Seductive, fearless, and outrageous, Marina Abramović has been redefining what art is for nearly forty years. Using her own body as a vehicle, pushing herself beyond her physical and mental limits––and at times risking her life in the process––she creates performances that challenge, shock, and move us. Through her and with her, boundaries are crossed, consciousness expanded, and art as we know it is reborn. She is, quite simply, one of the most compelling artists of our time.
She is also a glamorous art-world icon, a lightning rod for controversy, and a myth of her own making. She is most certainly unlike anyone you have ever met before.
The feature-length documentary film MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ THE ARTIST IS PRESENT takes us inside Marina’s world, following her as she prepares for what may be the most important moment of her life: a major retrospective of her work, taking place at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. To be given a retrospective at one of the world's premiere museums is, for any living artist, the most exhilarating sort of milestone. For Marina, it is far more: it is the chance to finally silence the question she has been hearing over and over again for four decades: "But why is this art?"
As the film opens, we find Marina in the final throes of planning her exhibition. We see her flitting around the museum, consulting with curators, gallerists, and designers, cracking jokes and charming everyone who crosses her path. As longtime friend and MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach puts it: "Marina is never not performing." In a strategy meeting, she sets the stakes for what lies ahead: at 63, she has lost patience with being a fringe artist. What she wants now is for performance art to be legitimated. She is thinking of her legacy––and the MoMA show, as she well knows, can secure it once and for all. It is one thing to be "alternative" when you are 20 or 30 or 40, she says to camera. "But excuse me, I'm 63! I don't want to be alternative anymore!"
The mounting of the retrospective and its three-month exhibition at MoMA is the narrative spine of MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ THE ARTIST IS PRESENT, and over the course of the film, we return again and again to the museum. There, as the "set" is built for the new work that will be the centerpiece of show, Marina sketches her ambitious plans: all day, every day, from early March until the end of May, 2010, she will sit at a table in the museum's atrium, in what she describes as a "square of light." Members of the audience will be invited to join her, one at a time, at the opposite end of the table. There will be no talking, no touching, no overt communication of any kind. Her objective is to achieve a luminous state of being and then transmit it––to engage in what she calls "an energy dialogue" with the audience.
The piece, aptly entitled The Artist is Present, will be the longest-duration solo work of Marina's career, and by far the most physically and emotionally demanding she has ever attempted. When she conceived it, she says, she knew instantly that it was the right piece because the mere thought of it "made me nauseous." The work's simplicity and purity has the potential to crystallize all that is best about her art, but it also demands that Marina return to her roots––and forgo the overt theatricality that has characterized many of her recent performance pieces. Perhaps more than any performance she has done before, The Artist is Present has the power to fulfill Marina's own dictum about long-durational work, in which, she says, "performance becomes life itself."
Performance becomes life––and life becomes art. For Marina, the boundaries are quite porous––a reality made vivid as the film delves back in time to explore the genealogy of The Artist is Present, from Marina's early solo career to her hugely influential twelve-year romance/ collaboration with Ulay, who remains a towering figure in her life. From the story of their relationship and their intensely charged reconnection in the runup to the MoMA retrospective, a parallel Marina emerges––a flesh-and-blood foil to the art-world icon––a woman who is driven by passion, desperate for admiration, and maddeningly riven by contradictions.
Throughout the three months of her exhibition, the film follows Marina, day after day, watching as she sits at her small table in the museum's atrium, gazing steadily at the scores upon scores of people who come to take the chair across from her. The audience is fuel to her––in effect, a lover; she needs the audience, Biesenbach says, "like air to breathe." Meanwhile, the audience gazes back––and inevitably begins to grasp the power of her spell. As art critic Arthur Danto observes, The Artist is Present represents an entirely new experience in the history of art. "For most masterpieces people stand in front of it for thirty seconds. Mona Lisa: thirty seconds. But people come and sit here all day."
Elevating traditional documentary techniques with an artistic gloss befitting its subject, MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ THE ARTIST IS PRESENT is by no means a typical "art film." With total access granted by Abramović and The Museum of Modern Art, MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ THE ARTIST IS PRESENT is instead a mesmerizing cinematic journey inside the world of radical performance, and an intimate portrait of an astonishingly magnetic, endlessly intriguing woman who draws no distinction between life and art.