Because the 2010 exhibition of her work at MoMA was titled "The Artist is Present," Marina Abramović knew what to do. At a recent screening of a documentary based on this show, appropriately at MoMA, she explained she could do nothing but be present; that is, occupy a chair facing a viewer for 12-hour sessions.
Clad in a heavy gown -- one was red, another white -- the artist exuded a somber essence, not taking a break for a coffee or a pee. Viewers queued up for hours, camping outside of the museum, taking turns to sit there on a wooden armless chair opposite her, at times eliciting tears. Filmmakers recorded all this, including a young devotee who removed her dress before sitting. Museum security whisked away the rule-breaking girl. The actor James Franco took a seat, and when he left, the next up asked, "Are you an actor? You have that actor thing." That was perhaps the film's most humorous moment.
Say what you will of this experience, which seems stylized and willfully artsy: the effect can be surprisingly emotional. That goes for her art, her formidable persona and the film about Marina Abramović, opening at Film Forum this week before airing on HBO.
Born in Belgrade to activist parents, to a mother who showed no sign of maternal care, no kissing, for example, Abramović can be viewed as a study in neediness, only partially assuaged by a designer-clothes-buying binge. But her brave attention-getting strategies defy pathography. Her work challenges us to deal with violence, sex, the naked body, the effects of war, time, unhinging in subtle ways. Fortunate for us, we have this record of that moment in this fascinating film directed by Matthew Akers.
Curator Klaus Biesenbach sat onstage at MoMA for a Q&A. Abramović in a black suit was brimming with more to say. But she kept coming back to the night being a celebration of the art of the film celebrating her art, a point that would have been more persuasive had the filmmaker too been on the MoMA stage.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.