When Marina Abramovic says “audience is like dog [sic]”, it’s not intended as an insult. Instead she qualifies that “they can feel immediately that you are afraid, that you are insecure, that you are not in the right state of mind, and they just leave… the whole tension is gone.” Screening at the ICA last week Matthew Akers’ intimate documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present follows the grandmother of performance art over the course of a full year, throughout the realization of her retrospective at the MOMA New York in 2010. Abramovic is a master of creating powerful shared experience with an actively engaged viewer. And, in using her own body as a medium over a career spanning more than four decades, she knows what she’s talking about.
As an artist, Abramovic is undeniably driven, putting herself in precarious and sometimes dangerous positions requiring absolute focus and stamina. This is best exemplified in her famously radical performance “Rhythm 0”(74), in which she placed an array of objects, including honey, a whip, a bullet and a gun, on a table and assumed a passive role while the audience was encouraged to use the objects to manipulate her body. The performance ended six hours later after one person loaded the gun and aimed it at her head, while she remained motionless; another audience member stepped in and removed the gun. In the documentary, Abramovic reflects on the extreme mental and emotional depth she goes to, describing her ability in this altered state to push her body to achieve things she wouldn’t normally be able to do.
This strong sense of discipline could be attributed to a rather eccentric military upbringing. Born in Belgrade to Yugoslav Partisan parents, Abramovic openly discusses her relationship with a dictatorial mother who discouraged affection, imposing strict curfews right up until the age of 29. What’s most astonishing is that during this time she would carry out provocative performances, naked and cutting herself, whipping herself or leaping through fire, before returning home by 10pm. This regimented childhood has had a pervasive impact on her artistic practice, the ritual of repetition has manifest in all of her performance, albeit grounded in a more pagan ideology.
The film includes fascinating dialogue with the men in her life. Her assistant, ex husband, curator, manager and former lover and collaborator Ulay all testify to the mysterious seductive powers she possesses. Certainly the mass sensation around her MOMA performance “The Artist is Present” was evidence of this. Sitting for 700 hours opposite members of the public in her longest durational piece to date, delirious hoards of people queued outside the museum overnight for the opportunity to be on the receiving end of the artists gaze. The result was a frenzied almost fanatical following in which countless people broke down in their moment as muse.
The film is a multifaceted portrait of a woman playing across many different modes of being. Ultimately she comes across as extremely relatable while discussing complex ideas in straightforward manner but without ever losing her passionate intensity. Abramovic consolidates these personas with precision and ease in her candid monologues as she makes sense of a life’s work in the nebulous world of performance art.