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.
In person, Abramovic comes across as likable, painfully candid, unconventionally beautiful and unpretentious but largely inscrutable. Among the film's most revealing sequences is a reunion during the MOMA show with the German performance artist Ulay, her former partner of 12 years who comes back into her life during the New York installation. Her affectionately bickering interactions with him — along with samples of their past collaborations — are especially tender and insightful.
For all the intellectual noodling and academic acrobatics that the film trots out to underscore the meaning of her work, Abramovic herself is quite candid about the down side of being an obscure, avant-garde artist.
“After 40 years of people thinking you're insane and should be put in a mental hospital, you finally get all this acknowledgement,” she said during the frenzy surrounding her MOMA show. “I've been ‘alternative' since I was born. Excuse me, I'm 63, I don't want to be ‘alternative' anymore. I want to be respected before I die.”
— Dennis King
‘Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present'