Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
Directed by: Matthew Akers.
In 2010, The Museum of Modern Art in New York did a retrospective of performance artist Marina Abramovic’s work. It’s hard to do a retrospective of a performance artist, but essentially the museum had videos of her past performances, and a number of younger artists recreating her work – including two nude models facing each other in a narrow doorway, where the audience has to squeeze through. For this retrospective, Abramovic did one new “piece”, named after the exhibit itself – The Artist is Present. This consisted of Abramovic sitting in a chair on one side of a table with another chair at the other side. One audience member after another sits in that chair across from her, and the two simply stare at each other. You aren’t allowed to talk to her, nor was she allowed to talk to you, nor were you allowed to try and distract her. You simply sat there and stared at each other.
I know a lot of people who read that paragraph are asking the same question I asked myself when I heard about the film – and the same question Ambramovic says she has gotten more than any other throughout her career – “Why is that art?” She says no one asks her that anymore, which either means after 40 years as a performance artist that people are finally beginning to “get” her, or perhaps they are just pretending to – not wanting to admit to anyone that they don’t get her. I cannot begin to describe why this is art, but after watching the movie, I am convinced that it is. Some art does not need an explanation or at least defies explanation, and I think that is true of this piece by Abramovic. I cannot articulate why this is art, but I am sure it is.
Marina Ambramovic: The Artist is Present is a fascinating, entertaining documentary. The first half of the movie details Ambramovic’s career up to this point, with a focus on her 12 year collaboration with Ulay, another performance artist, who was also her boyfriend during that time. They spent nearly all their time together during those years, and their performances were meant to pull the mask off of male/female relationships, to show them in all their cruelty and violence, which very well maybe what ended up driving them apart. After the split, they both continued with their careers, but she became much more successful – in part because her new manager found ways to make money off of performance art, which is always a hard thing to do. She and Ulay hadn’t seen each other in 23 years, but he agrees to take part in her new exhibit – to be the first person sitting across the table from her.
The second half of the documentary is essentially solely about that new piece – it shows the toll it takes on Abramovic day after day (she’s there 7 and a half hours a day, 6 days a week for 3 months), but mainly it shows the people who are participating in the piece – those sitting across from her and those who sit back and observe them. Some of the people who stare at her are filled with joy, others with sorrow, and many begin to cry. People come back day after day, time after time, just to get a chance to be a part of this event. In all, she ends up sitting across from about 10,000 people.
It was this second half that convinced me what Abramovic was doing was art – not the first half where her assistants or the curator at MOMA or Ulay or Abramovic herself talking about the piece and what it means, but in actually watching the people and their reaction to the piece. I was reminded, oddly enough, of something Roger Ebert wrote about Jean Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme, a film that both he and I disliked immensely, where he said that the film was essentially about whatever you thought about while watching it. Ebert, and myself, had no idea what the hell Godard was trying to say in the film, so the film became solely what we, as audience members, thought while watching the film – and for me anyway, mostly I thought about how bored I was. In a very real way, The Artist is Present, Abramovic’s piece, not the film, is also about whatever the audience member sitting across from Abramovic is thinking – she essentially becomes a mirror, and each audience member sees whatever it is they want to see in her. Unlike most art, where the message is the same for everyone who witnesses it, because the artist puts the effort in once, and everyone sees the same end result, Abramovic’s piece changes every time. Every individual who sits across from her gets the same amount of effort focused solely on them.
So no, I cannot put into words why what Abramovic did at MOMA was art, so I’m not even going to begin to try. But art is was. And like much great art, it requires artist participation and thought – you have to become an active participant in the art as an observer, or else there is no art.