In the spring of 2010, 63-year-old Yugoslavian performance artist Marina Abramovic sat upright in a chair in New York's Museum of Modern Art — six days a week, 7 1/2 hours a day for 90 days, without eating, drinking or moving — while some 750,000 patrons queued up to sit opposite her and gaze into her serene face.
The occasion was a groundbreaking retrospective of the artist's work titled “The Artist Is Present,” which showcased Abramovic in a grueling installation and looked back on more than 40 years of odd and confrontational exhibitions that have earned this striking Serbian woman the title “grandmother of performance art.”
In conjunction with the hugely popular MOMA exhibit, director-cinematographer Matthew Akers and co-director-producer Jeff Dupre were on hand to chronicle the event as part of an HBO documentary — “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present.”
The film includes interview sequences with the artist and her contemporaries, archival footage and re-enactments of her past works and extensive snippets from the MOMA installation in which patrons stood in line for up to 10 hours for a chance to sit across from Abramovic in silence and stare into her eyes for as long as they wished.
The result is an exceedingly strange but weirdly compelling and touching portrait of an artist who has used her own body as a canvas in a series of sensational works dating back to the 1970s in her native Belgrade.
“The artist has to be a warrior,” Abramovic says of her daunting work, “to conquer not just new territory but himself and his weaknesses.” So we see in earlier works Abramovic slamming herself into a wall, mutilating and flagellating herself, standing stoically in front of a tautly drawn bow and arrow, and driving a van in a circle for 16 hours shouting numbers through a megaphone.