I'm still reeling from watching HBO's documentary on "the grandmother of performance artists" Marina Abramovic (on HBO Go(d) of course--thanks Nat!). The only thing I knew about her going in was her legendary piece at MoMA in 2010, which also gives the doc its title, in which, during every hour the museum was open for three months, she sat in a straight-backed wooden chair and gazed at any museumgoer who cared to sit, for however long they cared to sit.
|I'm the definition of an introvert and hate to be watched if not teaching, but I would give anything to have done this.|
Abramovic has been performing since the early 70s, and her interest in gender, the body, pain, and love are expressed through radical and, at times, self-destructive pieces. She has cut herself with knives, accidentally and on purpose; passed out from smoke inhalation after leaping into a burning pentagram; run headlong into a wall; and sat for six hours surrounded by various weapons and invited the audience to use them on her. And she did most of this naked. Her 2010 MoMA retrospective, which prompted the titular piece, included young artists re-enacting or re-performing her most famous works. At first this idea made me a little uncomfortable--isn't part of the point of performance art its ephemerality and resistance to reiteration? But then, when I was reading some more about Abramovic (told you--girl crush), I learned that one of her pieces involved her taping herself and then attempting to immediately recreate her movements and mistakes (this is one of the ones with knives--she plays the Russian game where you stab quick and rhythmically between your fingers). So I guess inviting others to reinhabit her body and art is very much in keeping with Abramovic's interest in repetition, as well as in supporting and promoting young performance artists.
Before the film documents "The Artist Is Present," it spends a good deal of time investigating the decade-long relationship between Abramovic and another performance artist, Ulay. The two were clearly soulmates, making art together and traveling around Europe in a van for five years to give them more time and energy to create. One of their most notorious pieces involved the two of them standing naked in a doorway, close enough that the audience has to physically touch both of their bodies to pass. It's a pretty ballsy (so to speak) challenge to the traditional divide between spectator and spectacle, audience and artist. Ulay and Marina split up in the late 80s amid mutual charges of infidelity, but they clearly are still deeply connected to each other, and their reunion prompts one of the most moving moments of the documentary.
***Spoiler alerts and fair warning. I usually don't worry too much about spoiling documentaries since they chronicle events that, you know, already happened in the world, but a great deal of the pleasure of watching The Artist Is Present comes from discovering how people respond to Abramovic's gaze during "The Artist Is Present".***
The last third of the film is dedicated to chronicling the emotional and physical demands and rewards of "The Artist Is Present." Abramovic trained for months to acquire the muscular strength and mental discipline to sit silently for nearly seven hundred and and forty hours. Maybe it's just the power inherent in the act, but the artist's face and eyes, kind and accepting, bring forth all sorts of reactions in the spectators. The piece itself neatly flips the hierarchy of the aesthetic gaze: rather than being looked at, Abramovic is unflinchingly looking upon her audience. Between each participant she stares down at her hands, and only establishes eye contact when her partner is seated. That means she doesn't realize that Ulay is one of her first sitters, and her own response to seeing his face is breathtakingly moving. As the months go by, Abramovic becomes more interactive with her partners, mirroring their movements, crying at their pain, and smiling at their happiness. It's heart-swellingly beautiful. And then, of course, fucking Franco shows up. But his pseudo-intellectual post-sit analysis is somewhat tempered by his interlocutor acting him if he's an actor. It's awesome.