Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present: Sundance Film Review

Marina Abramovic The Artist Is Present

U.S. Documentary Competition

Challenging art is made accessible in doc about performance-art sensation Marina Abramovi?.

Matthew Akers' film is a personally revealing look at an artist most famous for maintaining stone-faced silence for three months.

PARK CITY — A personally revealing look at an artist most famous for maintaining stone-faced silence for three months, Marina Abramovi?: The Artist Is Present makes performance art accessible (if not totally comprehensible) to newbies and depicts a figure many viewers will want to know better. The HBO-presented doc has a broad enough appeal (and copious nudity never hurts) that an arthouse run might be warranted.

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Abramovi?, a Belgrade-born New Yorker who has been at the forefront of performance art since the 70s, made her name with works that tested her body's limits and even invited others to harm her. If she was never a household name, a 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art made her a sensation in New York: By the show's end, people were lining up overnight to participate in a performance for which the artist sat motionless, from opening to closing every day, and stared into the eyes of whoever sat across from her.

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One thing The Artist is Present succeeds at is conveying just how hard this performance was: Really doing nothing for hours on end is a physically demanding chore, and the artist's colleagues worry for her health throughout the show's run. Museumgoers, however, become almost freakishly eager for the chance to share in the performance; we watch dozens of faces sit across from her, many moved to tears for reasons viewers can only guess.

Audience members who are skeptical of this phenomenon, deeming it more showbiz than art, may find justification in scenes of the artist doing fashion-like photo shoots and shopping for couture; she clearly has a taste for extravagance and theatricality. At the same time, Matthew Akers' film shows enough of her early career -- in which pain and self-negation often played a part -- to establish the seriousness of her artistic agenda. Notably absent among interviewees, though, are any critics trying to put this work into context, convincing skeptical viewers that what she does is legitimately art.

The film's most accessible thread is the reappearance of Ulay, a German performance artist who for over a decade was Abramovi?'s partner both artistically and romantically. The two artists have been estranged for years when Akers films their reunion, and as we see footage of their work together in the 70s and 80s, we have the sense of a grand lost love.

The work Akers chooses to show here is consistently intriguing, even for casual viewers, and the filmmaker's experience as a cinematographer shows in beautiful photography, particularly in a sequence shot at the artist's home in the Hudson Valley. The Artist is Present may not create a vast new audience for performance art, but it's successful in conveying the earnest enthusiasm that overtook so many New York museumgoers in the spring of 2010.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Production Company: Show of Force
Director-Director of photography: Matthew Akers
Producers: Jeff Dupre, Maro Chermayeff
Executive producers: Sheila Nevins, Stanley Buchthal, Maja Hoffmann, David Koh
Music: Nathan Halpern
Editor: E. Donna Shepherd
Co-editor: Jim Hession
Sales: Submarine

No rating, 105 minutes