Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present Review

My first experience of performance art was just over a year ago. It involved a plastic cup, a rusty pair of scissors and an inordinate amount of other people’s pubic hair.

Enough said.

So it was with no small degree of trepidation that I recently attended a screening of Matthew Akers’ 106 minute documentary, Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, about a Serbian performance artist I’d never heard of.

As it turns out, it was 106 minutes very well spent.

The documentary focuses on Ms Abramović, now sixty five but one of the progenitors of the performance art movement back in the sixties, on a retrospective exhibition she held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010.

The exhibition included a new piece entitled The Artist Is Present, which consisted of Abramović sitting statuesque still whilst random museum-goers take it in turns to sit in a chair opposite; staring back at her for as long as they blooming well feel like it.

Sounds easy, except she had committed to this for seven hours a day, without food and water, for three months.

Akers essentially breaks the material into three parts, with the first concentrating on the history of performance art and Abramović’s role therein.

This is pretty crucial for newbies such as myself, who initially viewed performance art with a healthy dose of ridicule.

When I point out that one of Abramović’s earlier works consisted of her driving a truck in a circle for sixteen hours whilst shouting numbers through a megaphone, I trust you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

In short, some of the footage makes Jackass look like Newsnight.

We then delve into Abramović’s relationship with Ullay, a German performance artist with whom she had both a working and personal relationship. This is followed by the exhibition itself, with probably the most moving segment involving a surprise visit from, well that would be telling.

Akers handles his material well, injecting some suspense with the suggestion that his subject may not be physically capable of completing the exhibition. Abramović meanwhile is engaging from the off, dispelling any viewer’s initial scepticism with the force of her conviction.

Any risk of the documentary slipping into navel-gazing, self-importance is nicely offset by some well-timed humorous asides. At one point, two blonde barbie-doll news correspondents ignorantly compare the nudity within Abramović’s exhibition with a recent Lady Gaga music video.

There’s serious performance art and there’s wearing crazy meat clothes in a transparent attempt to boost album sales; and never the twain shall meet.

I suppose the whole point of performance art is that it means different things to different people. For me, right or wrong, Abramović’s exhibition was a statement on how we don’t take the time to stop and connect with each other in this busy world we live in.

But whether I got Abramović’s message or not, you’ll definitely respect her efforts in trying to communicate this.

Conor Brennan

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