directed by Matthew Akers
by Angelo Muredda Forty years into a celebrated career kicked off by the intense bodily exposures of 1973's Rhythm10, a solo show in which she put herself through twenty rounds of five-fingered fillet, Marina Abramović has earned the right to call herself the grandmother of performance art. "I don't want to be alt anymore," the Belgrade-born, New York-based artist admits early in Matthew Akers's engaging bio-doc Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, indulging for a rare moment in her accomplishments. It's a testament to both her frankness and Akers's tasteful curatorial approach to her oeuvre that there's nothing pretentious about the statement, only a clear-eyed assessment of the distinct phases in an artist's life and work.
The film takes its title from the featured piece in a 2010 retrospective of Abramović's work at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Her task: to sit at a table across from every attendee who lines up during gallery hours for the three-month duration of the retro, and to return their gaze for however long they choose to stay. Akers alternates observational footage of Abramović's planning for the show, including an ill-fated brainstorming session with David Blaine--her manager and former spouse nixes the collaboration with a terse scrunch of his nose--with the film's own retrospective of her work. Its coup, which should give it a long afterlife as an academic reference as well as a gallery installation, is to provide as fluid a visual account of these performances as video can allow. To that end, we're given a wealth of archival footage, especially from Abramović's Relation Works, a series of emotionally and physically gruelling collaborations with professional and romantic partner Ulay. A number of these pieces are further fleshed out by their recurrence in present-day images from the exhibit, where a selection of her material is performed by a troupe of young artists.
According these recreations roughly the same screentime as scrappy camcorder footage of the originals, Akers establishes a nice current of generational continuity through the artist's career. If Abramović's singular presence is essential to the performance, we gather, it can nevertheless be inherited--re-embodied by younger performers who are coming up at a time when their mentor is now part of the establishment, rather than the iconoclast she was when the work was conceived. ("Nobody's asking me why it's art anymore," she jokes when someone questions her about what's changed since her pieces were first performed.) Though this munificence to the young is nice, and though Akers's background on the business of turning ephemeral shows into gallery-ready exhibitions is fascinating, the film is at its most engrossing when it's focused on its subject's intimate collaborations with Ulay. He's one of the more lucid talking heads used to situate Abramović in the history of performance art, and his testimony about the intensive physical labour of their work is sold by his no-bullshit demeanour. Meeting her for a platonic date before the show after years of silence, he comes outfitted in head-to-knee denim and new footwear ("I'm wearing Crocs!") that makes him look like Giancarlo Giannini on an especially dishevelled day.
Ulay's moment at the table across from Abramović has an emotional charge the other hundred or so glimpses of people tearfully communing with her lack. That probably can't be helped, but I'm not sure we need to see James Franco, apparently a friend, gaze at her like she's a museum piece. (Still, there's a great exchange moments later, as an attendee who doesn't seem to recognize Franco responds to his peanut gallery commentary with "Are you an actor?") Akers also spends an inordinately long time with frequent Joe Swanberg collaborator Josephine Decker--identified only as a jobbing young actress--who's profiled in various stages of the queue and who promptly removes her dress before her idol the moment she gets some face-time, only to be booted off the premises. On her way out, Decker suggests she was inspired by Abramović's intense vulnerability before each of her guests. It's to the film's credit that the artist's generosity to her stream of collaborators is clear with or without this explanation.