Film Review – Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present


Title: Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
Directors: Matthew Akers, Jeff Dupre
Starring: Marina Abramovic, Ulay, Klaus Biesenbach, Davide Balliano
Release Date: 6 July 2012

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present documents the life of the Serbian-born performance artist, who has spent most of her life fighting for her avant-garde performances to be acknowledged as art, striving for the respect of her peers and audiences.

Marina is charming, candid, and entertaining, the perfect subject for a documentary. The film glances at her early life and career, but the focus is a retrospective of her life’s work held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 2010. The three-month exhibition featured young artists, trained by Marina herself, recreating many of her provocative performances (for example, a doorway flanked by two nude artists, between whom the audience must squeeze). However, the centerpiece was Marina’s own contribution, her masterpiece. For 736 hours, she sat silent and motionless while, one at a time, spectators sat opposite, staring into her eyes. This magnetic woman attracted 750,000 visitors to bear witness to her unusual self-portrait.

As the film borrows its title from the MoMA exhibit, it comes as no surprise that much of the documentary is dedicated to “The Artist is Present”. Unfortunately, this relatively narrow focus forces the filmmakers to gloss over much of Marina’s early work, reducing some of her more interesting performances to mere seconds of video. Despite this, the audience will glean just enough to grasp what’s behind Marina’s haunting stare, and directors Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre are able to build slowly and naturally to a poignant conclusion, crafting a film that feels both sincere and unadorned.

The film’s emotional payoff, for both artist and audience, comes with each individual that takes the chair across from Marina. The thing that makes Marina’s work so powerful is the invitation for the audience to become part of her canvas, and this dynamic is captured brilliantly on camera. Nothing is forced, the tears are genuine, and the emotion of those moments is conveyed effortlessly and elegantly. There is magic in the space between the chairs when Marina looks up to see her one-time lover and partner-in-performance, Ulay, staring back at her.

Marina Abramovic does well to encapsulate the artist’s life and work, and the audience will understand what a lifetime retrospective at MoMA means to Marina. “After 40 years of people thinking you’re insane and should be put in a mental hospital, you finally get all this acknowledgment,” she says. “I’ve been ‘alternative’ since I was born. Excuse me, I’m 63, I don’t want to be ‘alternative’ anymore. I want to be respected before I die.” Whether or not you are convinced that what Marina does is ‘art’, by the end of this surprisingly moving film, she will have earned your respect.

In a Nutshell: An intimate and intriguing look into the life of an artist that creates, above all else, a truly honest portrait.

by Alex Grant