Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović’s 2010 blockbuster show at Moma caused a sensation in New York. Now a fascinating new documentary, directed by Matthew Akers, charts the career of the renowned performance artist.

Despite the public’s increasing receptiveness to contemporary art, the one area that most continues to shock is that of performance, in the tradition of the radical outputs of a handful of Eastern European artists during its early days in the 1960s. Conceived as an avant garde and often violent rejection of the commodification of painting and contemporary art’s growing gallery system, performance artists sought to purify art by bringing it back to the basic elements of art-making, and creating ephemeral works that were impossible to buy or sell and could only be experienced by the very few, before being lost forever. Continuing in this tradition (though inevitably succumbing to the gallery system in the documentation of her work), Marina Abramović has become known as the grandmother of performance art following a career spanning 40 years that has seen her whipped, starved, burned, slapped, risking death and achieving astonishing feats of endurance.

The 2010 MoMA retrospective of her career was a landmark event that captured the zeitgeist of a public hunger for more radical, more intimate and more personable artworks than the glut of film work and installations populating our gallery spaces. Charting Abramović’s career for the first time, her performances were “re-performed” by young artists and a brand new work seized the attention of the art world. The Artist is Present was a new, original piece by Abramović and saw her sit opposite individual visitors all day, every day, throughout the exhibition’s three-month run. Abramović’s epic performance saw unprecedented demand to interact with this doyenne of the avant garde and Matthew Akers’ new eponymous documentary captures the extraordinary journey of the artist, her fellow performers and those who visited her exhibition.

A Fine Art graduate himself, Akers was originally loath to be involved in the film having recently completed an immersive project with Jeff Dupre (producer for The Artist is Present). But Dupre, finding himself seated between Abramović and Klaus Biesenbach (curator of the MoMA retrospective), found a natural affinity with the artist who was impressed by his and Akers’ dedication on a recent documentary on aircraft carriers, which saw the two living on board for six months and completely immersed in the lifestyle. The Artist is Present documentary had an organic conception; Akers was commissioned to join Abramović and the young artists she was training for her re-performances at her residence in Hudson, New York: “She’s really that charming and fun to hang out with and she gave us total access.” In keeping with Abramović’s wider agenda for her exhibition as a whole, it was important for the documentary to appeal outside of the artist contingency: “It had to be an entertaining film, and had to take you on a journey rather than be solely for the art world. We wanted it to really hit you, for you to feel it emotionally, as much as my film team and I had when we were there.”

After filming over 700 hours of footage and acquiring backing from HBO, Akers and Dupre have created an extraordinary insight into not only Abramović’s career but also the cult of the artist and the personality behind these genuinely inspiring works. The Artist is Present takes the viewer on a journey from Abramović’s dogmatic preparations for young artists to immerse themselves in the work and in being present, to a retrospective of the most groundbreaking elements of her career, to a unique insight into the conceptual processes of the artist, to a love story and extraordinary 12-year collaboration with fellow artist Ulay, and finally to an unprecedented public reaction to one of the rawest shows MoMA has hosted in recent history.

The Artist is Present’s actual performance provides an interesting commentary on our contemporary existence: to undertake the work is both a challenge and an affront to the very concept of being readily available to everyone at all times of day. Considered on its most basic level, the concept of sitting with a person, and only being there in the moment (not thinking about your emails, deciding what to have for dinner tonight, dwelling on an argument with a friend, running through a forthcoming presentation in your head) is something that would provide a significant challenge for all but the most single-minded of us, and yet Abramović undertook the task day in, day out, giving her everything to whoever should sit in the chair at any one moment. Then equally as remarkably, she discarded their memory for that of the next sitter. The concept of being present lies at the heart of the piece, and it’s something that only becomes remarkable when it is really considered. For Akers, Abramović’s preparation transcended the seven months he spent documenting her work because of the extensive work on “long durational pieces” that she has undertaken throughout her career. Ultimately her transition into the performance “separates her from normal people … she can be in the world and have all the pressures and worries of someone that’s about to have a big show of her life, and yet also sit in the chair and go into another zone.” On a practical level Abramović’s preparation went way beyond what the viewer sees, but the way in which this is withheld retains the mystique of the artist and the power of the artwork.

It is this long-term preparation, this total immersion in the living of her work, that highlights the very important distinction between performance and acting for Abramović and her fellow performance artists, and this concept opens an interesting debate on the nature of documentary itself. Akers acknowledges: “The notion that you can be a fly on the wall in a documentary irrevocably changes the situation. There are ways to manipulate your presence and impact on reality so you do change things. People do tend to perform to the camera in one way or another, but like in Marina’s work, there might be a bit of acting involved when she first makes contact with someone, but the power of duration – I don’t know if it fully eradicates, but it diminishes or purges the acting that’s going on; it certainly makes it a lot harder.” And, while an element of performing is inevitable for the participants in a documentary, the format also offers a unique insight into the daily reality of life for the artist, and a deeply personable account of Abramović as an ordinary person, a friend and a lover, which it would not have been possible to glean from studies of her work. In her preparations for the show, tutoring the young artists, and discussing her career with her gallerist, Abramović comes across as warm, funny, caring and a very attractive character. This jovial, youthful side to Abramović is eradicated in her piece where she assumes the role of grande dame of performance. In spite of this stark contrast between the on-screen Abramović cooking and chatting at home, and the Abramović in the museum, Akers sees her work as an indelible part of her life and vice versa: “She opens her life up; she doesn’t see a restriction between art and life.” The blessing of the documentary is not only that it makes the often esoteric world of performance art more open and accessible to a wider group of people, but also that it shows the artist as a real person behind the mystique cultivated around her performance by showing “moments that other people can relate to” in the documentary tradition. One such moment – the occasion where Abramović’s ex-partner and ex-lover Ulay takes to the seat – is incredibly insightful, emotional and raw, even at the remove of viewing it on screen. Breaking her own rules for the artwork and reaching out to touch Ulay, Abramović is starkly humanised: “It makes you as the audience recognise that she’s not this great artist, this person that’s able to do these superhuman feats of endurance; she’s also human and she’s flawed and she’s emotional and has feelings that we can all relate to.”

The contemporary response in New York to Abramović’s retrospective was huge, and the piece seemed to fire people’s imaginations. Abramović, Akers and Biesenbach were shocked at how much of a phenomenon it became. Having initially been concerned that there would be long periods of time with no-one sitting in the chair, the long, daily queues were unprecedented for Abramović and Biesenbach. For Akers the appeal of the work lies not only in how personal it is, but also in the manner in which the audience can witness the interaction between two figures from the sidelines: “Because as an observer you saw how she really did create a presence and a connection with the person that was there, it was magnetic. There was this energy, this power in that room, which is sort of hard to describe, but it was definitely an electric shock going on. There were people that sat all day and watched it taking place. That was interesting – that people were affected even when they weren’t directly taking part in the performance.”

Inevitably there was a degree of cynicism about the work, and while Akers’ film captures the odd comment from bystanders, it’s not an aspect that he chose to focus on, saying: “You can hopefully draw your own conclusions.” The typical response was more receptive than expected because of the context of the work in the middle of Abramović’s retrospective. Once visitors investigated Abramović’s work and came to understand the emergent themes, their return to the space where Abramović was sitting was rewarded with a better understanding of the piece. They became “more brave and open to an acceptance of her work.” On the other hand, at times Abramović takes on an otherworldly presence and is almost deified in the same manner in which art galleries are said to have become the churches of the 21st century. To an extent, however, Abramović welcomes this juxtaposition with her more human side: “She said that’s not what my aim is but [she] kind of like[s] it, so there’s a playfulness about it.” Akers raises the questions: “What is it? Is it to be worshipped or is the message that it’s important to be present?”

Capturing this presence and intimacy on camera without interfering in the work itself proved a challenge for the filmmaking team: “We were constantly trying to figure out ways to shoot people from a distance without intruding on their crying. But you could see so much going on with such tiny facial expressions, which work powerfully in the film, so that was another technique to communicate what was happening there.” However, documentary also allows greater opportunity to view the work close-up than there would be as a real-life spectator: “While you don’t feel the energy of the room you can get a more intense perspective than if you were there.” Because of this intimacy the film contrasts with Abramović’s own, more straightforward documentation of her work over her career in which the camera never moves. In a way it creates more of an opening into Abramović’s practice and a narrative around the exhibition.

For dedicated performance fans, part of the original essence is inevitably lost on film, as it is lost in the other re-performances of Abramović’s earlier work. However, Akers’ documentary does provide an incredibly engaging and accessible insight into Abramović’s work both for fervent fans and people with little knowledge of art. Ultimately,The Artist is Present aids Abramović’s bigger task of moving performance from the periphery to the mainstream but there are inevitable compromises to this, and the high security and health and safety regulations behind the exhibition only serve to highlight that what once was radical has become institutionalised. Nonetheless, The Artist is Present makes significant progress in capturing the legacy and vitality of an artist who remains engaging and at the top of her game.

The Artist is Present was shown at cinemas nationwide from 6 July 2012.

Ruby Beesley