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Marina Abramović: "The Artist is Present"

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

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

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.