Some 750,000 spectators crowded the Museum of Modern Art last year to watch Marina Abramović sit in a chair. The perplexing draw of the Serbian performance artist's biggest exhibit in years was a self-propagating myth, one of the more fascinatingly enigmatic moments of the art world in recent years. Documentarian Matthew Akers' "Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present" pulls back the veil to provide a cogent overview of Abramović's preparation for the exhibit and her years of output preceding it. The result is a competent exploration of her methods that's also disappointing for the same reason.
In her MoMA exhibit, from which the movie draws its name, Abramović spent nearly eight hours a day for three months last spring sitting motionless in the wide open room at the entrance to her exhibit. Anyone in attendance -- or at least those willing to wait in an increasingly jammed line -- could stare back at the performer for as long as they saw fit. Elsewhere in the exhibit, a group of younger actors reenacted many of Abramović's other physically intense undertakings dating back to the seventies, including a much-publicized area of the gallery that encouraged visitors to pass through a crammed gateway composed of two naked bodies.
Although inherently provocative for challenging a set of social constructs, Abramović's feats are nevertheless welcoming, meditative affairs that invite the audience to feel an intimacy with the creative energy at work. In a sense, her avant garde prowess has endowed her with therapeutic strength.
One can glean so much from observing Abramović's art that the experience of explaining her procedure in clinical terms has the sterile effect of reading a spoiler. While theoretically interesting to hear the sober-minded Abramović break down her intentions, the weeks of build-up to her show deaden the aura of mystery surrounding it. In an interview, Abramović herself gives voice to the danger of revealing too much from the behind the scenes, using the analogy of stage violence: "If it's just a fake knife and ketchup, then we've lost."
And yet that's precisely the issue with watching the movie. Perpetually seen slicing vegetables in the kitchen from her countryside home and talking shop with her eagle-eyed curators, Abramović loses her mystique. (I did not need to know, for example, that her MoMA chair included a built-in toilet seat for emergencies.) The filmmaker's first-rate access feels like a kind of desecration.
However, other areas of "Marina Abramović" hold much stronger appeal. Her long-standing love affair with German performance artist Uwe Laysiepen, known at the time merely as Ulay, took on a sensational form in their decade-long relationship, which culminated in a joint walk from opposite ends of the Great Wall of Chain in 1988. Still in touch with Laysiepen and seemingly on good terms with him, Abramovic nevertheless appears at her most fragile when discussing their intimate days together. Art, in this case, cannot defeat her lingering sorrow.
Elsewhere, "Marina Abramovic" delves into the nature of the 65-year-old artist's continuing popularity through an imminently watchable arrangement of talking heads whose collective discourse brings the issues raised by the MoMA exhibit into sharp focus. Taking in the hordes of onlookers rushing the museum each day, ex-Interview magazine editor Ingrid Sischy raises "the groupie question" involved in the obsession over seeing Abramovic in the flesh. Essentially embracing stardom and breaking it down at once, Abramovic relishes the paradox of her celebrity. "How should I call you?" Laysiepen asks her during a present-day visit, "the grandmother of performance artists or the diva of performance artists?"
The answer, of course, is both, but "Marina Abramovic" fails to unravel the paradox and instead tries to have it both ways. By the end, the documentary buys into the hype along with everyone else, setting scenes from the climactic moments of the exhibit to Philip Glass' "Orphée's Return." (Cinematic awe-generator 101: When all else fails, insert Philip Glass.) Watching Abramovic in the heat of performance certainly carries tremendous weight, but her gaze and stamina tell a better story than the details behind it. Abramović's artwork maintains universal allure because it addresses a range of emotions familiar to everyone. But in "Marina Abramović," the artist is present, and she's shockingly normal.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Marina Abramović" opens at Film Forum in New York this Wednesday, and will likely perform decently due to the local interest in both the subject and the particular exhibit at the center of the movie. It airs on HBO July 2, when it should also attract a fair amount of curious viewers and art world aficionados.
Watch the trailer for "Marina Abramović" below: