An Eye Opening Documentary: Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present

I paused the film, only five minutes in.  My father turned to me with a confused look on his face.

“Andy, how is this art?”

I ensured him not to worry, that he would soon understand.  In fact this documentary is about exploring both the meaning behind and the power of performance art.

“All right, I suppose we’ll see.”

We both smiled and I hit the play button.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present began once again.

In the film the queen of performance art herself, Marina Abramovic, states she is tired of performance art always being labeled alternative. This couldn’t be more true. It really is a challenging art form. Ever since its beginnings people haven’t known what to do with it. The unfortunate, but understandable common response to this genre has been dismissal. It is all about the present; therefore if one is just reading about the performance while sitting in a chair millions of miles away it can seem ridiculous.  On the surface Performance Art is very abstract, very simple, and a bit strange.

For example…

         You are walking through an art gallery. You walk up to one of your favorite paintings: Van Gough’s Starry Night. You marvel at the colors and the way they complement each other. You notice the unique forms of the shapes. You are drawn in by its dream like beauty.

            Then you turn around to go gaze at the next painting. Yet instead of a painting there are two naked people, a man and a woman. They are continuously walking back and forward and purposefully running into each other. The sound of their bare skin colliding echoes throughout the otherwise silent art gallery. There are no lines to analyze, no colors to marvel at, and you feel uncomfortable.

It is almost too simple.

What does two naked people running into each other have to do with art?

Or beauty?

Or truth?

This is the beauty and the importance of this documentary. It gives us the lens in which to properly view, interpret, engage and appreciate  performance art. The first half of the film chronicles the development of Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at MOMA. The retrospective will include her previous works, but also a new piece. While this is happening director name also delves into the past of Marina Abramovic: both her childhood and her creative career in its totality. Slowly, but surely the audience begins to understand the method behind the madness of performance art. Directors Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre subtly accomplish this through insight from art critics, close friends, and Marina herself.

The stunning final half of the film deals with the opening of her retrospective and her new challenging performance piece titled “The Artist is Present”. While the first half of the film is fascinating the second half is utterly compelling. Abramovic’s new performance piece designed specifically for the retrospective stirs up emotions, delves into human brokenness, becomes a spiritual experience for many (including Abramovic herself), and raises questions about the desire for human connection in our fast paced world.

And then it ends.

As suddenly as it begins.

It raises questions,

It gives some answers,

It is enlightening,

Most importantly it helps us come to a deeper understanding of a world  foreign to many of us.

Watch it with others.

You will need to talk about it once the screen goes black.

Marina  Abramovic: The Artist is Present is part of HBO’s documentary series this summer. It is available through HBOGO or On Demand. 

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One comment

  1. Excellent essay, Andy! I so often find performance art to be overly narcissistic, and what I loved about the film was the “The Artist Is Present” performance at Moma, which was so deeply moving. What struck me was that rather than it being about people looking at Marina – the narcissistic approach – it was instead all about the viewer feeling seen by her to witness the beauty of that – I found it very generous and humane.

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