Marina Abramovic – The Artist is Absent (thanks to HBO)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s hard to decide which is more depressing: the state of American film criticism or the current quality of mainstream documentaries.  In “Marina Abramovic – The Artist is Present” HBO Documentaries and Matthew Akers have made a film that undermines the power of her seminal career, and that’s a considerable feat.

Critics are lauding “The Artist is Present”: Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles times calls it “A riveting portrait”.  It’s easier for them to conflate subject with film, than it is to analyze what does and doesn’t work in this piece. The truth is that t.v. director Akers has cobbled together a couple of bad Lifetime t.v. episodes, called it a documentary and done Abramovic a disservice.

Marina Abramovic is a hard-core performance artist whose best work has brought “negative” elements such as stillness, grief, hunger, pain, and isolation into sharp focus, through works that often involve great endurance and physical suffering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“In 1997 she performed Balkan Baroque at the Venice Biennale. It involved her scrubbing clean 1,500 cow bones six hours a day for four days and weeping as she sang songs and told stories from her native country” (Sean O’Hagan, Guardian UK).

In “Rhythm 0” she lay quietly next to 72 objects, including a loaded gun, scissors, and a whip, and let museum-goers do whatever they wanted to her.  As time passed the audience became more aggressive, cutting up her clothes and poking her with thorns.

“The Artist is Present” is organized around the event of her eponymous 2010 MoMA exhibition.  There she sat silent and immobile for 7 hours a day while museum spectators took turns sitting opposite her.  As the exhibition continued, Abramovic’s rock-star status began to grow – people would camp out overnight for the chance to sit with her.  Eventually she became so popular that tight controls were placed on spectators, they could only sit for 4 minutes at a time, whereas before the time was unimited, they could not make any gestures or sounds.  There is a touching scene where a young woman removes her dress as she sits down and is swiftly escorted away by the security squad.  This is jarring because most of Abramovic’s work involves her being nude, we get very familiar with her body.  Witnessing young fan shut down for that act of emulation is ironic and telling, but this goes unexplored.

Instead the focus is on the crying.  Many attendees tear-up when looking at the impassive queen-bee-like Abrmovoic, in her religious-looking smock.  The soundtrack repeats the sins of  “March of the Penguins”, a cloying musical score, telling us dummies that “it’s time to feel now”.  A montage of artfully-focused ethnically-and-age-balanced faces, in varying stages of composure, felt like a Benetton ad.  Akers should have been smart enough to realize that viewers can’t help but intuit the tarnished corporate halo in this aesthetic.  Too many t.v. ads are like this, especially ones for big “faceless” corporations.  It’s about as far from cleaning bloody bones as you can get.

Focusing on a singlular event feels like a panicky move by documentarians.  Sure there are some films where the event is the event (“The Last Waltz”), but here it’s used as a way to expose the artist, and honestly I did not know much about Marina after 2 hours than I did after 15 minutes. And the fact that the film literally ends with her final bow at MoMA makes me think that Akers didn’t have the curiousity to explore the question “What is it like to enter the normal world after that intense level of communication with thousands of people?”

As I’ve suggested before, the way to make documentaries interesting is to show themes, to then illustrate patterns within those themes, and then to identify when and why those patterns are broken.  That is all the event you need.  And indeed the audience wants something to happen in any performance.  Focusing on an orchestrated “happening” can cover up the actual personal changes that make for narrative.

What are some of those themes that could have been explored?  In the beginning of the film we see Marina in her huge NYC loft, also at her beautiful Hudson Valley farmhouse.  Later she enters a truck that she livd in for 5 years in Europe (it has been brought to MoMA as an exhibit) and begins weeping, saying that this was the simplest, happiest time of her life.    She is visited by her former lover, Ulay, with whom she lived in the truck.  He is deflated by her wealth, you can see he longs for that level of material success.

So to me a central question raised by the film was “What does success mean and what has it done to the artist?”  Is she less successful now that she is “successful”?  What is the significance of the change from allowing the audience to do anything they want  (“Rhythm 0”) to being prohibited from make a simple gesture (“The Artist is Present”)?

Another theme is artist vs. art. Marina admits to craving attention, to using performance as a way of getting the love she didn’t as a neglected child.  Does this minimize the value of her statements about war and suffering?  If she were to find love, would her art suffer?  She says that when her performances with Ulay were at their best, their personal relationship was at it’s worst.  What does this say about art?

There are many other areas in this artist’s life that would have been fruitful to explore.  Instead, by the end, I felt like an audience member denied my time across from Marina.

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