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