Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present is a documentary film based on the making of and living through the 2010 MoMA exhibition of the same name. I think A.O. Scott hits the nail on the head in his NYTimes review: this is a document that serves as a promotional video. Hardly any critical voices are heard except in a hilarious sequence when Sean Kelly rightly shoots down a proposed collaboration between the artist and David Blaine. Otherwise, the chorus of praise continues unfettered. The ferris wheel filled with bobble heads speak kind words, almost all deserved, but it is impossible to get any real perspective on Marina’s place in art. Instead we see her lavish but restrained lifestyle, complete with NYC and Hudson river home, and endless Givenchy fashion delivery system.
When we get past all that, there are great things here. When the MoMA show was on I was far more interested in the William Kentridge show happening at the same time. I viewed the artist at work, as well as her platoon of stand ins. The show was overdone. I believe that even more after this documentary. Her re-performed works, along with documents and projections were jammed in and piled up like my desk at work. It is all there, but getting to anything of substance means pulling it aside and reading it closely.
What I managed to miss in 2010 was the performance at the core of the show which was made extremely clear to me by this film. I missed the unblinking (not actually) unwavering (almost entirely) purity of the performance, because of everything that surrounded it. Video games, news reports, live cam feeds, celebrities and James Franco…they polluted the waters. Ingrid Sischy gets a few words in on this, and I am paraphrasing broadly here; people that participate in and project the work alter its history beyond what the artist intends. She said it better and sounding less like a cut rate art historian.
The Artist is Present, the performance, is magnificently enhanced by its backstory. It is not a better or worse work of art, but it is a compelling drama. It is exalted even in its daily drudgery. The artist is truly present. The other storyline to keep you absorbed is the reunion of Marina and Ulay, her longtime lover and collaborator. Watch it, you will get it. Its powerful and I don’t want to muck it up by telling you what I saw. The film is a success, and you will be happy for having seen it.
Marina Abramović has been an art star for some time now and this film further cements that status. Let us all try to resist our jaded urges, and accept the substantive value of her work. Her performances have changed the landscape of what performance is and it would be tough to argue against this point.
In the future, I would like to see a little less of the artist as star personality and see more investigation into what and why they create. Art 21 does this well sometimes, but often falls into the trap of adulation over investigation. Hans Ulrich Obrist is now making his The Institute of the 21st Century interview project available to the public as a resource. I hope to see more documentary films focused on artists that don’t lean quite so heavily on a narrative. If you have any sources that you think remain unexplored for artist documents, please share!