In 2010, performance artist Marina Abramović had the attention of everybody, from snobby Manhattanites to Fox News. Her work (which includes a nude couple standing in a busy doorway, which is exactly what sent Fox News into a rage) was to be recreated by a number of assistants selected by the artist herself while, at the same time, she put on a new piece: “The Artist is Present.” The idea was simple — Abramović would be seated in a large room, mute and still, with a patron perched across from her — yet it proved to be intensely powerful for many (some were even moved to tears) and incredibly exhausting for the performer herself. With “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present,” Matthew Akers attempts to give an informative overview of her oeuvre, while detailing the extensive and strenuous Museum Of Modern Art retrospective of her work and the strangely ethereal titular performance.
After a brief appetizer showing her glorious ‘Present’ exhibit, Akers begins a rundown of her history, such as her upbringing in Yugoslavia (explaining how her anti-Fascist partisan parents may have influenced her no-frills, dedicated mindset) and lengthy collaboration with best friend/soulmate Ulay (aka Uwe Laysiepen), a relationship that culminated in a journey across the Great Wall of China in 1988. Interviewees (critics, museum directors, etc.) describe her method of working, noting she uses her body as a medium to boldly challenge an audience — and maybe the best example of this would be "Rhythm 0," done in 1974, which involved audience members picking from a buffet of objects (including a gun) to use on a dormant Abramović. Those that don’t buy into any kind of non-traditional art (aka art not on a canvas) will still likely be charmed by the down-to-earth Abramović, a passionate, cheerful individual who offers zero pretension or obliqueness when speaking.
Once the bio section concludes and we get a good feel for her CV, the filmmaker moves on to the laborious training sessions for the gallery retrospective. The chosen are brought to the artist’s country home and given various exercises, including a tireless task of separating various types of beans from a mixed pile. Along with running a stern regiment for the new recruits, Abramović must also discipline herself for “The Artist Is Present,” as sitting for hours at a time without a break for nourishment or relief will prove to be quite challenging. Unfortunately this period of time is a tad glossed over, seemingly in order to get to the MOMA exhibit quicker — everyone mentions the endurance the work requires but we never feel it; what should be an intense prep session feels minimized by get-to-the-point editing. Sure, the resulting piece is fascinating, but few know the trials and tribulations of such work — all of which are compelling in their own right.
"The Artist Is Present" performance takes up roughly the latter half of the film’s duration, and despite being separated from the in-the-moment experience, Abramović’s uncritical gaze at various participants still retains immense strength. Adults, the elderly, and even children step up to the plate to look into her eyes, and one admirer notes that "she slows everybody's brain down,” commenting that “everyone's attention span is so small, we don't really get a chance to think like this anymore." Some familiar faces pop up to sit opposite Abramovic, such as Orlando Bloom and (big surprise, he’s everywhere) James Franco, while other notable appearances attempt to put a different spin on the show — a man wearing a mirror-mask is quickly whisked away by security, as is actress Josephine Decker (“Uncle Kent,” “Saturday Morning Massacre”) for stripping down before taking a seat. But maybe the most touching instance is when previous lover/partner Ulay sits across from her and the two share a smile — though it’s pointlessly accompanied by a sweepingly dramatic score, it still hits a veritably tender note.
The film is ably put together, the career synopsis is extremely digestible and the MOMA section moves well, though at the expense of more insight into the development of the production. However, considering how unquestionably interesting Abramović is, the documentary suffers from its anonymous, by-the-books directing. The movie is done in a very uncomplicated manner, maybe even reflecting the warm persona of the subject herself — but still, there’s a brilliant, creative side to her, and it doesn’t feel right to have such a conventional documentary done on such an unconventional artist. Its straightforward manner will open plenty of new people up to her work, but it’s this same attitude (bereft of even the littlest flourish or experimentation) that waters down the subject, sometimes to the point of minor detriment. To reiterate, the directorial style is by no means disastrous — and you can’t really make Abramović dull — but something like the superfluous emotionally pushy music leads to frustration.
When all is said and done, Matthew Akers’s “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present” is an illuminating documentary on a gifted, inventive visual performer. No, the film doesn’t take the kind of risks the artist is known for, but it's by and large an enjoyable time despite its somewhat meek delivery. [B]