WTF Is Up With Marina Abramović: The Movie? A Review

Poster for the film “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present”
Poster for the film “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present” (courtesy Marco Anelli)

Hyperallergic writers and siblings Brendan and Marisa Carroll recently went to see Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, a documentary about the performance artist’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) retrospective, playing at Film Forum in New York through June 26 (although Film Forum’s website says the movie has been “held over.” HBO will screen it on July 2 at 9 pm). The museum retrospective included photos, videos and re-creations of Abramović’s performances from her 40-year career, but the documentary, directed by Matthew Akers, focuses almost solely on Abramović’s new piece for the exhibition, “Sitting With Marina.” In that work, the artist sat motionless in the same chair for seven hours a day, every day that the show was on, and museumgoers were invited to sit across from her, silently, one at a time. Brendan visited the exhibition back in 2010; Marisa did not. Below are their impressions of the film.

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Marisa: I never made it to the MoMA show, but you went to see it three times. Were you a big fan of Abramović’s work before then?

Brendan: I was familiar with her work, but not too familiar. I knew about the nudity, the slapping, the screaming, the self-mutilation. But other than that, I was fairly ignorant. I usually shy away from performance art. It’s a prejudice I have, or a shortcoming. I always feel as if there is less air in the room when someone is performing. It can feel unseemly and too showoff-y to me, which is strange, because I love to be the center of attention. Of the artist, I’d think, “Do you really need to make such a spectacle of yourself? How much attention do you really need?” It was always like, “I’m in my threadbare jockey shorts, covering myself with peanut butter and white bread — look at me!”

Marisa: Based on the clips of Abramović’s work shown in the documentary, you could leave this film thinking that most performance art involves stripping down and beating the crap out of someone. Or allowing someone else to beat the crap out of you. Or just cutting out the middleman and beating the crap out of yourself. Did your view of performance art change after seeing the exhibition?

Marina_Abramović, "Imponderabilia," from "The Artist is Present" at MoMA
Maria S. H. M. (left) and Abigail Levine reperforming Marina Abramović’s “Imponderabilia” (1977), Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010. (photo by Scott Rudd) [the original Hyperallergic caption read: Marina Abramović, “Imponderabilia,” from “The Artist is Present” at MoMA (courtesy Scott Rudd)]
Brendan: Yeah, experiencing Abramović’s work firsthand changed the way I think, see and experience performance. The reenactment of the piece called “Imponderabilia” (originally performed by Abramović and her longtime partner Ulay) was engaging. Two naked models stood opposite each other in a doorway and museumgoers could squeeze between them. It was interesting to see how the public interacted with the performance — many people chose not to, walking around a side partition at the other end of the gallery instead.

Marisa: But you decided to walk between them, right? What was that like?

Brendan: I did it six times. At first, I walked between the models facing a woman. Later I faced a man. The experience forced me to confront my prudish side and my discomfort with the naked body. I mean, I don’t even want to shake most people’s hands, let alone bump my privates with some guy. To me, the naked body is always sexualized. I felt apprehension and shame. And at the time, I wondered why the models were all young and attractive, and if the piece would have been more engaging if the models were old, heavy or unattractive. Watching the documentary, I learned the piece required performers who were fit and had endurance and mental stamina. That was good to learn. It’s another example of how far off my assumptions are.

Marisa: Once you passed between the models, you became part of the show, so that meant that other people in this very public sphere were watching you. I could see how that might make you feel as naked as the models you were walking between, even though you were fully clothed. Were there any other pieces in the exhibition that made an impression?

Brendan: I loved seeing the gallery that featured “Rhythm 0” (1974). I found the objects (gun, bullet, whip, rose, feather, honey, scalpel) on the table very mysterious and suggestive. Some of the video pieces were actually very funny, at least to me. There was one of naked people dry-humping in a field, their bare white ass cheeks pumping up and down; another with obese babushkas flashing their gooey bits in a rain storm. I couldn’t stop laughing, but no one else seemed to be.

Marina Abramović, "Women in the Rain (I and II)"
Marina Abramović, “Women in the Rain (I and II)” (2005), from the series “Balkan Erotic Epic” (courtesy Marina Abramović Archives and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York)

Marisa: Like when we saw that John Waters photography show a few years back where everyone in the gallery was deadly serious? Each piece was more hilarious than the last, but you would have thought we were at a funeral. It’s like that line from A League of Their Own about there being no crying in baseball. There is no laughing in art galleries.

Brendan: And in this documentary, Abramović’s sense of humor is very apparent, which I was disarmed by. This is a woman who once carved pentagrams into her belly, letting the blood drip into her pubic hair, for a performance piece. I was expecting her to be tough as nails, but I did not expect her to be so funny, so affable and so va-va-voom sexy. The part where she wanted to get the phone number of a good-looking Asian guy who sat across from her during her performance was so endearing to me. She is like every other person on the planet: on the job, but thinking about love and romance. The warrior priestess is on the prowl for a date.

Marisa: Mom would say she’s hot to trot! I’d like to get back to that in a second, but first I want to ask you one more question about the exhibition. Were you one of the legions of people who waited on line for a chance to sit across from her?

Brendan: When I visited the show, I had no desire to participate in that element of it. Maybe I missed the point, but it seemed like a circus, with the klieg lights and all the people. Plus I hate lines, and this one was longer than a concession line at Madison Square Garden. (However, I know the feeling of wanting to meet a personal hero. For me, it was prizefighter Arturo Gatti. I ran into him on street in Jersey City. I told him that he was my favorite fighter, and he pulled me in for a hug. A hug! The Irish don’t hug. But I was on cloud nine — my idol, embracing me.)

Marina Abramović, "Sitting with Marina"
Marina Abramović, “Sitting with Marina” (courtesy Insomi Art)

Marisa: Now that you’ve seen this documentary, do you have any regrets about not doing it? The filmmakers go to great pains to make it seem as though it were a religious experience for the people fortunate enough to sit across from her.

Brendan: I’m still not sure I’d want to participate in that piece, but I’d definitely enjoy a chat with her over coffee. Her laugh, her hair, her manner of storytelling, it’s all very seductive, though I think she’d eat me alive. But to your point about the “religious” element of the film, that’s one of the aspects that I have a problem with. Did every person who sat across from Abramović end up weeping? That’s what the film shows us time and again. For six days a week, seven hours a day, the same reaction from nearly everyone? Come on. After a while, the tear-stained face just seemed like a fetish object for the filmmakers.

Marisa: I agree that it got to be a bit much. And it seemed like every viewer sat with her for the same amount of time. You don’t get a sense that the duration may have varied from person to person. But the degree to which the museumgoers seemed moved by her gaze reminded me of something I recently read about the Buddhist conception of loving-kindness. In one of her books, meditation teacher Sharon Salzburg says that the most loving thing you can do for another person is to give him or her your full attention. I was wondering if that was the experience the museumgoers were having by sitting silently with Abramović.

One of the problems with this film for me, and I think for you, too, is that with the exception of one museumgoer, no one is asked what the experience was like. Art historians, curators, gallerists and celebrities (like James Franco) are given time to deliver their opinions, but the average museumgoer is not.

Marina Abramović, images from “Sitting with Marina,” from “The Artist Is Present” at MoMA (courtesy Marco Anelli)

Brendan: Franco — giving Abramović his best shit-eating, Daniel Desario grin. Yeah, the filmmakers let these expert talking heads tell us what the public thinks and feels about Abramović’s work, but they don’t ask the museumgoers themselves. It’s infuriating. Much is made about the relationship between Abramović and her audience, but this film seems disinterested in anything besides the public “reaction shot.” It functions like the money shot in porn. Not presenting any verbal, articulated responses from the MoMA audience is a strange omission.

Marisa: There is a moment in the film when a close-up of Abramović’s eyes dominates the entire screen, so we, as viewers, are looking at her head-on. I think the strategy behind that shot was to give the viewer an approximation of what it would have been like to sit across from her, but it has surprisingly little power. One of the commentators says that Abramović’s piece created “a charismatic space” in the museum and remarks how she accomplished that with so little, really — just two chairs and her presence. I see now that that’s where performance art has a leg up on film. Without being able to put her body in the same place as you — without her physical aura or the aura of the museum — this movie can only give you so much. I imagine the situation must have been surreal for the sitter in the moment, and I wonder if filming it in 3-D would have better relayed the weird, heightened aspect of it.

Brendan: Speaking of her body, I loved the personal access we get to Abramović — we see her puke into a toilet —

Marisa: And afterward wax poetically about the wonders of codeine —

Brendan: And we see the physical toll this show took on her body. She prepares by fasting, and when her day is done, she immediately gets on the floor to stretch her aching back. She takes hot baths with salts to soothe her muscles; she gets chiropractic therapy. While the audience is having its quasi-religious experience, she’s wondering when her next massage will be. Her curator even contemplates shutting down the performance at one point to protect her well-being. It reminded me of a prizefight — when a boxer is being badly beaten, his corner can decide to throw in the towel to end the match. But she keeps going. “Artists have to be warriors,” she says.

Marisa: Her warrior status doesn’t keep her from recognizing the rejuvenating power of a good mani-pedi, though! Especially after a traumatic breakup, like hers with Ulay.

Brendan: I loved when she told that story! It made her seem so down-to-earth — even though the moments before their breakup were so outlandish, parting at the Great Wall of China.

Marisa: But back to your earlier point: you’re right, the documentary does a very effective job of making you see the physical stamina and mental focus it took for her to sit motionless in one place for that amount of time. No food, no bathroom breaks, no pacing.

Brendan: If this is what it takes to get a retrospective at MoMA, count me out. I feel like Ulay when he compares the depth of her artistic commitment to his own: “I do less work … I’m lazy.” Watching the interactions between Ulay and Abramović was one of my favorite parts of this movie, by the way. There is a spark between the two. It’s real, or seems real. Five years of living in a van together and making art sticks with you.

Ulay with Marina, from "The Artist is Present"
Ulay with Marina, from “The Artist is Present” at MoMA (courtesy Ipek Irgit for Art Observed)

Marisa: Their backstory is fascinating. I liked learning about their hardscrabble beginning as artists and the dramatic nature of their split. When he sat across from her in the performance piece, their nonverbal interaction was intensely poignant. And it actually made me wonder if it could become a new kind of therapy. What a fantasy, right? That ex-lovers could heal the rifts of time and distance and past mistakes merely by sitting silently across from each and looking into each other’s eyes? It was shockingly dynamic and romantic. But this stunt was performed by professional artists, folks: Don’t try it at home!

Brendan: The other part of the film I loved — and would have liked to see more of — was the behind-the-scenes, day-to-day reality of putting on that show, from the museum’s perspective. I liked seeing how the director of security at the MoMA handled the demands of this particular performance piece. At the beginning of the exhibition, there was a table between Abramović and the sitter, but she decides at one point to remove it. This choice raises an issue for security, because now there is no longer a barrier between the artist and the public, so if someone decides to touch her or, God forbid, attack her, she is now more accessible and therefore more vulnerable.

Marisa: Do you remember why the table was removed?

Brendan: I think she was just more comfortable sitting without a table than with a table. I was glad the documentary gave us insight into how a work of performance art can evolve over time and showed us the surprising conditions that can end up influencing decisions.

Marisa: It wasn’t until very late in the film that we learned the rules the museum had for sitters. I wanted to know more about that. And as the exhibition was nearing its close, there seemed to be a degree of hysteria roiling among the people waiting see her — lots of frantic running upstairs to get to her first. Crowd control was a real issue.

Outside of the museum, we get a glimpse into how Abramović lives: She has a chichi loft in New York and a gorgeous country house upstate. Not knowing too much about her, I was surprised by her wealth.

Brendan: One of the most informative parts of the film was the scene where her gallerist, Sean Kelly, explained how he and Abramović figured out a way to monetize performance art, which is so ephemeral by nature. Photos of her in action were taken and later sold. Some of those pictures sell for tens of thousands of dollars these days.

Marisa: And although the wealth and fame must be gratifying, with this retrospective, her main hope was to legitimate performance art.

Brendan: “I want performance art to be a real art before I die.”

Marisa: I think the documentary offers a convincing case that she has made inroads toward accomplishing that. And while I think the film has its flaws, on the whole, I found it fascinating. I would definitely recommend it. You?

Brendan: Well, most documentary films about artists put me to sleep. I can’t say the same about this one! Go see it.

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Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present plays at Film Forum at least through tomorrow, June 26. Look for it at venues across the country and around the world.

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