Film: Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present
Director: Matthew Akers
Featuring: Marina Abramović
A documentary about the famed performance artist Marina Abramović went on general release in the UK last week, and is currently being fawned-over by film fans and critics alike. I was fortunate enough to see the film a month ago at the Sheffield documentary festival Doc/Fest, where it was granted the Special Jury Award by a panel that included Louis Theroux.
Directed by Matthew Akers, The Artist Is Present is undoubtedly moving, and I would advise anyone interested in performance art – or art in general – to give it a watch. Following the 65 year-old Abramović as she prepares for her retrospective exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2010, this film successfully encapsulates the wide range of performance pieces that were shown in the exhibition, whilst offering personal and contextual insights into her important career. To ensure that the immediacy of her work is not lost, Abramović hires a team of aspiring performance artists to replicate her most celebrated pieces. We are invited in to the ‘boot camp’ held at her home, as the eccentric artist offers words of wisdom to her hired hands.
But to rely on others for this exhibition would be to betray Abramović’s career-long faithfulness to her own subjected body. In light of this, for the final exhibit of her retrospective, we follow Abramović as she devises a new piece that we are told could constitute her greatest challenge yet. For the three months that the exhibition was open (or more accurately 736-hours and 30-minutes), Abramović sat still and silent, staring at the members of the public who had queued for hours for the chance to sit opposite her. Some laughed, more cried. Many were captured in this film.
Akers personally introduced the film at Doc/Fest. The director claimed that he had previously been a sceptic of performance art, though you would never have guessed as much. And while the installation itself was clearly relevant, Abramović found herself lamenting that the question of whether her work constitutes art is no longer asked. She suggests that she has become established, and jokes that no artist can be considered radical at the age of 60.
She may be onto something. We can humour her and ask: why is this art? Probably for the very reason that the question has to be asked. That it now goes unasked depressingly says a lot about Abramović’s reduced capacity to shock now that she has earned the respect of the ‘art world’. Of course Akers manages to showcase a derisory review from a reactionary newsreader, but I found this disappointing. Art that only goads those on the comfortable right can hardly consider itself to be radical.
So then, what can be said about the film? It was poignant and moving in its celebration of Abramović, her work, and additionally her audience. But as some prominent critics have let discussion of the film end here, I wonder whether we should actually be asking for more? In particular, what is the role of the documentary film? I strongly suspect that this question arose many times during Doc/Fest.
Akers could be applauded for paying tribute to an amazing artist at the denouement of her career. His documentary highlights that her endurance, and ability to create interpersonal impacts remains, even if she has lost her radical ‘edge’. But is it enough that a documentary merely document? In this case, a successful retrospective exhibition is presented in-depth and in context. Its longevity and reach are therefore extended and preserved. But is this deserving of widespread acclaim? Those on the Special Jury at Sheffield Doc/Fest evidently thought so.
Author: Chris Dietz