Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (2012)

24 Aug

It is hard to believe that a woman as poised and well put-together as Marina Abramovic is responsible for some of the most provocative and disturbing pieces of performance art of the 20th century. The woman who swans through a Givenchy store marvelling at the latest couture, seems a world away from the artist who (in the 1970s) lay on a crucifix made of ice, carved a pentagram into her stomach and let people stick rose thorns into her side. But for Marina Abramovic, this isn’t a contradiction – bemoaning the fringe status that performance art is given, and having been labelled “crazy” for forty years, Abramovic declares that she wants to see performance art become “mainstream” within her lifetime. In 2010, Abramovic created an exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which included The Artist is Present, perhaps her most famous work to date. 7 hours a day, 6 days a week, for three months, Abramovic sat solitarily in an expansive room, across from another chair where audience members were invited to sit across from her. Abramovic would barely move, only raising her head up and down, preparing a new, unique gaze for every person that sat across from her. For as long as that person wanted, they would stare at Abramovic, without speaking.

The first part of the documentary reflects back on her previous works – her well known Rhythm pieces, and her collaboration with artist and one-time lover Ulay. Films of Abramovic flagellating herself, repeatedly running into a concrete wall completely naked (warning – this film contains much nudity), reveal a kind of immediacy and vulnerability that Abramovic searches for in her work but, frankly, they also come off as a little pretentious. As much as one can admire Abramovic for her sacrificial devotion to perfomance art, there is a strange sense of alienation that an audience member experiences watching her. The Artist is Present is significant because it seems as though it is the first time the audience is really present with her, on equal terms, not simply as watchers, but sharing the same gaze. The effect is over-powering; the documentary depicts people frequently bursting into tears during mid-gaze, massive queues are formed outside MoMA; and she develops a cult-like following of fans. The Artist is Present creates a wonderful kind of viscerality because it is intimate, immediate and shared. The documentary suddenly turns from being a somewhat pretentious reflection to something quite moving – during her exhibition at MoMA, Abramovic is at her most vulnerable, but in being so manages to bring out that same vulnerability in many of the people who sit across from her. The Artist is Present is the kind of film that makes you wish you had been there. 


By Tessa Clews


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