Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2012’s Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present directed by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre.
Daniel Elkin: There are certain forms of expressive media that have a hard time gaining respect, regardless of the beauty and power they are capable of. Certainly, comics and video games suffer from this discourtesy, but performance art seems to take on the lion’s share of ignorant and lazy critical posturing and derision. Whether this is because of its medium-fundamental controversial subject matter, the difficulty artists have describing exactly what they are trying to do, or the fact that there are so many poor examples of crap available in the public consciousness, it’s hard to say.
When done well, with passion, craft, thought, and intent, performance art can tear a hole in you in ways that other art forms cannot. Performance is one of the few visual arts that is ephemeral. It uses the body as the subject; oftentimes the line between art and artist is completely erased. By its very nature, it is confrontational, demanding participation of the audience, and succeeds at its highest level when belief systems are brutally challenged and the stench of freshly butchered sacred cows pervades the scene.
One of the most widely praised (and equally passionately derided) performance artist is Marina Abramovic. Born in 1946 in the former Yugoslavia, Abramovic didn’t really start performing until the early 1970’s when performance art was starting to gain traction as a viable art form. She was one of the first performance artists to figure out a way to fully monetize her creations and has, through the years, become more grand and theatrical in her work. She has transformed from making loud and definite assertions to understanding the power of more quiet moments. By changing the context of the simple actions of every day life, she makes statements about that what we take for granted.
She is also the subject of the 2012 documentary, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, the focus of which is her recent retrospective show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the new performance piece she created for the event.
The film does a small job of putting Abramovic’s work in perspective, does a cursory job of providing biography, and spends the majority of its second half documenting Abramovic’s incredible piece called The Artist is Present, the longest-duration solo work of her career and, by far, one of the most physically and emotionally demanding artistic statement she has ever attempted in the four decades she has called herself an artist.
More importantly, the film works to answer the question that Abramovic has been plagued with all of her creative life, “But why is this art?” By the end of the film I discovered a different answer to this question than the one I held so strongly when I initially sat down to watch it. Much as Abramovic relies on building what she calls “an energy dialogue” with her audience, the documentary engaged my preconceived notions about performance, art, and experience on a very fundamental level and led me to many new understandings of the potential of the creative act.
Before I go on about that, though, Sacks, I am interested to hear your thoughts on the film.
Jason Sacks: Daniel, as you know painfully well, one of my favorite expressions is that art is a dialogue between the artist and the person consuming their work. Usually that means that the material is consumed by the viewer, as in watching a film or reading a novel, but sometimes that involvement gets much deeper. The best video games, for instance, are designed to force the consumer to be involved with it and become immersed in that experience of consumption.
Marina Abramovic’s performance art is also about immersion.
Whether engaged in violent roleplay in the nude on stage with her (then-)husband as a means of forcing her audience to receive a dissonant view of gender roles or simply staring at a person in an open room at MoMA, Abramovic’s breaks through the barriers and pierces right into your brain and soul in an almost visceral level, through all of society’s pretense of personal space and privacy and safety. Viewers are engrossed in the world she creates, and the best of her pieces have the power to change people, to make them understand their life in a way that would not have been possible without her powerful Art.
What makes Abramovic’s MoMA show so fascinating is that it barely would qualify as Art under most definitions of the term.
After all, her performance was just about staring people in the eyes with a sincere intensity. But there’s something in that look, in that earnestness with which it’s offered and the experience it holds, in the manner in which it reflects the artist’s view of her society and the way that it reflects the consumer’s vision back at themselves like a mirror, that transcends mere communication and becomes something greater: it is immersive art – or Art with a capital “A” seems more appropriate here.
The clue to this art comes from the show’s title: The Artist is Present. On the surface that simply means that Marina Abramovic is on the floor of MoMA, with her installations and displays and her seemingly endless crew of sincere and attractive, young and frequently naked acolytes. And that applies to this work. It makes sense. It fits what we see.
But it also means that she’s present in the moment. It’s become a cliché to say that in our world today we often aren’t present in the moment; instead, we’re mentally thinking about last week’s Game of Thrones while simultaneously considering tonight’s dinner and that problem with your ex-wife and how you’re going to get home from the museum and how you’re going to beat the boss on level six of that game that you like and how sore your feet are. It may be a cliché that we are distracted but it’s true and that’s part of what it means to be human. It’s rare to have a moment when you relate to someone on a truly human level, eye to eye, connecting over space. We’re becoming more and more estranged from that. We’re losing what it means to be present.
Abramovic’s art is, in the truest sense, a dialogue between herself and consumer.
Daniel, the artist is present. What did you get from gazing deep into her eyes?
Elkin: I got the chills, Sacks. I got a new understanding of performance art. I got transcendent and I don’t want to look away.
I like what you said above about how “we’re losing what it means to be present” as this is a theme I’ve latched on to in many of my favorite comics and poems. What do we lose when we lose that sense of ourselves we only get through our interactions with others? What do we become when we constantly put on guises to fit our communication platforms? Where is the self and what does it entail? Abramovic’s MOMA performance addressed these questions in a substrative way. Her gaze is the gaze that cuts through all the layers of self we have created. Our reaction to the recognition of this ur-self is unnerving, affirming, crippling, or joyous. Or maybe all four at the same time.
Herein is the effort and the validity of the artist. This is what a skilled performance artist like Abramovic is capable of with her creative force. Performance demands the audience, or “the consumer” as you call us (which makes me think of sandwiches, a performance art form we can discuss at length later), participate by challenging our preconceived notions. As it turns the self on the self it works on a congenital level. To paraphrase our friend and fellow CB critic, “Performance ain’t no Procrustean bed.”
Previous to watching this documentary, I saw performance art as a particularly sly confrontational forum that depended on a reactionary political motivation. I conceived it as purely Statement Art, having no value other than being the rejoinder, the smack-down to put us in our place. I looked at performance as the palace of the argumentative progressive pushing his or her agenda into your face with shit and piss and blood and puke and no time to sit down.
And there is still a lot of this. And this, I feel, leads to so much of the misunderstanding and brickbat and ridicule performance engenders and endures.
But Abramovic has been able to bring something else to our (or at least my) conception of the possibilities of performance, through maturity, through clarity, through opportunity. She has re-framed the dialogue between expectation and purpose and has brought lucidity to the amorphous. Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present does a great job of making this clear by letting the art speak for itself. In the film, Abramovic says she is tired of answering the question, “But why is this art?” The retrospective at MOMA provides a context for her answer – it’s art because “they” finally say it is – her performance of “The Artist is Present” answers it with the ferocity of truth and a simplicity of beauty.
As a documentary, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present does a great job of recording all the things it needed to in order to make this point and answer the question. It gives its audience a perspective on the artist and her art, as well as allow for an openness of experience without a heavy didactic hand. Still, a documentary on an artist for whom all is performance is a slippery slope. How much of what the audience gets to see in this film is a document and how much is a performance is a blurred line that not even Robin Thicke could twerk to.
Sacks: Daniel, you’re alluding to another point that this film makes, namely the idea that Abramovic seldom seems completely offstage. She’s been performing so much in her life that it is often tough to see the true self behind her artifice. There’s a sense that she is acting during her meetings with her partners and her coworkers; the artist is present in the manner in which she interacts, all reflecting her need to control how she’s seen by the people who are important to her.
Of course, that’s true of all of us. You may talk about your love of sandwiches with your high school English classes, but I’m sure there are many things that you don’t share. Heck, I’m sure we’ve shared some ideas in these essays that you might not share with your parents. We often are playing a part, acting out own bit of performance art. That’s just part of our complex lives, where we cross Robin Thicke’s blurred lines.
But one of the most fascinating aspects of this film are in Abramovic’s relationship with her longtime partner Ulay. From the moment we meet Ulay and see his interaction with Marina, it’s clear that they are each other’s soul mates, the person with whom they are closest and most real. Every time we see those two people together, the façade seems to fall away and we almost are looking at a different woman: the self-contained, showy artist gives way to the real woman who got to have some of the greatest times of her life living in a van and putting on genre-shattering (and sometimes nose-shattering) exhibitions together. There is a connection in couples who seem fated to be together; we see that in Ulay and Marina, and after he leaves the film, Ulay hangs over it like a specter – or more accurately, like the thoughts that in some ways haunt Marina.
The beauty of Marina’s eye contact is that it’s a pure act of interpersonal connection. It’s primal. It’s real. It’s something that two people share that is special just to them, an act of intimacy made more special because no words are spoken. In the silence, the contact brings truth. There may be artifice on the outside, but the eyes reveal the soul. In that moment, the artist is present. And her art changes lives.
Which only makes sense, because the artist is always present.