Marina Abramović: "The Artist is Present"

The legendary performance artist’s retrospective is lovingly documented on DVD.

I wanted to interview Marina Abramović. I say “interview”: I wanted to recreate the scenario where the Serbian performance artist sat in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, allowing individuals to sit opposite her for as long as they wished, without moving or speaking. Her aim was to reduce the relationship between performer and audience members to its core and examine the emotional effects of these encounters on both. Sadly, I couldn’t get one, so instead I’m reviewing Matthew Akers’ documentary The Artist is Present, released on DVD earlier this month.

The Artist is Present was the only new piece in Abramović’s MoMA retrospective, which took place from 9 March to 31 May 2010 and celebrated her forty-year career. For all of the gallery’s opening hours – 736, and thirty minutes – Abramović sat on one of two wooden chairs, initially with a table between her and her companion, in a performance that, in her words, “became close to life itself”. This was far more gruelling than it might sound: Abramović says that, physically and psychologically, “The hardest thing to do is something that is close to nothing” and much is made of her management’s concerns about her levels of exposure and pain throughout.

Abramović’s willingness to push her body to its very limits (or have it pushed) made her one of the world’s best known performance artists. Akers charts Abramović’s career from the seventies to the present as she tries to secure some respect for her art and her field: her tiredness with being perceived and treated as “alternative” and her amazement that it’s taken “forty years of people thinking [I’m] insane” to reach a large audience emerge as key themes.

Born to partisan parents in Tito’s Yugoslavia who did their best not to spoil her, Abramović spent much time with her more loving grandmother, hence her strange mixture of “spiritually and Communist discipline”. Earlier pieces were distinguished by Abramović letting herself be drawn into the unknown: in one, she took hallucinogenic drugs to challenge reactions to images that evoked stereotypes around female mental illness; in Rhythm 0 (1974), she showed how easily the “veneer of civilisation” could be pierced by standing in a space for six hours, putting objects ranging from feathers to a gun beside her and inviting her audience to use any on her as they desired. They cut her clothes, stuck rose thorns in her stomach and aimed the gun at her head, stopping short of firing. In The Artist is Present, security guards protected Abramović, now in her sixties, from such intrusions.

Her style evolved when she met her physical equal and long-term lover Ulay. Living in a van together for five years so they could dedicate themselves to their (unprofitable) art, they made various works in which raw conflict was central. In one, they repeatedly ran into each other, taking relationships to a dark conclusion; in the unbearably tense Rest Energy (1980), Ulay pointed a bow and arrow at Abramović and they both leant back and pulled. In their most beautiful piece, The Lovers (1988), they spent three months walking towards each other, Ulay starting at the Gobi Desert and Abramović at the Yellow Sea, meeting in the middle of the Great Wall of China. They embraced and then separated.

Since, Abramović has worked in theatre and video art, her profile bolstered by her realisation that performance pieces could be repeated and recorded. In Seven Easy Pieces (2007), she reprised works by Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Valie Export and others; at the MoMA, she had thirty young people perform five of hers. This receives little time in Akers’ film, which often feels hagiographical: there is scant investigation into Abramović’s seemingly authoritarian attitude towards their training, and viewers can only hope that, as Abramović predicts, her charges will come to love her. The one time she is seriously challenged is when David Blaine wants to become involved in her retrospective, and Abramović, perhaps not acquainted with Blaine, is intrigued. She is told firmly that bringing “an illusionist” into this exhibition of her very visceral, “real” work would be catastrophic, and she drops him.

Akers is equally uncritical of The Artist is Present. This is leavened by the considerable beauty he finds in it: his presentation of each encounter ending with Abramović closing her eyes, looking down and composing herself before looking up and opening them to the new person has a genuine, rare stillness. Its effect is magnified by the information that on average, people stand in front of masterpieces for thirty seconds – Abramović consciously slows down visitors and forces them to consider deeply what confronts them.

Beforehand, Abramović reads her manifesto, which includes decrees that “an artist should not make himself into an idol” and that “an artist should not fall in love with another artist”. She has long since broken the latter: the most touching moment comes when Ulay sits opposite Abramović, who tries to keep her calm, falters, starts to cry and then takes his hands to vigorous applause.

But maybe she breaks the former, too: “Now the audience is her lover”, we are told, and there are numerous shots of them overcome with emotion, travelling for hours or queuing for days for their turn. Few questions are asked about whether or not Abramović has turned herself into an idol in The Artist is Present, and the criticisms come mostly from outraged Fox News anchors struggling with her material being mainstreamed, rather than visitors.

Dick Jewell’s film What’s Your Reaction to the Show (1988), where he asked numerous people what they thought of Leigh Bowery exhibiting himself in London’s Anthony d’Offay Gallery for hours on end in typically outré costumes, forms an interesting contrast – the range of opinions was far wider, with more irony and humour than those heard here. (In her recent revival of Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! Penny Arcade scathingly describes her visit, which I would have loved to have seen: her hyperactive, conversational openness could not contrast more markedly with Abramović’s stern silence.)

Maybe, on the whole, the audience really were as captivated as Akers suggests. Certainly, there was real excitement around the show – 750,000 came, and it’s hard to watch The Artist is Present and not feel that something fascinating and unique had taken place. I could never have hoped to have recreated it, in all honesty, and it’s probably for the best that, unlike so many others, I never got to meet Marina Abramović.

Marina Abramović performing in "The Artist is Present". Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth

Fiona Mozley’s debut novel digs deep into the psycho-geology of Yorkshire. 

In the autumn of 616 or 617 AD, one of the last remaining Celtic kingdoms of ancient Britain to withstand Anglo-Saxon settlement was conquered by its Northumbrian neighbours. Elmet, which covered what is now the West Riding of Yorkshire, was referred to by Bede as “silva Elmete” (“forest of Elmet”), with its devastation verified by the Historia Brittonum, which claimed that Edwin, the king of Northumbria, “occupied Elmet and expelled Certic, king of that country”. In 1979, several years before becoming poet laureate, the Celtic obsessive Ted Hughes collaborated with the photographer Fay Godwin on Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence, a book that evoked the “spectacular desolation” of the Calder Valley where he grew up, a landscape saturated with myth and memory.

There is more than a hint of Hughes’s shamanistic unleashing of the power of language in Elmet, Fiona Mozley’s debut novel, a work of troubling beauty that has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. At once spare and ornate, Mozley’s writing digs deep into what could be termed the psycho-geology of Yorkshire, much as Alan Garner’s work does with Cheshire: the intermittent glimpses of vanished lives from centuries earlier alongside those of the present day, the trauma of past upheaval and resettlement echoing along the dark valleys.

Elmet, for all its formality and ritual style, has a modern setting but appears to inhabit a space that is outside time. Opening with a ragged account from a survivor of a savage act of destruction, the narrative moves back to the events leading up to the routing of a smallholding held by the 14-year-old Daniel and his conspicuously small family: his sister, Cathy, and their father, John, always referred to as “Daddy” or “my Daddy”.

Daddy is a giant of a man, worshipped by both children, “more vicious and more kind than any leviathan of the ocean… His music pitched above the hearing of hounds and below the trembling of trees.” Far from being carried away on a crescendo of poetic whimsy, however, the book is firmly rooted in stark realities. Daddy is a violent man, who makes his living from bare-knuckle fighting.

Having removed his children from school, he sets about building a house in a remote copse on land that he does not own. Lawless, but then so is Price, the most powerful and ruthless of the unscrupulous local landlords who dominate this ex-mining area of subsistence-level existence. The battle between Price and John is decades old, with links to the children’s vanished mother, and is as much a battle for the soul of an individual as for a plot of land. It is this agonising constriction, like one of the hunter’s bows John stretches to tautness, that Mozley emphasises.

If John is the “Robyn Hode” of legend, Cathy and Daniel are his “scrawny vagrants”, running wild in the ancient forest that surrounds their home. It is a hard life but, in Mozley’s telling, an enchanted one: rich and gamey with dark cuts of animals hunted for food, cider and roll-ups, singing till dawn and “skylarks on toast, almost whole, with mugs of hot, milky tea”. Daddy has built a fortress and a flawed paradise, in which Cathy – a mixture of Brontë-esque wilfulness (the name is surely no coincidence) and fearless warrior princess, with hair as “black as Whitby jet” and eyes “blue like the North Sea” – strives to protect her younger brother.

However, even as their precarious shelter is under siege, Daniel and Cathy are changing. Cathy is most resistant to adaptation. Like Daddy, she had “an outside sort of head”; like him, she is a loner. Daniel, though, is drawn to the world of learning and culture, as demonstrated by Vivien, an unlikely acquaintance of Daddy who gives the children informal lessons. Vivien influences Daniel in other ways, too, for this is a novel about not conforming to stereotypes, be they gendered or otherwise. Daniel’s long hair and sense of curiosity and delight in his body contrast with Cathy’s awkwardness in hers, her fatalistic awareness that as a woman she is vulnerable, a target: “We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine,” she tells him, just before the book’s violent culmination.

Brutal, bleak, ethereal, Mozley’s novel combines parable with urgent contemporary truths about dispossession and exploitation. Reading Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth: centuries old, yet as fresh as today. 

Elmet
Fiona Mozley
JM Originals, 320pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear