Marina Abramović gets a double retrospective.
DIRECTED BY MATTHEW AKERS
Christened the godmother of performance art, a title she’s both welcomed and shied away from at different points, Marina Abramović works through the medium of her body—which she’s put through the wringer over a career that now spans four decades. Matthew Akers’s biographical documentary Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present finds the Belgrade-born Abramović in a rare state of calm. Coming across as far less intense than might be expected from her work, here she’s open to the grandiose lauds and tickled by the honour of an upcoming retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Akers’s film divides its time between a profile of that retrospective, including Abramović’s titular new work, which entails sitting in a chair for the three-month duration of the exhibition, opposite a stream of guests, and its own survey of the artist’s career. This latter subject is by far the most compelling, particularly in the segment focused on Abramović’s long and fruitful collaboration with German artist Ulay, both a professional and a romantic partner. The scrappy video footage of their Relation Work series from the late 1970s is as intimate and as affecting as secondhand representations of the art can get.
What’s less cinematic, despite Abramović’s impressive physical and psychological endurance and clear effort to connect with each member of her audience, is Akers’s footage of the titular work, which is mostly relegated to a montage of exhibition guests going misty-eyed after a moment of gazing into the artist’s eyes. A celebrity cameo from apparent friend James Franco as one of Abramović’s sitting partners doesn’t help matters, especially once he takes a post-sit opportunity to pontificate about the art of acting not three feet away from her. Just the same, this is the rare artist’s doc that’s both informative and emotionally involving, its power drawn from its charismatic and accomplished subject.