Controversial performance artist, Marina Abramović has had as many devotees as detractors over the years. Earning titles like the “Grandmother of Performance Artists” and “Diva” has not come cheap. Nor has being asked the question, “But why is this art?” In Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present filmmaker, Matthew Akers helps shed some light on this enigmatic individual.

Abramović was then 63-years-old but looked decades younger. She was born in the former Yugoslavia to hard, unloving parents. As a girl she was often sad and disappointed. At the first costume party she attended she went as a devil, something that was a formative experience in her life. And when this was coupled with a lack of parental support and spiritual wisdom, this would set her up on a rather strange path.

Over the years she would become known for her challenging performance art that was littered with provocative and violent statements designed to challenge and shock the audience. These where not limited to whipping and stabbing herself for the “cause”. In one of her most notorious works she offered members of the public some 72 instruments to use on her in any way they wished (and among these were a gun and a bullet).

In 2010 after some 40 years of people questioning her craft and others dubbing her “insane,” she finally received some kudos. Her works were the subject of a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. These included recreations of some of her historic performances and stills from others. The former including the work, “Imponderabilia” where two nude bodies flank a tiny doorway and people have to push past in order to get through.

The exhibition’s centerpiece however, was a test of endurance and what some called a definitive show of patience and humility. For three months Abramović was the living subject of “The Artist Is Present,” where she took no meal or toilet breaks during the gallery’s opening hours and sat in a chair. The point was to gaze into the eyes of anyone else brave enough to sit in the chair opposite her.

To critics it was little more than a staring contest. But allies applauded her for indulging peoples’ innate human need to be acknowledged through stillness. It was overwhelming and engaging, with many participants falling in love with her. It also reduced some to tears while others were bemused or smiled and there were pranks (including one woman who stripped).

The best exchange was between the star and her old flame, Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen), a fellow performance artist and a Sagittarius with an intense streak to rival her own. Their volatile relationship lasted 12 years and ended shortly after the pair walked the Great Wall of China from opposite ends and met in the middle. In 2010 their “moment” saw Abramović disarmed with a smile and at her most emotionally bare; as the chemistry and feelings of mutual respect between the two are both electric and palpable in the silence.

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present is a conventional documentary about an extreme and intriguing, avant-garde artist. Abramović proves a magnetic creature even through the repetitive closing act where countless devotees share unguarded moments in her presence. But ultimately the film is purely about the artist, and an interesting primer about the woman- her work, weirdness and the wonder of it all.

Review score: 3 stars

Originally published on 10 July 2012 at the following website:

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