This is the first guest contribution by Dawn Saville. - D. D.
Performance art partisan Marina Abramović’s physical endurance, dedication and scope of vision are emblematic of her career. She once walked the length of the Great Wall of China over the span of three months in a performance piece that was eight years in the making. She is no stranger to public nudity, fasting, self-mutilation, blood, fire and tears. Famously known for carving a pentagram into her stomach before flagellating herself with a whip until her back bled, she also laid in the center of a burning five-pointed star (a symbol of communism of her native Yugoslavia) until she lost consciousness from lack of oxygen.
Forty years later Abramović is securing the immortality of this legendary career in Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, a documentary that has its Canadian premiere as it opens the Reel Artists Film Festival at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Shot over eleven months in seven countries and racking up 700 hours of footage The Artist is Present delves into Abramović’s beginnings as a performance artist in the early 1970s, through her collaborative work with lover and fellow artist, Ulay, and the explosion of her cult-status solo career. The film’s primary focus, though, is on her 2010 MoMA retrospective of the same name, whose centrepiece is her longest running and most physically and emotionally demanding solo piece to date. Museumgoers lined up for hours, sometimes camping out over night, for a chance to sit in a chair across from Abramović and stare silently into her eyes for as long as they wanted; this lasted 7.5 hours a day, six days a week, for three months. At one point in the film Abramović describes her role in the piece as “a mountain, a stillness, in the middle of hell.”
Indeed, Abramović’s beacon-like presence lends an arresting immediacy to the piece, set within the contemporary-world-in-overdrive (not to mention our collective, waning attention span) that is part of the power and appeal of The Artist is Present. There is something inherently meditative in the simplicity of sitting opposite someone and staring at them in silence. Abramović transforms into an oracle, a medium, a mirror, moving many patrons to tears as they look at their own reflection. As she turns the gaze on her audience, Abramović says “I am the mirror of their own self.”
MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach asserts in the film that “time is a weight on the performer’s shoulders” but it’s clearly a sacrifice Abramović willingly makes for her audience (and, in light the key connections Akers draws between Abramović’s early work and the MoMA show, it’s expected). During its run Abramović’s ribcage began to literally weigh on her internal organs, causing her a great deal of pain. When Biesenbach let’s her know that she can opt to end the piece early, it is no surprise that the ever-stoic Abramović refuses. Chris Lee of loveartnotpeople.com writes “in keeping with the piece’s engagement with issues of body and pain, space and time, Abramović began to take on an almost saintly aura.” In the weeks leading up the MoMA opening, we hear Abramović confirm “this is my cross I’m carrying”; fittingly, Biesenbach later concludes that part of Abramović’s goal is to “bring performer and public into the same state of consciousness.” The film definitely posits that Abramović artistic persona is like Atlas, carrying the weight of the world; what viewers think of these lofty statements will be interesting. Abramović is certainly not without her inconsistencies and this is what makes her human. When she accepts an award at the Florence Biennale three months before the MoMA show opens, Akers zooms in on her reading her current manifesto. One of its tenets: “an artist should not make themselves into an idol”; later Abramović tells us “if they idolise me, it’s a side-effect. It’s not the aim of the art, it’s a bi-product. I love bi-product.”
The Artist is Present had its world premiere at Sundance in January, winning the Grand Jury Prize. It also won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Berlinale on February 18, screened at the Big Sky Film Festival in Montana on February 17 and is slated for the True/False Film Festival in Columbia Missouri in March. Though it started as an independent, The Artist is Present is now owned by HBO and will be airing in the US in June. Akers states that it was nudity, in part, that dictated going with HBO, though the studio also got them to Sundance. In an interview with indiewire.com’s Bryce J. Renninger, Akers declares that ‘the goal was to make a film for as wide an audience as possible...for the uninitiated and not just the rarefied art world’; in the same interview, Marina speaks similarly about bringing performance art into the mainstream: ‘For me, Lady Gaga and HBO are bringing us to mass culture.’ In the film, Abramović refers to the “incredible responsibility” of introducing performance art to the masses and we see in a media clip that this pressure is very real; though for some she is the grand matriarch of her craft, she is still sometimes viewed as just ‘some Yugoslavian-born provocateur.” Abramović surely sees this as her chance to prove them wrong.
In a documentary with content so colossal, it seems conceivable to leave the form until last. Going beyond Abramović’s rock star stature, Akers does a fine job of capturing Abramović’s frank, eccentric and very witty character. Editor E. Donna Shepherd segues between shots and scenes with significance and more jarring transitions are subtly symbolic in their paradox. Nathan Halpern’s score is often intrusive and particularly heavy-handed in pushing more emotional scenes. As a first-time director, Akers is no innovator, stylistically, but there is some curiously evocative imagery throughout, especially when we see Abramović and her protégés training at her home. There is a balanced mix of past and present footage; the black and white stills and Super 8 from the 70s are beautiful in their trademark graininess, serving their purpose in counterpoint to Abramović’s current work while never being nostalgic. - Dawn Saville
Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present opens the Reel Artists Film Festival on February 22nd (the artist, director and producers will be present) and has an encore screening the closing day of the festival, February 26th. The Reel Artists Film Festival is a Canadian Art Foundation Film Festival. candianart.ca/raff. The director, Matthew Akers, is part of a Free Filmmakers Panel on February 24th.