Marina Abramovic – The Artist Is Present – ***

Posted: July 8, 2012 in 2012, Art, Documentary, USA, XXX

Two years ago, I visited the most interesting artist retrospective at the MOMA in New York. I hadn’t heard about Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic before, but I was immediately fascinated by her work. I was really intrigued by the stuff she had done in the past, either on her own or during her 12 year relationship with fellow artist Ulay. Ms Abramovic was actually present during my visit. In fact, she was present for three full months. Not walking around in the retrospective rooms, but sitting on a chair in a huge hall close to the museum entrance. There she sat for three long months (going home after closing hours of course), on a chair, hardly moving, just waiting for the next person to come and sit in front of her. It was a weird spectacle. People waited for hours to just sit a bit in front of this 60something, attractive woman who hardly moved. And even more people looked at the whole experiment.

HBO decided to make a documentary about the event and the artist, which is now being released in selected cinemas in selected cities such as London. It’s a must for anyone who has seen the performance and a recommendation for anyone who’s interested in the build up to a crazy art performance and everything that happens around it.

The documentary is as fascinating as the art performances of Abramovic. It will lead to interesting discussions amongst those who’ve seen it. Is it a true depiction of an artist at the peak of her career or is it all scripted and staged? The truth lays somewhere in the middle. The cameras show Marina Abramovic as a confident, ambitious and level-headed woman, which contradicts to the image people might have of her during the performances she’s famed for. This is a woman who at one time carved a symbol in her belly, just for the sake of art. Or stood naked in a museum room with a table that contained all kinds of products visitors could use on her. Guests could tickle her with a feather or shoot her in the head with a gun. She ran against walls, physically bruising herself or filmed herself and her partner slap each other on the face continuously. None of that craziness shows in the documentary. You get to watch a pretty normal person, preparing for the most important performance of her career. Hey, you even see her in the kitchen making a pasta sauce! Real artists don’t make pasta! They smash it against the wall, lick it and film the whole thing. But it’s good to know artists are just human like everyone else.

The staging of the documentary however is obvious in all the cameo’s you see. The first half of the documentary focuses on the reunion of Marina Abramovic with Ulay. It almost feels like a romance story of two people who used to mean the world to each other, not only as lovers but also as an artistic duo, and meet after years of avoiding. The meeting was necessary, as part of the retrospective concerns Ulay too and he had to be at least consulted if his art could be at display. It’s normal that he is featured in this documentary and he has some interesting things to say. But many of the scenes they have together feel staged. It doesn’t harm the documentary, it just makes it less real. The second half of the movie focuses on the performance in New York. A great event that got a lot of buzz and had indeed people line up for hours to sit in front of the artist. Here as well some scenes feel staged, like the one where James Franco shows up or where a girl takes off her shirt. This might have happened without directorial intervention, but it just doesn’t feel like that.

There’s a scene in the movie were the MOMA curator says about The Artist Is Present-performance that it will be a failure if people consider the performance fake and not real. Well, according to the curator this documentary is a failure. But I still really liked it. I would have wanted to hear more about the artists who enacted her previous performances in the retrospective. You get to learn a bit about their selection and training, but that’s about it. And I also wanted to learn more about what Ulay is doing at the moment and what he’s really feeling, because even though he says he’s proud and impressed about the status of his former lover and partner, he did call her sarcastically the diva of performance art. Which Marina Abramovic is. Art critics and lovers will ridicule me for writing this, but the entire movie made me think of Truth Or Dare, the documentary about the build up to the Blond Ambition Tour of that other confident and ambitious artist Madonna, diva of commercial pop culture. That was an entertaining, funny, fascinating look at an artist at her peak as well, directed by someone else but staged by none other than the artist herself.

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