Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present moves beyond art
A documentary by Matthew Akers. Rated PG. Opens Friday, June 15, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas
“Artists have to be warriors,” insists this film’s subject near the start of Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present. The Belgrade-born child of anti-Hitler partisans who became stalwarts of the Tito regime, she also had relatives entrenched in the Serbian Orthodox Church. So no big surprise that this groundbreaking performer now describes her upbringing as inhabiting a space “somewhere between Communism and spirituality”.
This tension is the major theme of her work, and of this smoothly made documentary, directed by Matthew Akers for HBO. Her early work, we see, consisted of self-flagellation, cutting, and other personal abuses. Later, she met her match in German artist Uwe Laysiepen, known as Ulay, and they travelled Europe in poverty for five years, bringing their confrontational performance art to obscure areas. This culminated with three months of walking toward each other on the Great Wall of China—followed by their immediate breakup.
As Abramovic, now a striking 63, got older, her emphasis shifted to stamina. The ability to maintain uncomfortable positions, literally and figuratively, found its oddly logical destination during her 2010 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, providing the name for this remarkably fluid film, which becomes surprisingly emotional when Ulay returns to the story.
Most of MOMA was given to The Artist Is Present, with Abramovic surrounded by documentation of past work, as well as re-creations staged by younger disciples, including the famous nude passageway people—as hilariously decried by Fox News, which is shocked that there would be such a thing at “The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art”.
Eventually, 750,000 people attended this show, leaving some puzzled, although most were visibly
excited by the chance to sit across a table from the artist, wordless, for at least a few minutes. In the event, she really did strip “performance” down to sheer existential presence, and the tears in her visitors’ eyes betray something well beyond mere art.
Watch the trailer for Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present.