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.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism