REVIEW: Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present Casts Light on the Shadowy Secrets of an Enigmatic Performer
"After the show I have to really put some more attention to sex in my life," Marina Abramovic vows near the beginning of Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, an elegantly observed, sleekly packaged look at an artist whose career-long balance of enigma and self-exposure culminated in a 2010 retrospective at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. "Semi-intellectual artist at the top of her career," goes Abramovic’s self-drafted personal ad, "looking for single male." My head completed a few full rotations taking in what all’s going on in that sentence, but let’s begin with the part about being on top.
That Abramovic seems to have willed her own peak into being — the German artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen (AKA "Ulay") teases his former partner about whether she now prefers to be addressed as "the grandmother of performance art" or "the diva of performance art" — is deftly interlayered with director and cinematographer Matthew Akers’s presentation of a life and career united by the stubborn pursuit of meaning. The picture gives a sense of life's fragments aligning, finally, to form a coherent story.
What that story is depends on who's doing the telling, of course. At the outset of her three-month MoMA performance — where the artist sat like a Buddha in a red (or blue, or white) dress, receiving an intrigued, then entranced, then near-hysterical public, one at a time, for a bout of eye contact across a wooden table — Abramovic outlines the three different versions of herself, her favorite being the pure, unshackled sensibility watching over the two other, more mortal selves.
Hers is a very physical feat, as is made clear; there's a bedpan built into her chair, and Ulay describes being wrecked by a similar performance during their partnership. As she did then, Marina carries on, outlasting her lover and smiting her doubters, a martyr to an indeterminate and therefore capacious cause — to "create a charismatic space" that will slow down time, return us to the present, absorb our ills, reflect us to ourselves, and/or furnish an insatiable attention-seeker with patiently queued reams of admirers. There is a careful reverence to these kinds of commissioned artist studies, and the earnest styling of the subject as a kind of time-bending sensei — a destination and a journey — might feel more poncy if it hadn't played out pretty much exactly that way over three months in midtown Manhattan.
Walking into the atrium the first day of the exhibition, Abramovic jokes about feeling like Marie Antoinette being led to her fate. But if the crossover success of "The Artist Is Present" came as a surprise, The Artist Is Present suggests a woman very consciously stepping forward to collect her due. "Excuse me," Abramovic says in her smoky Balkan accent, "I'm 63 — I don't want to be alternative anymore." But the HBO treatment (it will air on that channel after a brief theatrical run) makes a strange and occasionally unsatisfying match for its subject. Entire corollary documentaries are glimpsed in a scene or a comment: Ambramovic's ambition is alluded to in somewhat dark tones; the footage of striking and often disturbing previous performances barely outlines a complex and sometimes confounding sensibility; gallerist Sean Kelly speaks of his team's invention of a market for her work, a model that has become a standard in the performance-art world; Ulay's reappearance and the couple's awkward, poignant reunion suggests untold romantic galaxies.
And then there is curator Klaus Biesenbach, who in word and manner reveals a critical, under-investigated side of Abramovic. "Klaus, I love you," Abramovic murmurs to him in the moments before her performance begins. "Is this okay?" Biesenbach acquires a curiously steely look when he describes the way "Marina seduces everyone she ever meets." They are great friends now, he says, repeating it twice, "but we’re divorced." Groupies and pranksters abound, as do would-be artists who see themselves as part of the show; all shenanigans are quickly shut down as Abramovic lowers her head like a mournful deity. In fact, Biesenbach says, the exhibition is ultimately a self-portrait, and just as he mistakenly believed Abramovic to be in love with him, so the same misunderstanding is repeated "with every single person in the atrium."
The better part of Abramovic's personality slips out in asides and interactions, rather than in the rehearsed bits about her trinity of selves. Eerily untouched by age, her imposing physicality is softened by girlish accents. A shadow storyline trails Akers's art show procedural, and it involves, of all plainly human things, Marina Abramovic getting laid. And yet the sideways frequency with which the issue comes up feels telling. As so often seems to be the case with successful women, for Abramovic being at the top of her career means forever looking past that next big project for her "other" life to begin, the one where she falls in love and has heaps of sex and looks up the hot Asian guy from day X and hour Y of her MoMA residency.
At the outset Abramovic says she wanted to show the world, one time, the unglamorous underside of art's creation; in fact the result has a slickness some might find disconcerting. Seeing her pinned down and packaged as an art star or even just a documentary "personality" might feel antithetical to a body of work committed to its own transience. And yet The Artist Is Present is ultimately an Abramovic production, whether the purists care to acknowledge her love of designer clothes and way with a one-liner or not. Why shouldn't this be the woman who made an entire city confront the tyranny of time's passage?
Because I wasn’t seeking anything so grand from this clean-lined documentary, I came away moved most of all by the perseverance of an artist who, having put the time in, was rewarded with a moment that set a life lived largely through performance into meaningful relief. There’s also something to be said for having your ex come and pay homage to you, on your turf, at a MoMA restrospective of your career. As Ulay himself demurs: Only respect.