Be here now
Film society to screen documentary about performance artist
By Michel Miller 07/03/2014
You know that New Age dictum about today being a gift, which is why it’s called the present? I can’t help but wonder if performance artist Marina Abramovic was engaging in similar word play when she titled her Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) show “The Artist is Present.” Without going so far as to say Abramovic is self-important, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that she regards herself as a gift to her fans. At the same time, much of her work requires exceptional physical discipline and stamina therefore displaying a type of generosity and a focused presence.
Famous in the relatively underpopulated subculture of performance art, Abramovic who’s been a practicing provocateur since the 1960s, has more recently been thrust into the mainstream reference pool via her alliances with such high-profile attention whores as King of the Selfie James Franco, illusionist David Blaine (both of whom appear in the film) and Lady GaGa, who has studied the Abramovic Method. Abramovic is regarded by some, including herself, as the grandmother of the discipline and was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people of 2014. The film The Artist is Present serves as both a documentation of her MOMA show and a look back at her career.
At 68 years old, the Serbian-born Abramovic has the kind of effortless, almost austere beauty and sex appeal that seem to elude American women but come naturally to Europeans. As one of her ex-beaux says in the film, “Marina seduces everyone she encounters.” For someone who has spent as much time naked in public as she has, she appears modest and almost shy on camera. Some of her more lauded performance pieces have included self-flagellation, carving a pentagram into her abdomen, repeatedly running into a wall, hanging nude on a wall with only a small bicycle seat for support and a three-month walk along the Great Wall of China. But with the MOMA piece, which also featured a massive retrospective of her work performed by her students, she set the bar extraordinarily high: To remain seated and mostly stoic while facing any person who chose to sit across from her — every day, every hour the museum was open for a total of 736 hours and 30 minutes. It was the biggest performance exhibition for both Abramovic and MOMA with 750,000 in attendance.
Her body completely covered in a long-sleeved, high-necked, full-length solid-color dress, no doubt influenced by her time spent in monasteries, Abramovic sat, day in and day out, intimately and silently communicating with her visitors — fans, friends, celebrities and the curious among them. During the short spaces in between, she kept her head bowed and eyes shut. At the close of each day, she’d ritualistically place a mark on an adjacent wall, much as prisoners do.
The exhibition attracted a surprisingly diverse crowd and many people stood in queue for entire days to commune with the artist and observe others doing the same. Visitors’ reactions to Abramovic’s undivided attention ranged from laughter and joy to complete emotional release—there was no shortage of tears. Abramovic remarked about the pain so many people seemed to carry.
So what’s the point of all this? That really is the $64,000 question when it comes to performance art. Much of Abramovic’s body of work seems to carry a message of “presence” connection, suspension of time. Often there’s an implied rejection of the obstacles to authentic relationship that the technological age has ushered in. Her pieces are raw, naked, elegant exercises in concentration and engagement.
The MOMA piece — and by proxy the film — straddles the line between pretentious absurdity and transformative therapy. For some, it might be easy to dismiss the subject matter as over-hyped nonsense for gullible consumers of art (as I initially did) but if you can hang in to the end, you may (as I did) find yourself flipping that script. There is definitely something worthwhile to be gained from Abramovic’s work and performance art in general, even if a temporary suspension of presumption and judgment is necessary. In the end, isn’t that what the artist, filmmaker, performer is asking of us? To step away from everything we “know” for a moment and experience something new? If there was a point to “The Artist is Present” maybe it was simply to find out if the audience was available to the intangible exchange, the magic between artist and audience, human and human when both are fully engaged.
The Ventura Film Society will present a screening of The Artist is Present on Tuesday, July 8, 7 p.m. Artist JohnWhite, who has a longstanding career in performance art, will lead a discussion afterward. 420 E. Santa Clara St., Ventura. For more information, visit www.venturafilmsociety.com.