a feature in his own right, to do the lion’s share of filming Abramović for a span of 10 months over 2009 and 2010, following her to six countries and filming around 700 hours of footage. For his part, Akers was hardly drinking the Kool-Aid in terms of appreciating performance art when he took on the project.
“I made it clear that I didn’t idolize her and was skeptical of performance art from the beginning,” Akers said in Park City. “This film could have been an expose on how this is all ridiculous and totally invalid. I didn’t know that this was the path I was going to follow. I could have made something that showed how Marina and all this was just hype, how it’s not really powerful and doesn’t have anything to say.”
He added: “I didn’t expect to be friends with Marina afterward. And I didn’t expect her to like the film.”
In the end, 750,000 people came to see the exhibition, which not only presented the museum with a huge financial windfall, but became a certifiable New York sensation. It prompted devotees to sleep on the street in front of the museum to get a chance to sit with Abramović, and to stampede the museum once inside to get a prime spot in the queue. Thousands of attendees were able to take their seat before her (including, randomly, Orlando Bloom and James Franco) and many wept openly and uncontrollably in the presence of the artist when they did.
“I wanted to create a situation where the public can project onto me as a mirror,” Abramović said. “The whole idea for this piece was, if I purify myself, can I purify the space around me?”
But three months in a wooden chair came with a steep physical toll; Abramović ’s rib cage began to press into her internal organs and she experienced excruciating pain throughout much of the exhibition. But in keeping with the piece’s engagement with issues of body and pain, space and time, Abramović began to take on an almost saintly aura, there in the MoMA atrium surrounded by camera phone-wielding looky-loos. And at times, she would silently weep when one or another sitter’s energy would compel her to.
“Oh God! The people touched me so much,” Abramović explained. “To feel the unconditional love of a total stranger? They open up to you. You’re vulnerable to them. You don’t turn them away after five minutes. They can take as much of you as they want. You give them the opportunity to open. And it’s like a waterfall of pain coming out.”
These minutely observed human interactions—the minimal act of two people sitting across from one another and staring into each other’s eyes—and the ever-changing roundelay of faces the movie shows combine to present a person living at the edge of a fascinating extreme of the human condition. All of which combines to partially account for the movie’s crossover appeal. The Artist Is Present may help answer the question that has plagued Abramović for most of her career—“But why is it art?” But its director’s ambition for the picture, which was bought by HBO Films which will air the movie in September, is decidedly higher.
“For me, the film is about me. It’s about us,” Akers said. “It’s not about Marina. It’s putting her on a pedestal. But the idea is, you see people reflected in her eyes. The profound simplicity of silence and motionlessness is discredited in Western society. It had an overwhelming effect on them.”