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 House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis