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New Abramovic film explores public and private endurance tests

Akers's film recounts the artist’s decades of arduous performances—and reveals a charming woman beneath the steely surface

It is a testament to Marina Abramovic’s status that Matthew Akers’s film “Marina Abramovic: the Artist is Present” is the third to feature her in less than five years and the second in just three months. Babette Mangolte’s 2007 film “Seven Easy Pieces” documented Abramovic’s residency at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, as she reproduced works by other performance artists along with her own pieces. And as recently as April, the US Public Broadcasting Service’s biannual “Art in the 21st Century” series broke with its usual conventions to include a substantial segment in one of its programmes, directed by the artist and film-maker Charles Atlas, that consisted of a very slow tracking shot away from and returning to Abramovic as she related a version of her life story.

While Mangolte’s film was more or less limited to Abramovic’s performances, and Atlas’s segment, despite being billed as a work in its own right, formed part of a longer TV programme, Akers’s film is a big deal. Having played the major festival circuit (it won an audience award at the Berlin Film Festival and debuted in competition at the Sundance Film Festival), the film will be given theatrical releases in the US and the UK, plus an outing on the US cable television channel HBO, which was one of its backers. It is also due to be shown at Art Basel this month.

The title is taken from Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective and residency at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where, for two and a half months, she sat still for seven hours a day and made eye contact with anyone who queued to sit in front of her. The feats of endurance she undergoes to create her performances are well known within the art world, but are here being promoted to an audience that may be less familiar with her work. Such exacting self-punishment, often including nudity, is food for satire and outrage in the world at large, and even in the art world itself. The dealer Jim Kempner sent up The Artist is Present in his online comedy “The Madness of Art”, in which, as a sitter opposite an ersatz Abramovic, he fumbles when turning off his mobile phone, resulting in it bouncing off her head. And in a clip included here, two Fox News presenters berate a supposedly lascivious promo video by Lady Gaga before drawing a comparison with the “Yugoslavian-born provocateur” showing at MoMA. That Akers’s film succeeds in humanising the artist, showing her in private to be witty, warm and self-deprecating, in contrast to the deadly serious personas she adopts while performing, makes her harder to hit, either with jokes or with self-righteous condemnation.

The first part of the film is largely a history, discussing Abramovic’s childhood and her early performances. One telling scene has her New York dealer, Sean Kelly, counselling her against a joint performance with David Blaine, convincing her that while Blaine is undoubtedly highly skilled, and his plan to “cut her up with an axe” would be an impressive illusion, there is no illusion in her entirely truthful work. She wisely takes his advice.

The latter part records her encounters during The Artist is Present, and the pain she endures as a result of sitting for seven hours a day. This section seems overlong and could have been better woven into the contemporary and historical biographical sequences.

At the film’s heart, however, is not Abramovic’s demanding performance history or the extremes of her lengthy stint at MoMA, but rather her relationship with her former lover, the performance artist Ulay. The couple lived and performed together for 12 years, a substantial part of that period spent travelling Europe in a small van that was also their home. After their 1988 performance walk The Lovers, in which they set out at either end of the Great Wall of China and met and embraced somewhere around the middle, they broke up. In the film, they are shown meeting again for the first time in 23 years. Despite Ulay’s assertion to camera—“I have nothing to say. No comment. Only respect”—he does in fact have something to say about both their relationship and Abramovic’s ascendency to art superstardom. He notes that, while they both had affairs, hers was with a mutual friend. He also looks around Abramovic’s stylish apartment in New York with a sceptical eye, indicating that he wouldn’t have time to be a serious artist and pursue such material things.

Abramovic counters that Ulay had an affair with his Chinese translator, whom he married after she became pregnant. It’s all a bit reality TV, and it’s up to the viewer to decide whether this is enhanced or defused when, during Abramovic’s sitting sessions at MoMA, Ulay takes his place opposite her and their intense eye-contact reduces both to tears. Finally, she reaches out and takes his hands across the table, and the spectators provide a spontaneous round of applause. By the time the three months are up, they’re cheering.

Akers’s film succeeds in presenting an intimate and revealing portrait of an artist who all too often seems to be defined by the disciplines to which she subjects herself. In the next couple of months, box office and viewing figures will show whether that portrait can reach a larger audience—one consisting of people who will probably always find what she does very strange indeed.

o “Marina Abramovic: the Artist is Present” opens at Film Forum in New York on 13 June, in Los Angeles on 15 June and in the UK on 6 July. It is due to be shown at Art Basel on 16 June and on HBO in the US on 2 July

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Abramovic passes latest endurance test'