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From Museum to Sundance: How to See Sundance's Art-on-Film Hits

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | feelingsoblahg.blogspot.com February 5, 2012 at 12:58PM

Three Sundance documentaries presenting visual and performance art -- performance artist Marina Abramovic, Chinese political multimedia artist Ai Weiwei and environmental photographer and activist James Balog -- all made their debut to wide acclaim. Below, you'll find a complete guide to all three artists and where to find the films. (We've also included a bonus film that was well-received at the fest that we think isn't getting enough love as an art film.)
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Three Sundance documentaries presenting visual and performance art -- performance artist Marina Abramovic, Chinese political multimedia artist Ai Weiwei and environmental photographer and activist James Balog -- all made their debut to wide acclaim. Below, you'll find a complete guide to all three artists and where to find the films. (We've also included a bonus film that was well-received at the fest that we think isn't getting enough love as an art film.)

"Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"

Who is the artist?  Ai Weiwei is a Chinese political artist who works in a variety of media.  He came to international attention after designing the Beijing National Stadium, centerpiece of the 2008 Olympics, and subsequently criticizing the Chinese government for the way that they used the Olympics for nationalist publicity.  He also created several pieces related to the government coverup of the number and names of students that were killed during the Sichuan earthquake as a result of poor school architecture. After the government shut down his blog, Weiwei moved to Twitter (Chinese and English), where he became an outspoken anti-nationalist leader. He soon was honored with two major international exhibits, one in Munich and one which was a chance to create a piece, "Sunflower Series," for the Tate Modern's annual Unilever Series. Weiwei was recently arrested, accused of tax crimes, and released with restrictions against releasing information.
What's the film about?  Director Alison Klayman, speaking with Indiewire, that this is "not an art film but a film about an artist, fitting the art work into the overall story as it made sense."  In the film, she shows Weiwei from all angles, through various stages of his life and art career. Searching for the reason behind the zeitgeist, Klayman paints a complete and fascinating portrait.   
How else to experience this artists work?  PBS's Art21 will feature a segment on Ai Weiwei in their upcoming season. PBS's Frontline has also featured a segment of "Never Sorry" filmmaker Alison Klayman talking about making the film and working with Weiwei.
What are the critics saying?  The film has so far scored a B on Criticwire.
How to see it?  The film is currently solidifying distribution plans.

"Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present"

HBO Documentary "Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present."

Who is the artist? Abramovic is one of the world's leading performance artists.  Abramovic was honored last year with a career retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, which featured the wildly popular eponymous work. In "The Artist is Present," Abramovic sat silently during museum operating hours for three months, staring deep into the eyes of anyone who lined up to sit in front of her.
What's the film about?  Filmmaker Matthew Akers followed Abramovic for months, documenting the preparation of the exhibit, including the preparation entailed in having other artists recreate a handful of Abramovic's pieces live for the retrospective.  In an interview with Abramovic and Akers, Indiewire uncovered the trouble that went towards creating a film that told the story of Abramovic's entire career - using previous documentations of her work and Akers' own documentation of the most recent piece.
How else to experience this artists work?  MoMA released a book tied to the exhibit, and Abramovic has written a book about performing classic performance art pieces for another exhibit, "Seven Easy Pieces." MoMA has also created a fantastic interactive online exhibit of "The Artist is Present," featuring Marco Anelli's photographs from all of the subjects who sat with Marina during her three months. There's also a clever little 8-bit computer game version of "The Artist is Present" by video game artist Pippin Barr.
What are the critics saying?  The film has so far scored a B+ on Criticwire.
How to see it?  The film was co-produced by HBO, which will air it later this year.

"Chasing Ice"

Who is the artist? James Balog is a talented nature photographer who has brought experimental elements to portraits of the environment, starting with a series of photos taken of endagered species. His documentation of shrinking ice all over the world sold more copies of National Geographic magazine than had been sold in recent years. 
What's the film about?  "Chasing Ice" documents Balog's trials and tribulations as he spent years documenting the receding ice levels near the Arctic. Climbing rocks with a bad knee, overcoming a season of photographing that was ruined by malfunctioning automatic cameras, the film shows Balog work past these issues and more as he hopes to use the photos to have evidence that global climate change is affecting the environment.
How else to experience this artist's work? National Geographic's website has a gallery of Balog's photographs from ice on Greenland. Balog also maintains his own photography website.
What are critics saying?  The film has so far scored a B on Criticwire.
How to see it? The film will be screened on the National Geographic Channel. 

And finally, a surprise artistic addition:

"Me at the Zoo"

Who is the artist? Chris "Leave Britney Alone" Crocker is more than the meme lets on. If you haven't explored his work before, you may be surprised to see him on this list, but trust us, he's as smart a performer as any.
What's the film about?  In an interview with Indiewire, the filmmakers said they set out to make a film about performance in the age of reality TV. 
How else to experience this artist's work? His YouTube channel, of course.
What are critics saying? The film has so far scored a B on Criticwire.
How to see it? HBO picked up the film in the days leading up to the festival.

This article is related to: Features, Arts, Sundance Film Festival, Marina Abramović The Artist is Present, Chasing Ice, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, ME at the ZOO