This one is definitely an acquired taste. Although it is a brilliantly made documentary, unless you are a fan or connoisseur of performance art and all things Marina Abramovic, this may not be for you. However, as an avid follower of the ‘grandmother of performance art’ and her work, I found The Artist Is Present to be insightful, funny, charming, and very moving.
The title of the documentary is in reference to Abramovic’s 2010 MoMA piece of the same name, and it is this that the film predominantly looks at. The work that was presented at MoMA was in two parts; firstly a retrospective look at some of her iconic past works performed by a handful of young artists chosen by Abramovic, and secondly a performance by Abramovic herself. Director-cinematographer Matthew Akers offers an intimate portrait of Abramovic in her journey to and during this piece, but also during some of her most famous past works, as well as a stirring look at her infamous relationship with German performance artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen, a.k.a. Ulay.
The original footage and photographs from some of her past performances forms a fascinating overview of works such as her Rhythm series, which included a performance where audience members could do whatever they wanted to a passive Abramovic using any of the 72 objects at their disposal including scissors, a scalpel, honey, feathers, a whip, and a gun with a single bullet, and another where she was rescued by audience members after falling unconscious at the center of a petroleum-drenched flaming star. Other works looked at included The House With The Ocean View, which was reenacted in the sixth season of Sex And The City, Lips Of Thomas, where Ulay recalls “I fell in love with her when I saw her cut a pentagram in her stomach with a razor blade,” and the Relation works she created and performed with Ulay. There is also footage from the residential training that the young artists had to go through in order to be included in The Artist Is Present, where Abramovic tells them ‘you will hate me’ as they embark upon days of silence, fasting, nudity, and special exercises.
The heart of the documentary is in looking at the relationship between Abramovic and Ulay, described in the film as ‘one of the world’s great love stories’. And it really is. As shown in the documentary, they ended their relationship through a piece called The Lovers, where they walked for three months from opposite ends of the Great Wall Of China. Their original intention had been to marry at the end, but instead they part ways, not to see each other for many years. There is a wonderfully tear-jerking moment when Ulay takes part in her MoMA performance, which echoes a piece they performed together all over the world many years before.
Abramovic comes off as charming, charismatic, funny, and is still stunningly beautiful and sensual at the age of 64. The documentary has everything I could want from it; blood, tears, naked bodies, heart-break and lots of performance art. Also there is some footage of Orlando Bloom‘s and James Franco‘s experience at the MoMA exhibition, as well of David Blaine sharing wine with Abramovic and eating the glass that contained it, which should provide some incentive to see The Artist Is Present even if you aren’t a huge performance art geek.