Spe­cial ef­fect

A doc­u­men­tary gets un­der the skin of this trendy per­for­mance artist, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

‘EX­CUSE ME. I’m 63. I don’t want to be ‘al­ter­na­tive’ any­more.” So says Ma­rina Abramovic in this grip­ping, sur­pris­ingly mov­ing doc­u­men­tary. It’s a phrase worth pon­der­ing. Whether she likes it or not, the Ser­bian per­for­mance artist has be­come some­thing of a New York institution.

The Artist Is Present, the show around which Matthew Ak­ers and Jeff Dupre struc­ture their film, drew some of the city’s most in­flu­en­tial opinion for­m­ers to the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art. En­sconced in white space many floors above the city (her liv­ing area comes across like a satel­lite of the gallery) Abramovic pon­tif­i­cates like a

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good-na­tured holy sage.

The footage of her early ex­per­i­ments seems, in con­trast, to have been beamed in from an­other cen­tury (which, in a sense, it was). Shot in smudged mono­chrome or blotchy colour, the films show a young woman slash­ing her belly, run­ning madly into walls and get­ting her face re­peat­edly slapped. She has moved from the alley to the pent­house.

Thank good­ness for Fox News. Just as you be­gin to sus­pect that Abramovic – and per­for­mance art in gen­eral – may have be­come sub­sumed into the main­stream, a re­porter from the net­work pops up to com­plain about this “provo­ca­teur” who is stag­ing a show fea­tur­ing naked bod­ies at Moma. “And they call that art?” Go on! Your four-year-old could do that. Could she not?

Staged in 2010, The Artist Is Present saw Abramovic sit­ting still for three long months – eight-hour stretches, six days a week – while vis­i­tors were in­vited to oc­cupy the chair op­po­site her. The proto-punk grub­bi­ness of the early work is gone. Abramovic wears gor­geous dresses and trav­els in well-sprung com­fort. But, against the odds, the piece comes across as a tri­umph.

The di­rec­tors, ea­ger for a lit­tle old-school ten­sion, make some ef­forts to sug­gest that Ma­rina might not make it through the or­deal, but, by this stage, we have be­come con­vinced that, for this de­ter­mined, charis­matic in­di­vid­ual, fail­ure is sim­ply not an op­tion.

Of course, it would be hope­lessly pre-mod­ern of us to ask what the piece is about. But it fast be­comes clear what it can do. Vis­i­tors are amused, emo­tional and dis­turbed while sit­ting op­po­site Ma­rina. An early par­tic­i­pant trig­gers (no re­ally) one of the most mov­ing scenes you will see in a film this year.

Yet ques­tions re­main. The odd­est mo­ment in an odd film finds Abramovic en­ter­tain­ing the in­fu­ri­at­ingly mes­sianic con­jurer David Blaine in her apart­ment.

Won over, she warms to the no­tion that Blaine might per­form one of his tricks while at­tend­ing the per­for­mance. Per­haps he could “dis­em­bowel” her with a fire axe. At this point, the some­time en­fant ter­ri­ble seems to have lost all un­der­stand­ing of the pu­rity of her own work. Sean Kelly, her agent, speaks for think­ing mem­bers of the au­di­ence when he says that he would “op­pose it with ev­ery fi­bre of [his] be­ing”. She re­lents. But the in­ci­dent does de­mys­tify Abramovic some­what.

Oh well. Johnny Rot­ten now ad­ver­tises but­ter, so we should not, per­haps, be too hard on her.

The film-mak­ers of­fer some in­ter­est­ing ma­te­rial on Ma­rina’s up­bring­ing – she was raised by firm, un­sen­ti­men­tal for­mer par­ti­sans – and lead us lu­cidly through early work with the Ger­man artist Uwe Laysiepen (known as Ulay). When she and Ulay, also her for­mer ro­man­tic part­ner, en­counter the van in which they lived dur­ing the 1970s, one senses a lump form­ing in the film’s throat.

It would, how­ever, have been nice to hear a lit­tle more about Abramovic’s progress from Za­greb to Am­s­ter­dam to New York. A vi­tal for­ma­tive chunk of the life story seems to have gone miss­ing.

No mat­ter. Thanks largely to the en­gag­ing na­ture of its pro­tag­o­nist, Ma­rina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present stands up as one of the most di­vert­ing doc­u­men­taries to hit the big screen this year. If Ma­rina can sit in front of the pun­ters for 736 hours, then we pun­ters can surely sit in front of her for a mere 106 min­utes.

No wall­flower she: Ma­rina Abramovic in the spot­light

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