Saturday 23 September 2017

The artist who made audience cry

Paul Whitington

marina abramovic: the artist is present

(Club, Light House, 104 minutes)

Director: Matthew Akers Stars: Marina Abramovic, Ulay, Klais Bisenbach, David Blaine

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I must confess, I've tended to dismiss performance art as the last refuge of talentless scoundrels, and my limited encounters with the medium have done little to convince me otherwise.

'I cannot paint but I can cover myself from head to toe in flour and pretend to be a chicken,' would neatly summarise my entrenched and rather ignorant attitude, but watching this fine documentary by Matthew Akers has cured me at a stroke.

Akers' film profiles the work of veteran Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic, and in particular her preparations for a groundbreaking 2010 retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Abramovic has been working on the experimental boundaries of performance art since the early 1970s, and much of her work was inspired by her problematic childhood. She was born in Belgrade, in 1946, to parents who were both heroes of Marshal Tito's wartime partisan movement.

Abramovic's mother was a fanatical communist, and seems to have gone out of her way to starve her child of affection.

Marina's earliest works were angry demonstrations of her pain: she played the Russian knife game, crisscrossing her own hand with a sharp blade, lay naked inside a burning pentagram, and had members of the public pelt her with various objects.

In 1976, she fell in love with a German performance artist called Ulay, and for the next 14 years she toured Europe with him in a camper van, performing and creating together.

They split painfully in 1988, after ending their relationship with a symbolic walk towards each other from either ends of China's Great Wall (which beats a curt text message), and Akers' film includes an emotional reunion 20-odd years on.

But the bulk of this documentary revolves around Abramovic's MOMA retrospective.

Performance artists can't just hang their greatest hits along the walls, they need other performers to enact their works for them.

Abramovic gathered a group of young performance artists at her Hudson Valley home, and helped them prepare for the rigors of a daily three-month show. But she also readied herself to perform in the show's centrepiece.

In a piece called The Artist is Present, Marina sat silently in a chair in the middle of a gallery space while visitors queued up to sit in front and exchange stares with her. She did this for seven hours daily, for three months, and her show attracted almost 850,000 visitors.

How Abramovic mustered the physical and emotional resources to do this I do not know, but the power of her stunning piece is undeniable. She seemed to act as a kind of mirror to some sitters, and draw out their pain. Many cried, and Akers' film gives one a sense of how Abramovic managed to turn a blank gallery into a kind of humanist church.

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