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Ann DeWitt: Marina Abramovic’s Gestures of Empathy in an Absentee World

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June 27, 2012

A new documentary about Marina Abramovic gives an inside look at the artist’s discipline, creative process, and love story.

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Photo by Jeff Dupre, courtesy of HBO Documentary Films & Music Box Films

By Ann DeWitt

As a child Marina Abramovic’s mother told her, “I didn’t kiss you not to spoil you.” It would be easy to say that it is from this early encounter with emotional malnutrition that 65-year old Belgrade-born performance artist Marina Abramovic’s passion for performance was born. The daughter of Yugoslavian Partisans during the Second World War, Abramovic hailed from a highly disciplined home, “My mother was a major in the army, a national hero,” Abramovic recalled in a 2011 interview for the British Telegraph. “She created complete military discipline in the house […] I have enormously strong willpower, which I think is inherited.”

Entering the screening of Marina Abramovic The Artist Is Present, the upcoming HBO documentary, puts one in mind of the anticipation behind the Louise Bourgeoise retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2008. Here is the dedicated grande dame of performance art receiving her long sought after retrospective in which the film (and arguably the 2010 MoMA performance it was based on) raises up its matriarch before the crowd for her hard-won standing ovation. What’s most striking in the film is not the glamour of Marina Abramovic as celebrity, but her allegiance as a master craftswoman who has dedicated her life to the singular, and often lonely, pursuit of what she feels has been a too-oft orphaned art form. The film is organized around Abramovic’s plea that performance art not be considered alternative any longer. Abramovic outlines her 2010 MoMA performance “The Artist Is Present,” as the final stake in the ground of her long career as an activist; “I want it [performance] to be a real art before I die,” she says in the film. “This is my cross to bear.”

It is little wonder that Acker’s film won the Panorama Audience Award at the Berlin film festival in February and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2012; the film hits two major audience homeruns.

There is the feeling that then 63-year-old artist may sit down one morning only to never get up again.

The first is its perceptive documentary footage of the recent MoMA show itself. The film adopts as its main-stage the lead-up to and performance of Abramovic’s highly attended retrospective exhibit. The filming of this footage presented an interesting directorial provocation. “I was skeptical of performance art,” first-time director Mathew Ackers admits in his directorial statement, “I knew her [Abramovic’s] openness posed a peculiar sort of challenge. Marina is someone who spent her whole career blurring the lines between life and art. How would I know when she was performing for the camera or not?” Despite Acker’s initial reservation about the standing of performance in the big-league art world, his film not only convinces, but rather brims with vitality, the same force that kept 63-year old artist alive for three months of round-the-clock attendance to her seat at MOMA, an unforgiving wooden chair with a built in bed-pan.

The most striking of Acker’s footage is the narrow-angle shots of the some 750,000 MoMA civilian attendees who chose to sit across from Abramovic over the course of her three-month performance. Acker’s close-ups of these faces are transportative; serving as large-scale portraits, these up-close shots reveal the sitters’ pain, excitement, fear, acceptance, timidity, self-doubt, resentment, rebellion and even deeply felt love as Abramovic regards them. As Abramovic herself says in the film, “So many people have so much pain. I am a mirror of their own self.”

Through Acker’s footage we see the 2010 MoMA exhibit from a bird’s eye view. We see the crowds who arrived early to the exhibit occasionally erupt into cheers of applause, tears, and even laughter as they regard what takes places between Abramovic and her subjects as they silently await their turn. We see the young woman who tries to undress before entering the exhibit in order to encounter the artist in a more neutral state. We see pranksters throw paper from an above floor in an effort to foil the exhibit. But most impressively, we see the passage of time itself. Each day Acker documents the artist herself robing and disrobing, rising from her chair at MoMA at the end of each day as the museum empties to fill in a series of crosshatches in the wall behind the exhibit denoting that one more day has passed, an act of private solidarity. There is the feeling that then 63-year-old artist may sit down one morning only to never get up again. As MOMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, who himself assisted in devising the performance, comments in the film, “When she had this idea, I thought, ‘God, she’s going to kill herself.’”

The second of the film’s major achievements is its sentient love story. After Abramovic declares three times at a press conference at the Florence Biennale, “an artist should not fall in love with another artist,” the film deftly doubles back to a cut featuring Abramovic’s partner of twelve years, German born artist Ulay. The two were early collaborators who traveled for an extended time in Europe, inhabiting a small van together which they drove through towns where they performed. “I know all the showers in the filling stations in Europe,” Abramovic jokes. Here we see Abramovic’s veneer give way to a flood of emotion which overtakes even her formidable resolve. It is clear this period in her life with Ulay represents perhaps Abramovic’s only all-consuming relationship, one whose intensity is on par with her own work. “We were two twins connected together with a body and soul,” Abramovic attests. Refusing to see the barrier between life and art, the two separated in a public performance where they walked for three months from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, met in the middle after 1,500 miles, and then decided to divorce.

After a 24-year absence, the film captures as the couple reunites at the MoMA “to forgive each other.” In one of those moving moments in documentary filmmaking where you see life transpiring before your eyes, Abramovic in an unsignature gesture reaches out to Ulay as he sits across from her. The two clasp hands and weep.

Marina Abramovic The Artist Is Presentitself baited a host of early reviewers who often slotted the documentary as an approachable overview bent on making Abramovic’s work comprehensible to mainstream audiences. This dialogue seems tired. The film reveals Abramovic’s work to be nothing if not comprehensible: bodily and often simply executed. Her performances rely primarily on shared experience and instinct. As proof perfect, one of the close-ups of the film reveals a young viewer rendered motionless, sitting on the floor of the MoMA exhibit moved to tears.

One of the lesser-utilized aspects of the film was the process of training the actors who reenacted the twelve other performance pieces as part of the 2010 MoMA retrospective. The film briefly touches on the actors’ immersion into Marina’s home and performance institute in the Hudson Valley. However, little was made of these actors’ roles, which left several unanswered questions in the film as to how they were indeed recruited, trained and ultimately affected by their own performances. This likely would have been interesting testimony. It is here in these brief clips from her Hudson home that Marina reveals much of her philosophy: “the hardest thing to do is to do almost nothing.”

Brief celebrity cameos by illusionist David Blaine and actor James Franco seem to nod to one of the film’s lesser narratives about the artifice behind being a celebrated late-career artist, the work that goes with preserving one’s long-fought-for reputation. As Marina herself says, there is an “administration of being an artist,” which itself is physically encumbering, pointing to long arduous meetings with curators and other imager-handlers. However, the witty repartee of the art-house chatter provided by the brief clips with Abramovic’s curatorial brethren, which Ackers uses in transitional montages, provided a series of more vibrant encounters whose levity was aimed at framing Abramovic’s work into its larger critical context.

I really strongly believe that you can’t have great ideas in New York. You can’t think here. This is no place to think. This is place to make things but not to think.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Marina recently in a round-table discussion at her office in New York. There it became clear that leaving a lasting legacy has become her key focus. She reiterated her acknowledgement that so many of the performance artists of her generation had either passed or no longer performed. “I want to make it durational,” she said of her feeling that performance art was at a contemporary crossroads, a turning point in which she sees herself as a direct arbiter. “I am most afraid of the amount of time,” she said. “I have so many things I want to do. I want to create a institute […] I want to create a building, how to educate the public how to perform […] I’m like a solider I wake up in the morning and just work and then when I get the right concept, then I stop everything and then I do my work.” She spoke about nearly a half-dozen projects and performances she was planning and enthusiastically revealed performance plans as outlined in her book, The Abramovic Method, which details a series of institutes which will begin first in Milan.

The time she is most in need of now is a period of immersion. “I want to have the period of research,” she said. To this end Abramovic plans to take a trip to Brazil where she wants to research the effect of chauvinism on culture. “I really strongly believe that you can’t have great ideas in New York. You can’t think here. This is no place to think. This is place to make things but not to think. All my ideas never came from here. I mean you have sound pollution. You have the energy pollution. You have every pollution you can possibly imagine. I mean if you think here just how many brains are thinking, they’re all creating waves… I go to countryside, it’s sleep. Here I have to put plugs in my ear.” She elaborates, “Susan Sontag said to me when I came to New York, she said when you live in New York, you can’t live anywhere else. And she’s really right about the energy part of you. Because here it’s incredibly efficient. Whatever you do is fast. You go to Europe, everybody’s in slow motion… But you have to be very careful New York doesn’t eat you, because it can consume you and throw you away.”

Indeed, Abramovic’s goal she says, is to create a “charismatic space,” which treats everyone with the same respect and attention. In that way, Ackers film releases at an interesting time, a moment in history when we are seeking to understand how to better “see” each other in a technocratic world often devoid of emotion despite our increased ability to connect via various social media platforms which seem to concurrently function as both piranhas and placebos for shared experiences like the sit-ins and happenings of the 60’s and early 70’s. The outpouring of audience response to Abramovic’s 2010 MOMA performance, as documented by Acker’s camera, highlights a kind of absenteeism that has come to the forefront of public consciousness of late in articles such as Stephen Marche’s recent piece in the Atlantic, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely,” The Believer’s recent interview with Amherst philosopher Tom Dumm on loneliness, and Emily Cooke’s piece “The Lonely Ones” in The New Inquiry. Ackers’s film reminds us that going viral is not always visceral but rather vegetative. “It’s dangerous. It’s really dangerous,” Abramovic asserts of the fast-paced nature of urban life. “And people are so tired. They’re so exhausted. Including myself.”

However, while the takeaway message of Acker’s documentary may open a new societal wound for cultural critics to discuss and admire, Abramovic’s presence in it is solidly celebratory. On camera, as in life, Abramovic’s staggering physical exuberance, her constant philosophical barrage on mental complacency, and her tough-as-nails resolve presents the kind of character who is the lynchpin of any truly great biopic, one whose onscreen presence is both disarming and charismatic. As Marina herself jokes in the film, pausing theatrically as though reading her own want-ad, I am a “semi-intellectual artist at the top of her career looking for single male.” Yes, Marina, you deserve a cadre of suitors. Your fans will be at the head of the line. That is, if Ulay doesn’t put his finger on your tooth first.

Marina Abramovic The Artist Is Present is currently playing at Film Forum in New York, where MoMA’s Chief Curator Klaus Biesenbach will discuss the film on June 28.

The documentary debuts on HBO on July 2.

A graduate of Columbia School of the Arts, Ann DeWitt writes and teaches writing in New York.  Please follow her here.

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