A smoothly structured and entertaining portrait of the magnetic performance artist.
For three months in 2010, the lauded, Belgrade-born ‘grandmother of performance art’, Marina Abramovic, sat in silence at a simple wooden table and invited onlookers to join her, one at a time, and look into her eyes. She became the living centrepiece of a major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
At 63, Abramovic remains statuesque, smooth-skinned, poised, weapon-like. But director Matthew Akers also captures her vulnerable side, counterpointing the fearless manner in which she offers herself up to her audience.
Her career spans three decades, in which time Abramovic has pushed the limits of her body, repeatedly experimenting with states of consciousness and the mystic, ritualistic origins of performance art. Most disturbing of all is her fascination with knives, or the footage of a piece in which she entered a burning star-shaped object and passed out due to the lack of oxygen.
Akers makes sense of Abramovic’s enigmatic presence, contextualising her performance at MoMA with clips from her earlier work and candid interviews with the artist herself, one of which takes the form of a characteristically bizarre conversation with magician David Blaine, a fellow exponent of conceptual stunt endurance.
While the central subject of Akers’ film – a chronicle of the performance at MoMA – may veer towards the tedious, the powerful aura of conviction and intensity exuded by Abramovic makes for utterly beguiling viewing. The charged glances exchanged between artist and audience are heightened via Akers’ close-ups of eyes, intimately synthesising the live experience of the event on film.
The most extraordinary thing about The Artist is Present is the frequent shift from performance space to life outside it. We see Abramovic before and after her long days in the museum, shoulders relaxing, robe gathered up, flashing a nervous smile. This comes as a relief not only for the artist, but for viewers. She exits the self-induced trance-like state and enters the real world again, something deliberately absent from the performance itself.
We also see her working with a group of young artists as part of a retreat, preparing them for a re-enactment of five historical pieces that flesh-out the retrospective. Refreshingly, Abramovic’s teaching methods are unpretentious, direct and charming. In one scene, we observe her enthusiastically cooking some sort of broth for her students before skipping off with their mobile phones in a wicker basket.
At the end of the film, we witness the closing moments of Abramovic’s MoMA performance. She moves forward off her chair, still in a crouched position, before slowly straightening her back, her eyes darting about the museum space. The audience applauds warmly and Abramovic beams in a white dress, exiting her own self-portrait and leaving her legacy behind.
If the intention of Akers’ film is to reach a wider audience, it should achieve this aim. It’s not a biographical exercise, nor is it an homage to the artist – its appeal is more universal than that. The question is whether or not you have the stamina to pull up a chair at Abramovic’s table.
There aren’t many films that feature an artist staring across a table at strangers for eight hours.
Surprisingly effective documentary: smoothly structured and entertaining.
Abramovic is nothing less than magnetic.