The artist is a warrior. Armored in a solid red gown, she sits in a square of light. She steadies herself in her wooden chair, looks up and greets her guest with a level, serene gaze. She holds the gaze, for as long as her guest chooses to stay. One man stayed for a whole day, just to “exchange energy” with her, and returned 20 times. The artist does this six days a week, for three months. Her back hurts, but she soldiers on, betraying nothing. Pain is good, she asserts, because it enables you to cross over into another state of mind, one that can only be inadequately described as holiness. And that is what matters in performance — an artist shares his or her state of mind with the audience. Guests queue for hours outside the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see this artist; some return a peaceful stare, but most blink bear tears within seconds.
Meet Marina Abramovic, the subject of Matthew Akers’ 2010 documentary The Artist is Present; the film draws its name from Abramovic’s 2010 MOMA retrospective of the same name. Or rather meet the many Marinas, for there are three of them, at least by her own count. There is the wounded daughter of two high-ranking Yugoslavian military officers from whom she inherited unlimited willpower. There is the little girl whose mother never gave her enough love, eternally vulnerable and ceaselessly disappointed. Then there is the spiritual guru, giver of wisdom, who is Abramovic’s favorite self. In this way, Aker efficiently sets the stage for the contradictions that are at the core of the film, which is essentially a portrait of the artist. There are several light moments which betray yet more shades of grey. Abramovic recounts glumly posing for a photograph at a childhood party at which “everybody was dressed so happy” as princes and princess, but her mother dressed her up as a devil. “I think it marred my life,” she says, eyes sparkling. She recreates the moment at a photo shoot over 40 years later and chuckles at the raunchy result, which looks like an advertisement for companionship. With typical self-deprecation, she reveals herself as simultaneously vulnerable and strong, but undoubtedly good-humored, “if I put out advertising like that do you think it will attract some guys?”
Abramovic “seduces” everyone she meets, observes MOMA’s curator-at-large Klaus Biesenbach, who has made the mistake of falling in love with Abramovic. If Akers’ documentary is a good indicator, Abramovic’s intimates are also her best critics. The astute Biesenback cautions the viewer to note Abramovic is not in love with one person, but with the world. Akers has been criticized for being too uncritical of Abramovic, even for making his film an unadulterated love letter to her. Perhaps. Or maybe his point is to let the audience be seduced by Abramovic’s gaze. Abramovic has a strange kind of Midas touch — anywhere she looks turns into “charismatic space.”
On the opening night of Abramovic’s MOMA retrospective, Akers captures a comparably small, but still grand moment. Ulay (real name Frank Uwe Laysiepen), Abramovic’s longtime collaborator and former lover, takes his place opposite Abramovic. The pair last worked together on what they billed as a “spiritual” performance, during which the real became inextricable from the symbolic. In 1988, they walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, and met in the middle to bid farewell. At the MOMA performance, Abramovic seems impassive at first, but quickly her eyes glint with tears. Ulay shakes his head ever so slightly, quivering to speak. Their hearts are full and so with the spectators, who wait with bated breath. Abramovic is crying now, and she reaches out to Ulay. They hold hands and look at each other for several moments, then Ulay leaves, perceptibly shaken. There is nothing like a gripping love story to hold an audience captive.
Just like Cindy Sherman and Carolee Schneemann, Abramovic is a famed provocateur and expert practitioner of the brand of “pornographic” art often associated with feminism. Abramovic, however, clarifies that she is “not a feminist” but “an artist;” her focus is the art of presence. The centrality of the body in her performance art, perhaps expectedly, renders indistinct many boundaries — presence and representation, real and symbolic. In the early 1970s, Abramovic began using her body as both the subject and medium of her art. Throughout the film we see glimpses of Abramovic’s best-known works; glimpses that are too fleeting. If Akers is trying to intensify the audience’s shock at Abramovic’s violent works, then he has succeeded. We get the idea that Abramovic’s work could be a Hitchcock “murder mystery,” as Whitney Museum curator Chrissie Iles suggests — we never know if the artist is going to be killed. A flash of sharp surgical implements laid out for the audience’s choosing, to hurt or help Abramovic, is nearly all we see of 1974’s Rhythm 0. Rhythm 0 is Abramovic’s version of Lord of the Flies, a more aggressive update of Yoko Ono’s 1965 Cut Piece. As Rhythm 0 progresses, audience participants become bolder perpetrators; the performance reveals how, when given the license, people can get unthinkably bestial. Lips of Thomas, in which Abramovic carves out what appears to be a Star of David on her torso, has more screen time but still flies by before its leaden symbolism sinks in.
Judith Thurman, writing for The New Yorker, said it best: Abramovic “breaks down barriers as she resists being broken by them.” 736.5 hours, 750,000 visitors later, Abramovic cannot be accused of having done nothing. Midway through the film, there is an oddly belated Fox News clip, in which a presenter asks the expected question: Does Abramovic’s performances count as art? It is an interview question that Abramovic admits she misses, and she attributes this absence to her age: You’re not “alternative” at anything if you’re over 60, as people assume you know what you’re doing. But perhaps it is gritty, powerhouse shows like Abramovic’s star turn at MOMA that supply the answer. In The Artist is Present, as Abramovic makes an emotional connection with every guest, she is startled by what she sees in their eyes — pain. Abramovic becomes a mirror for her guests; they break down as they confront themselves. And that is why Abramovic’s work is more relevant than ever, because humanity is a theme that will never go out of fashion.
The Artist is Present played at Cornell Cinema on Tuesday.