Sunday, June 10, 2012

Marina Abramovic: the Performance Artist is Present

An innovator in her field, Marina Abramović made the seemingly ephemeral performance art collectible.  The limited edition photographic prints of her performances would play a role in her 2010 trailblazing career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.  While it also featured re-stagings of her famous work by a troupe of young collaborators, the cornerstone of the exhibit was a brand new Abramović performance conceived specifically for the show.  Deceptively simple, it would prove one her most physically and emotionally grueling undertakings.  Matthew Akers follows her preparations and 736 hours of on-site performance in the HBO documentary Marina Abramović: the Artist is Present (trailer here), which opens theatrically this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

The concept is pretty simple.  There are two chairs.  Abramović sits in one and the public queues up to sit in the other.  For a while there was a table between them, but Abramović removed during the performance.  There is no talking, just eye contact.  However, many participants find great significance in their real or perceived unspoken communication. 

From March 14th to May 31st, as long as the museum was open to the public, Abramović was in her chair.  Though her prior work is rather notorious for its extreme transgressiveness (often featuring nudity and self-inflicted physical pain), the need to be constantly “on” throughout The Artist is Present pushed her to her limits.  After all, these are New Yorkers she was facing, at least for the most part.  Any questionable character could walk in, including even James Franco, who shockingly comes across like a shallow, self-absorbed twit during his brief sit with Abramović.

If nothing else, Present the documentary will give viewers a deep appreciate for the professionalism of the MoMA’s security personnel.  They are quite impressive sweeping down on the inevitable freaks crossing the line.  However, the film makes a crucial miscalculation, assuming Abramović’s performances are so self-evidently “art,” they require no case to be made on their behalf.  Yet, the film could rather use such a manifesto moment.  It is clear Abramović’s performance becomes a cultural phenomenon, but that does not necessarily make it art.

Indeed, more cultural-historical context would help aesthetically conservative viewers come to terms with Abramović and her performances.  The daughter of an overbearing military martinet of a mother, recognized as a hero of Communist Yugoslavia, Abramović herself acknowledges the influence of her excessively disciplined early years on her outré art.  However, the subversive use of Communist and Russian imagery in her early performances is never explored in depth.  Neither does Akers ever push for her perspective on the early 1990’s Bosnian War as an expatriate Serbian, even though it is an issue that will surely cross the mind of most viewers.

An accomplished cinematographer, director-dp Akers films Abramović with sensitivity bordering on reverence.  Frankly, he might have become too close to his subject.  While the overwrought emotional responses of many sitters may have seemed appropriate to those sharing the moment, it looks more than a little bizarre on screen.  The resulting film is often fascinating, but it rather feels like reality television for the elite of the gallery world.  Recommended for partisans of the avant-garde, Marina Abramović: the Artist is Present opens this Wednesday (6/13) at Film Forum, ahead of its HBO broadcast on July 2nd.