In Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, director Matthew Akers structures his portrait of the Yugoslavian "grandmother of performance art" around the preparation for her major Museum of Modern Art retrospective, which includes her biggest work of performance art to date: a 736-hour piece titled The Artist Is Present in which she basically sits in a chair, for hours on end, across from another chair in which any spectator can sit and look into her eyes for as long as he/she desires. This went on for the entire duration of the MoMA exhibition, causing quite a stir in the New York cultural scene and international art world—and even though we know that she survived the physical challenges of this stunt, Akers, with the help of editors E. Donna Shepherd and Jim Hession, generates a surprising amount of suspense as to whether she will indeed make it out of her own work of art 100%. The whole film—fleet, lively, and, for the performance-art novice, duly informative—is shaped like a thriller of sorts, with a first hour that painstakingly sets up the various personal and historical threads that eventually pay off during the extended climactic set piece centered around Abramović's epic work. But as entertaining as the doc is, it never really measures up to the fascination and sheer force of personality of its subject. Maybe no film could, really—especially not one as aesthetically conventional as this.
Over many decades of artistic creation, Abramović has consistently challenged not only her own mind and body, but the audience observing her. In her 1974 piece Rhythm 0, she offered up her body to spectators, giving all of them 72 objects to use on her in whatever way they preferred, whether to give pleasure, inflict pain, or otherwise. The results frighteningly suggested the violence people were capable of when given barely any restrictions whatsoever. The Artist Is Present could be said to be an apex of sorts for the kind of audience-artist relationship that Abramović dared to probe throughout her career.
But as Akers posits through some of the interviews in the film, Abramović also has a humane generosity of spirit that helps explain why The Artist Is Present took such a firm hold of the public imagination, even more so than the artist's more blatantly transgressive earlier work. Abramović herself talks briefly about her upbringing—how her father left the family during her teenage years, leaving her and her siblings under the grip of their dictatorial mother. Some of her early performance art could be interpreted as a personal exorcism of the demons engendered by that upbringing; after all, one of her more infamous videos features her lashing herself with a whip repeatedly, her scar-ridden back exposed for all to see. With The Artist Is Present, however, she offered herself up more as a mirror to the many different people who worked up the nerve to sit across from her at MoMA, and everyone, naturally, got a different experience out of it.
Akers's documentary isn't so much interested in probing the mysterious power of Abramović's art as in the more literal-minded aims of exploring the artist's personal history and having art critics and former colleagues loudly pontificate on what inspired her art and what it means. (We're not allowed, for instance, to infer that aforementioned generosity of spirit from the work itself; Akers has gallery owner Sean Kelly directly state that for all of our enlightenment.) This approach has the unfortunate effect of choking off other possible ways of looking at her multifaceted work, shoving it all into an overly tidy package. Still, the doc offers a reasonably gripping, effective entry point into this iconoclastic artist's work, and will surely intrigue the uninitiated.