Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present

You might have to stare at Marina Abramovic’s artwork a long time before you accept it as anything other than pretentious. This HBO documentary named for her Museum of Modern Art exhibition in 2010, “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present,” maybe places too much weight on the artist’s brilliance without questioning her methods. But the more you watch, you become enchanted by how sincere it really is.

This is precisely what happened to nearly 750,000 people back in March through May of 2010. Abramovic, a Yugoslavian modern artist known as the Grandmother of performance art, staged her simplest, yet most daring performance to date. In a large empty room in New York’s MoMA, Abramovic sat motionless at a table as she gazed into the eyes of anyone who chose to sit in front of her.

They sat, and she looked back, mysteriously and sympathetically. The longer they stayed, the more she became a mirror unto them. This film beautifully captures the pain, happiness, sadness and anger in countless faces.

Abramovic’s art, as the film explains, has always been about being forced to engage with a person in ways you may not have prepared for. For years, her art involved her posing naked or abusing her body such that you could not look away. It was striking work, and the film’s editing splices all of these shocking images together in super quick flashes of obscurity.

More importantly, it gives us Abramovic’s modest moments that reveal her humanity and her struggle. Now she’s 65 and has been accepted as an alternative artist, but she’s at an age where she’s long done with being alternative. She meets with David Blaine, who at first gives a convincing proposal for a joint collaboration in which he hacks her to pieces with an emergency axe, but she soon realizes that this stunt would go completely against her artistic philosophy.

She believes that unlike in movies or theater, in art there is a fine line between performance and acting. If she isn’t totally in the moment and is just playing a part, why should anyone believe that she isn’t just doing a stunt for shock value?

“The Artist is Present” walks this line as well, and it wins you over because it believes in its artist as much as those people in that gallery believe her.

3 ½ stars