Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present: Matthew Akers

Written by Sarah Howe
 Active Image While performing Rhythm 5, 1974, Marina Abramovic leapt into the center of a burning five-pointed star and promptly lost consciousness. Audience members saved her. And, though she was in her twenties, she was home at her parents' house by her ten o'clock curfew. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present shows this and other works, centering on the artist's 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibit included filmed performances of some of her earlier pieces, recreations of others—in which younger performance artists, handpicked by Abramovic, took her place—and the artist's newest performance, called, like the retrospective and the film, The Artist is Present.

While performing Rhythm 5, 1974, Marina Abramovic leapt into the center of a burning five-pointed star and promptly lost consciousness. Audience members saved her. And, though she was in her twenties, she was home at her parents' house by her ten o'clock curfew. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present shows this and other works, centering on the artist's 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibit included filmed performances of some of her earlier pieces, recreations of others—in which younger performance artists, handpicked by Abramovic, took her place—and the artist's newest performance, called, like the retrospective and the film, The Artist is Present.

Abramovic, the child of Yugoslavian “national heroes,” has been working as a performance artist for nearly four decades; she has won numerous award, including, in 2003, the American Federation of Arts Cultural Leadership Award. For The Artist is Present, she sat, barely moving, for ninety days, every hour the museum was open, in a chair in the middle of a large room. A table and another chair were placed across from her, and in this second chair, visitors sat with, watched, and were watched by her. In Abramovic's “charismatic space,” many wept. All, or at least all shown in the film, seemed moved.

Abramovic is intense, theatrical, and magnetic. Leaving the theater, I heard the couple behind me complain of boredom, and I couldn't believe that we had been watching the same film: Abramovic is a force of nature. Glamorous, physically striking, and frighteningly disciplined, she, as her curator says, “seduces everyone she meets.” And how could one not feel just a little bit seduced? The Artist is Present, like so many of her earlier pieces, directly involves the audience in the art. Abramovic has, in front of an audience, cut a pentagram into the flesh of her torso; lived, showered, urinated, and slept in three semi-attached cubes; and thrown herself repeatedly into a wall. By watching her perform, one becomes part of the performance.

There are “many Marinas,” Abramovic says, and The Artist is Present shows us several of them. We see Marina the young artist, who lives in a van for a decade and self-flagellates before it is cool. We see present-day Marina, the “grandmother of performance art,” who is glad, at long last, to get the respect she feels she deserves. (“After forty years of people thinking you've gone insane and you should be put in [a] mental hospital, you finally get all this acknowledgment,” she says. “I've been 'alternative' since I was born. Excuse me, I'm sixty-three, I don't want to be 'alternative' anymore. I want to be respected before I die.”) And we see Marina, the lover and artistic partner for a twelve-year period in the 70s and 80s of a German performance artist named Ulay. Abramovic and Ulay reunited for the retrospective—and, one assumes, the documentary—and when he sits before her in The Artist is Present, calling to mind both one of their collaborations and the intensity of their connection, it is hard not to be touched.

Abramovic is, in her own words, not a feminist. (At least not as of this June, when the New York Times interviewed her.) Yet her body of work, explored if not interrogated in The Artist is Present, deals explicitly with the female body, power and submission, violence, sexuality, and male/female relationships; if it is not feminist art, it is certainly art that engages with ideas the feminist movement introduced. Yet the documentary, set to be shown on HBO later this year, is more valorizing than interrogative: like the exhibit from which it takes its name, The Artist is Present is a retrospective and celebration, not a piece of critical (nor feminist) analysis. But Abramovic is so magnetic, and so compelling, that this hardly matters. Occupying the same space as her, watching her perform, even if only in a darkened theater, is powerful enough on its own.

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