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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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster