Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present - Film Review by G Hall

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present

Directed by Matthew Akers

This revealing documentary examines the artist's work and life, focusing on her recent show at MOMA in New York: 'The Artist Is Present'.

Marina Abramovic is one of the most prominent artists in the world, and her status is near to legend. However, in this film, once you get over the artist's extraordinary presence, the nature of her work is slowly and carefully revealed. (Klaus Biesenbach explains that being face to face with her felt like love. Only later realising that it was like that with everyone)

The early part of the film introduces us to Marina Abramovic herself, in real time, and behind the public face. We see her in the bath, throwing up and a brilliant scene in bed where she's ill, but beautifully coordinated. She is interviewed, and patiently explains a lifetime's work, and many of the concepts behind it.

We see her as a child, and aspects of her background that were so formative on the artist she became, are revealed. At one moment, she pauses for contemplation in an old van, now a sacred exhibit, as it was where she and her partner lived for several years: 'No rent'. Sat in there years later, she gets emotional and nostalgic about her life then.

Particularly memorable was the scene in which she received an award and lists the necessary requirements to be a true artist. 'Artists must not have other artists as partners' was interesting in that much of her work was with Ulay, her longtime collaborator, lover and soulmate. Their emotionally and viscerally intense work is less of the focus here, as it is their relationship, its demise and their reunion that the director examines. This is done in a touching and honest way.

Although I thought more time could have been spent looking at her brilliant earlier works, Akers compensates for this by giving us the hidden Marina Abramovic. The moments when she's cooking, with Ulay sat in the kitchen reminiscing, were very revealing of both artists. Their connection still there on some level, and Ulay was down to earth about his status compared to hers.

And that's an important point. This film appears touching and honest, Marina Abramovic appears touching and honest. But how can we know if we're seeing what is real? In this way, assumptions about the medium of documentary are questioned.

We get to see the fruits of her labours. The success, the wealth. In one scene, she is wonderfully honest about her love of designer clothing. And of course, she looks sensational, and this glamour adds to her almost 'rock star' status that someone mentions later in the film.

But the artist is never obscured. Despite the groupies and hangers on, she of course retains her grounding. Taking a group of young people to retreat with her at her huge home, she takes away their smartphones in a mushroom basket, because they need to train and refrain, so as to be ready to perform her works at MOMA. The rigor and discipline which she so carefully applies to her life never diminishes. Having said that, when the work is done, we get the impression that she loves the rollercoaster of her life.

The latter part of the film examines her recent show at MOMA. In a formal stage like setting, the immaculately dressed and composed artist sits in front of an empty table. She hardly moves, and gazes across at another chair, empty. Equidistant between her and this other chair is the table. Then, person after person walks, sits down and looks at the artist. She engages them personally. Thus 'The Artist Is Present'. Or are they? How do we define 'Present' anyway? This work asks fundemental questions, and the resulting levels of emotional and behavioural responses are extraordinary. Results that spiral off into the lives of those involved.

Although her later work has taken a more consciously theatrical dimension, Marina Abramovic has always matched the intensity and immediacy of her work with a rigourous attention to every detail. Primal emotions and energies meeting formality. And 'The Artist Is Present' is no exception. One example of this was the design of the table and chairs. They were precisely made to measure and beautifully constructed, so as to place the artist slightly above the sitter. The care with which they were made was echoed for me in their careful handling and unpacking, shown near the beginning of the film.

When asked about the profound effect her work at MOMA was having on people, Marina Abramovic was honest. She made art and anything else is their construction (not her exact words). But her insights into human nature, human relationships and systems of control have deep resonances for many people, and although this documentary lifted the lid a little, it of course presented us with even more questions.

(c) G Hall - Writer for Female Arts 2012

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