Marina Abramović’s art is undoubtedly compelling and innovative, yet it does not always touch or move me.

However, this film, and its depiction of the artist, moved me utterly.

The HBO production, Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present centres on a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2010, and includes the months leading up to the exhibition, as well as the event itself.
The title is not metaphorical. The artist was literally present, and performing, throughout the exhibition’s entirety, for almost three months. The live piece consisted of Abramović sitting in the middle of the museum’s atrium, as visitors queued for the privilege of sitting opposite her and experiencing the artist’s almost unblinking gaze and attention.

Abramović’s physical endurance is unquestioned. She is now 65, and continues to have impressive stamina and strength, as well as a capacity to just ‘be’: a here-I-am and this-is-me approach that eludes most. Both behind the stage and on it, she is captivating and charismatic. It is impossible to know how real any documentary is; what might be believable, and ‘true’. On the one hand, this may not matter. On the other, whether the portrayal imparts an authenticity, in itself difficult to define, is determined by our perception that what we are seeing is somehow real. In this instance, the fact that we see both a venerated Abramović during the MOMA exhibition, and a vulnerable human being who has regular psychoanalysis, who has known, lost and seeks love, leaves the viewer with a sense that Abramović the courageous performance artist is also brave enough to expose her fragility. So yes, the film feels authentic, largely due to the subject herself, and her entourage, but it also benefits from its filmmakers who remain silent and unobtrusive throughout.

 

Abramović was born in Serbia, to politically active parents who were not often present, and when they were ran a military-type household, to which she attributes her personal rigour and capacity for endurance. She acknowledges many selves of Marina Abramović, including the one who felt unloved by her mother, but more importantly now, the spiritual one who transcends all others.

Much of her performance art, particularly where she threatens her own body, can be shocking and difficult to watch. The film contains many clips of previous exhibitions, which involved self-harm, self-flagellation, and a need to push her body to the limits, both physically and mentally.
Thus, it is not surprising that, for the MOMA retrospective, Abramović included a new performance piece, which necessitated an uninterrupted personal presence and involvement for every moment of its duration. She sat, without a break, and faced ‘an other’ – in fact hundreds or thousands of unknown others – and consistently gave something of herself.

In terms of her artistic trajectory, this was a more sedate piece, a silent one, yet it had an immensely powerful psychological impact. It is difficult to pinpoint what the power represented or emanated from. Something indefinable, almost palpable, emerged as Abramović slowly raised her head, opened her eyes and fixed her gaze on whoever sat opposite. This absolute attention on the other did not appear threatening or intimidating. Yet many were emotionally overwhelmed and wept openly under Abramović’s benevolent, and kind, gaze. Even as an indirect witness after the event, watching the performance now still feels incredibly moving. Perhaps it is the empathy she managed to convey, that of being completely there for the person opposite, a stranger yet not anonymous. Perhaps the impact of the experience did not directly result from Abramović herself, but was more about her role as a mirror, reflecting something within the other. Or perhaps, particularly when she too had tears in her eyes, it was the realisation that she needed the other, and that they mattered.

As the exhibition continued and the queues grew and became more competitive, the need to sit opposite Abramović, and to experience her gaze, became a thing-in-itself. There was a frenzied need to be one of the chosen, and in some cases to perform too as a young woman approached the artist and proceeded to take her clothes of, only to be swiftly ushered out, distraught, by security, as she forfeited the moment she had been endlessly queuing for. This episode was inevitable, as the event enticed performers who also needed to be acknowledged. But in the end, it was Abramović’s performance.

Abramović’s life is about performing, about being present in front of and within her audience. One of the recurring questions that others ask, and that continues to bother her, is whether her work is truly art. Abramović, throughout her work and life, has pushed the boundaries of what art might be, and what the artist ‘should create’, which has significantly contributed to a liberation of creativity. Her impact, which emanates from both the artist and her art, is profoundly moving, humbling, and uniquely touches a humanness within.
The Artis is Present is in cinemas now.