The Art of Performance, by Jack Fleischer
Anyone who is even slightly annoyed by performance art and/or nudity should stay far away from the documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present. This is an intimate portrait of the woman sometimes referred to as the, “grandmother of performance art.” While it’s not designed to convert skeptics of her work, it is designed to give the curious a way to get as close to her as possible outside of meeting her in the flesh.
First, some background. Marina Abramovic was born in Serbia, the daughter of two hard line communists. In the ‘70s she started her career by performing such pieces as Rhythm 10, in which she played “the Russian Game” which film fans will recognize from Aliens, Dark Star, and Knife in the Water. Over the years her pieces have been varied and have included nudity, self-scarification, and traversing the Great Wall of China on foot. Her work has even worked its way into mainstream culture, with her 2002 piece The House with the Ocean View making an appearance on a Sex in the City episode.
The doc talks about much of this, but the majority of it focuses on the months leading up to and including the retrospective of her work held at New York’s MoMA in 2010. We follow Abramovic as she works to bring her thirty-year history of live art pieces back to life. During this time she trains a group of young artists on how to recreate many of her pieces. She also reconnects with some people who helped form her art, including her most notable collaborator and former romantic partner, the artist known as Ulay.
This film culminates with her performing the piece The Artist is Present. Lasting from March 14 to May 31, this piece involved Abramovic sitting in the MoMa every day from open to close, allowing any member of the public to sit opposite her. We watch as she nurtures the idea, bounces thoughts off her assistant, Ulay and (oddly) David Blaine. Even as the show progresses there is constant fine-tuning. All the while this doc is showing us the work of art.
While I do not necessarily appreciate performance art, there is something captivating about both this documentary, and Abramovic herself. I think if a person is curious about what performance art is supposed to achieve, this is a good primer.
Its appearance is brief and easily overlooked, but the only hiccup in this doc that I noticed was a Fox News piece snippet that pops up in the middle of the film, that questions the decency of her work. I call it a hiccup, because one of this film’s strengths is that it refuses to address the question, “Is this art?”
This is a question that has been wonderfully hit up in other documentaries like Exit Through the Gift Shop, My Kid Could Paint That, and Who the *$&% Is Jackson Pollock? This may be an important question, but it’s largely irrelevant when it comes to profiling a specific artist. Instead this film assumes that it is art, and focuses in on how this performance artist functions independently of her art, and asks, “Is such a thing possible?”
I believe that this documentary succeeds because, even if I still don’t have a desire to take part in her art, I have come to appreciate her as a person. In Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, MoMA’s director, Klaus Biesenbach, talks about how easy it is to “fall in love” with Abramovic. This film is about how and why her fans and colleagues have fallen in love with her – and maybe just by understanding that, I too have fallen a little bit in love.