"There are many Marinas," the legendary performance artist at the center of "Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present" says by way of self-introduction, and she is not kidding. When you combine them all, as this riveting documentary does, you get a portrait of an artist whose life and work intertwine in ways even more compelling than might be imagined.
Certainly the extent and nature of Abramovic's output, her use of her own body as a canvas on and through which art is created, has caused a series of sensations from her 1970s work in her native Belgrade through her 2010 career retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. That show, which included a sensational three-month performance viewed by an estimated 750,000 people, is the focus of this film.
Director-cinematographer Matthew Akers, whose background is largely shooting television documentaries, has done a formidable amount of work here. He followed the artist to six countries over a 10-month period, shooting hundreds of hours of footage, interviewed the key people in her creative life and assembled archival footage of some of the projects that made her famous.
So we see Abramovic's earlier works, which include slamming herself into a wall, mutilating and flagellating herself, even driving a van in a circle for 16 hours, shouting numbers through a megaphone. "The artist has to be a warrior," this Marina says, "to conquer not just new territory but himself and his weaknesses."
As critic Arthur Danto says, Abramovic's work "directly and boldly challenges an audience." The artist adds that now that the question "Why is this art?" isn't being asked anymore, she finds, "I am missing it."
But if this aspect of Abramovic — the self-described creature of "unlimited will power" who is the daughter of two national heroes of the Yugoslavian partisan effort during World War II — is not unexpected, the personal Marina you meet on film is someone completely different.
Frank, disarming, playful and unexpectedly funny, this Marina is someone who, as MOMA curator Klaus Biesenbach says, "seduces everyone she meets." Not only is she great company, but her impulse toward complete candor is also the tonic every documentary covets.
Abramovic is especially — and amusingly — frank about how much the MOMA show means to her. "After 40 years of people thinking you're insane and should be put in mental hospital, you finally get all this acknowledgment," she says. "I've been 'alternative' since I was born. Excuse me, I'm 63, I don't want to be 'alternative' anymore. I want to be respected before I die."
The New York show, and likely this film as well, are a catalyst for Abramovic to reconnect with Ulay, a German-born performance artist who was her great personal and creative partner for what they both consider to be the most intense and radically innovative 12 years of their lives.
When Abramovic gets a look at the tiny van that was their European home for five years — brought to New York for the MOMA show — she breaks into tears as she talks of the innocence and purity of that long gone time.
If Ulay's visit reveals the private Marina, the planning for the MOMA show is something else again. The exhibit would be in part a retrospective of past works, which we see her passing onto a new generation of artists via a workshop in her upstate New York home. But what would be the new piece she would debut for the three-month-long show, what could be next for someone who has a tradition of making things ever harder for herself?
After curator Biesenbach came up with the show's title — "The Artist Is Present" — the idea came to Abramovic almost at once: Whenever you enter the museum, she will be present. Six days a week, 7½ hours a day for 90 days, she will sit without eating, drinking or moving from her position as a series of museum visitors line up to sit opposite her.
"It is extremely difficult to be like a mountain, to create stillness in the middle of hell," is how Abramovic describes her task. The most resonant part of this surprisingly emotional film demonstrates how powerful this interaction is, how it expresses something that is no less moving for being, literally, beyond words.
'Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present'
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Nuart, West Los Angeles