DVD: Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present DVDSTUDIO: Music Box | DIRECTOR: Matthew Akers
RELEASE DATE: 10/16/12 | PRICE: DVD $29.95
“Marina at MoMA,” “The Audience Completes the Work,” Marina’s Dresses,” Belgrade Homecoming,” “A Re-Performer’s Story”
NR | 106 min. | Documentary | 1.77:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall



Performance art is a rather hard sell to the heartland of America, especially when the artist in question is not a monologist or a dancer, but instead performs conceptual pieces that either “make sense” instantly to the viewer or don’t.

This documentary film Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present revolves around one such piece, in which the renowned performance artist sat in a large atrium in NYC’s MoMA, and audience members stood in line to sit in a chair opposite her and stare back. The film documents her preparation for, and execution of, the piece, which found her sitting immobile for seven hours a day, six days a week, from March-May 2010.

Before plunging into the MoMA piece, the film explores Abramovic’s regimented Yugoslavian background and her earlier performance pieces, in which she experimented with harming herself — one piece found her running naked into a wall over and over, another cutting a symbol into her stomach with a knife.

Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present movie scene

Performance art is performed in Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present/

This look back at what led Abramovic to the MoMA experiment in immobility and an unusual “connection” to her audience becomes most fascinating when documentarian Matthew Akers probes the relationship between Abramovic and a fellow performance artist known as Ulay. She and Ulay were romantically involved for a dozen years, in which they performed strange and physically demanding metaphors for the male-female relationship: being tied together by the hair, bumping repeatedly into each other while nude, screaming and slapping each other’s faces.

The couple’s relationship ended with a major flourish — at the point that their feelings for each other had soured, they decided to walk from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China towards each other. The film footage shows that the pair did hug at the end, but they never met again until Ulay visited Abramovic in the run-up to the MoMA sitting piece (called “The Artist is Present”), which she first performed with him years before.

Akers’ chronicle of the MoMA piece underscores two issues: the cult of personality that exists around Abramovic, leading people to stand for countless hours outside and inside the museum to “commune” with her.

The more interesting aspect, however, is how controlled the performance piece is — audience members who came prepared to deliver a performance of their own are whisked away instantly by security. This does not include celebrity sitter James Franco (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), who is one of the select few individuals heard speaking about the experience in the film proper (the many extras included in the release were not available at press time).

In the end, Akers does a wonderful job of creating a kinetic film out of a performance piece that consists of sitting and staring. He also communicates quite well that Abramovic has a sense of humor and is quite a happy person, something that would not be readily apparent seeing her earlier, harrowing performances.

The most stirring moment in the film occurs early on in the MoMA performance when Ulay chooses to sit opposite Abramovic, thereby opening up a well of emotion between the former lovers and providing a surprisingly moving moment in a portrait of an artist with a reputation for her stoicism.


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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”