Thursday, July 5, 2012

Film Review: Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present

Writer/Director: Matthew Akers, Jeff Dupre
Producer: Jeff Dupre, Maro Chermayeff
Featuring: Marina Abramović, Ulay and Klaus Biesenbach
Biographical Art Documentary
1 hour, 46 minutes

I am a performance art skeptic. As with the question as to whether or not video games are art, I don't see any connection with other art forms. Or at least I didn't, until now.

Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present is a new film by Matthew Akers that explores the forty-year career of the trailblazing performance artist Abramović as she mounts a career retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It requires training a whole crew of younger performance artists to reproduce some of her earlier works, many of which involved being motionless while nude.

She herself is the centrepiece of the show. In an homage to a previous work she did with a lover/collaborating artist Ulay, she contrives to sit motionless in a chair (clothed) across from an empty chair for the entire duration of the exhibit – all day, every day, with no meal or bathroom breaks. Visitors are to take turns sitting in the chair and have a moment with her as others watch. There is no reason why her sitting and doing nothing should be remotely compelling.

And yet....

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that there is undeniable power in the experience. A MoMA director points out that the average museum-goer only spends 30-seconds in front of an artwork, even as famous as the Mona Lisa. Yet with Abramović, observers spend hours. People wait in line overnight for the privilege of sitting across from her, and those that finally do are sometimes moved to tears. The film expertly captures that feeling and we too are somehow moved.

A number of critics have complained that the film doesn't justify performance art, and that when Abramović is shown being interviewed she points out that for the first half of her career, she was always asked "why is this art?" and then that question isn't adressed. This gripe misses the point and exposes those critics as ones who expect a news piece rather than an artful cinematic work.

As with Wim Wenders' masterful dance documentary Pina which eschewed talking heads and relied on Pina Bausch's own language of dance to express her life and work (and was thus criticized by those who didn't get it), Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present wisely avoids a direct, dry definition in favour of being itself a representation of the art being documented. Like Abramović herself and her work, the film may seem to be confounding and dismissable, yet for those who keep and open mind it may be surprisingly skillful, revealing, fascinating and inexplicably emotional.

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