I settled in for the screening of Marina Abramovic -- The Artist is Present, with the same skepticism I'd had when I went to see her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which the film documents.
But I came away feeling chastened -- mostly that I'd been so dismissive of Abramovic's work when I saw it in person and didn't take advantage of the chance to engage with it when I had it.
The Artist is Present chronicles the 2011 retrospective of Abramovic's career as a performance artist that was installed at MoMA. It contained a look at Abramovic's work of the past three decades -- utilizing both video and photos of the old work and a group of new young assistants to recreate certain performance pieces. And it featured a new piece of Abramovic's, in which she sat in a chair in the center of a gallery and locked eyes with whoever sat down opposite her.
Filmmaker Matthew Akers obviously had exceptional access to his subject. He begins filming her months before the exhibit, as she gathers her young assistants for a lengthy rural workshop in stillness: through yoga, Zen and whatever other forms of relaxation worked for them. They were to be the stand-ins for Abramovic in pieces that called for people to stand (or lie) nude in the galleries during the open hours.
Akers allows Abramovic and the critics who appreciate her work to explain what she's doing, why it is significant and what about it will stand the test of time. But it is Abramovic herself -- witty, cagey, surprisingly open and self-deprecating -- who pulls you into the work.
By the end, you are caught in her spell, understanding the intensity of the moment when each new attendee of the MoMA show takes the step to sit down opposite her and command her attention.
Because that's what she gives, in an intense and undivided way. Without speaking, gesturing or otherwise doing anything other than giving her undivided attention, she composes herself and then, as the title says, makes herself present in the moment. It is obviously a startling experience. For some, it induces tears; for others, a smile.
Abramovic's is the kind of art that, without the kind of explication this film provides, can strike the viewer as random, whimsical, insubstantial, even silly. But as she talks about her work and the struggle to present it over the years -- and the obvious commitment she has to it -- you can't help but be transfixed by Abramovic's vision, whether it appeals to you or not.
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