The Self as Self-Portrait
Published on June 12th, 2012 | by Charles H. Meyer0
Running time: 105 minutes.
If you missed the performance artist Marina Abramović’s 2010 retrospective at MoMA, then you’re in luck, as the filmmaker Matthew Akers has created an intensely moving documentary that brings viewers into intimate contact with the formidable presence and power of Abramović and her work.
A certain popular attitude towards art only assigns value to works that evidence a maturity marked by great effort, self-control, and technical precision. We’ve all heard the words “My kid could have made that!” hurled at this or that artwork the speaker deems worthless. In Abramović’s case there can be no doubt that a profound maturity is involved, particularly in what is arguably her magnum opus, “The Artist Is Present,” a never-before-enacted performance that lasted the full, 736-hour and 30-minute duration of her retrospective (which, like the film, is called “Marina Abramović the Artist Is Present”) in which the artist sat in a chair in a state of zen-like present-ness as individual museum goers took turns sitting in a chair positioned directly opposite her, at first with a table between them and then with the table removed after it was deemed superfluous. If “The Artist Is Present” deserves to be called “art,” then it is by virtue of the total commitment of the artist’s self—body and psyche—to a hallowed space—the museum—for an epic duration of time. But what completed this work, what gave it its dynamic complexity—its quintessentially modern incorporation of chance operations and quintessentially postmodern incorporation of the consumer of art as partner in the production of art—were the embodied acts of waiting (sometimes for entire days), sitting, rising, and leaving of the thousands of individuals who engaged with Abramović for as brief or as long a period as they wished. Most sat for seconds or minutes, some sat for hours, and at least one sat for seven straight hours.
Abramović’s retrospective would have done a disservice to her work had it not included this new performance and had it only included video footage of past performances (however essential such documentation is to creating as complete a survey as possible). So it was a brilliant move by the artist to hire a large troupe of young performers to reenact five of her most important past performances, of which by far the most interesting and most remarked upon is “Imponderabilia”—first performed in 1977 with her former lover and artistic collaborator, Ulay—in which two naked individuals, of the same or opposite sexes, stand facing each other in a narrow passageway, such that museum goers, instructed to pass between the performers, must turn their bodies sideways—necessitating a choice as to which performer to face—thus rubbing against the performers’ naked bodies and thereby engaging in an uncomfortable confrontation with the idea and the reality of personal space.
In one of the most revelatory sequences of the film, we witness Abramović working with the young performers at her secluded upstate New York home, preparing them physically and psychologically in the ways that she has prepared herself for four decades of intensely challenging, frequently dangerous performances. Although religion is never invoked by Abramović or the filmmakers, there is a strong sense in which the artist is akin to an eastern mystic taking these young people on a retreat in which they relinquish their cell phones, and all other contact with the outside world, and commit themselves fully to letting the artist guide them towards developing unprecedented control of their bodies and minds. In other words, she teaches them her art by teaching them her techniques of self-control, and in being privy to that teaching, we begin to understand what Abramović’s art is made of—namely, Abramović herself, her entire, fully engaged being. And that is not to say that she isn’t human—the film makes a point of showing us moments of intense vulnerability that remind us just how human she is—only that her artistic talent reveals itself through her rigorous training of her body and mind, which she pushes carefully and expertly but tirelessly in the realization of her work.
Abramović is one of the only performance artists to have emerged in the early 1970s who continues to produce art by pushing her body to extremes. Artists such as Chris Burden, Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman, and Vito Acconci have for the most part long since given up performance and instead have turned increasingly to the making of objects. Even Abramović’s former lover and collaborator, Ulay, gave up performance, largely because he simply couldn’t take the physical strain of it any longer. Especially when considered in relation to the abandonment of performance by most of its early practitioners, Abramović’s sheer resilience inspires an awe that is inseparable from our perception of her work’s weightiness and value.