Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Review: Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre, 2012)

Having already watched The Imposter, Undefeated and Searching For Sugar Man in 2012 I was pretty content with the year for documentaries, despite having seen very few of the Oscar short list. Then along came Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, a powerful and inspiring film that many of my friends understandably raved about after the screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival

It follows Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic as she prepares for a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). In addition to the presence of stills and projected videos of her life's work, Marina has hired young performance artists to recreate some of her most provocative works. Marina also desires to put herself in the retrospective - an admirably ambitious work described by the curator as a 'self portrait'. For the entire duration of the retrospective (something like three months) and the museum's daily opening hours, Marina will be sitting alone (not moving or talking and barely expressing) at a table with an empty chair opposite her. Visitors can sit opposite her, share her space and experience her vulnerability all for themselves.

In short, The Artist is Present destroyed me. I was left in tears by the end, evidently shaken by this extraordinary feat of endurance, and uninhibited dedication to the art form. It is a stunning documentation of the career of an amazing artist; for many a 20th Century revolutionary. The physical strain on the body must have been excruciating. While I can only imagine how it would have felt to have sit opposite Marina and shared her energy, I felt like this film was just as moving. The footage from within MoMA is overwhelmingly intimate, to the point where we feel privileged to have this access to her preparations and insight into her mental state, and we can feel the anticipation in the air.

Just as extraordinary as her remarkable life and this achievement, is the interest her retrospective attracted. Many admitted to lining up outside of the museum all night to have the chance to sit with her. On the final day, the observers were only given fifteen minutes with her. Prior to that, there was no time limit at all. One man revisited multiple times, he found it so profound. It became a phenomenon. I felt like something crazy was going to happen on the final day and there is a heightened tension as we witness hundreds of people surround her and security tighten their patrol.

In addition to documenting a fascinating subject I also felt like the film was well constructed. As we are privileged to her preparation for the retrospective - her workshops with the artists who will be performing for her - we are introduced to new chapters of her career, usually relating to the specific performance or period of her life at the source of discussion. This is not solely the documentation of an artist reflecting on her career and partaking in her most dangerous and ambitious performance to date, but the film works as a reflection itself. It is itself a piece of art that doesn't possess many cinematic flourishes - so you can easily put it on at home - but I guarantee it has the power to evoke many unexpected emotions.

Not only is Marina a fascinating individual, but her former performance partner and lover, Ulay Laysiepen, also provides some terrific recounts of his experiences with Marina. He is a character we wish to learn more about - and Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre utilise his interview footage very effectively. The pair ended their relationship by walking away from one another after meeting in the middle of the Great Wall of China having walked from opposite ends. Watching the two meet once again on the floor of Marina's performance gave me chills, and is one of the most moving moments in a film that offers many.

Terrifically edited together, this was a late 2012 highlight. As we watch people of all ages and genders sit opposite Marina they get a glimpse into her soul - and many are brought to tears as a result - it is difficult to compress your own emotion. Following a controversial career - one in which her body was pushed to dangerous limits - we get an intimate and self-reflexive look into the extraordinary life of this eloquent 63-year-old, whose passion for her art is evidently as strong as it has ever been.

My Rating: ★★★★1/2 (A-)

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