The new documentary Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present is a backstage look at the artist’s career-crowning MoMA retrospective, down to the emergency toilet hidden in the chair she sat in, without moving, 7.5 hours per day – 736 hours and 30 minutes in all – over the course of the exhibition. It’s a surprisingly intimate perspective on an otherwise larger-than-life figure, who has gone a long way towards increasing the recognition of performance art. In the grand tradition of such documentaries, it doesn’t pass up the opportunity for a Philip Glass-scored montage of emotional visitors sitting across from the artist in the MoMA atrium.
While preparing for the MoMA show, Abramović reunited with Ulay, her romantic partner and collaborator from 1976 to 1988. Ulay asks Abramović, “How should I call you? The grandmother of performance artists or the diva of performance artists?” Abramović is, confusingly, both at once. Her reputation is built on extraordinary self-denial, self-control, and self-endangerment. At the same time, she revels in art world status and celebrity. The day after her two-month performance at MoMA, she attended a dinner in her honor wearing extravagant couture. Her friend Riccardo Tisci, a Givenchy designer, calls her a muse. She stars (and even sings) in Robert Wilson’s prematurely hagiographic opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. At a widely discussed LA MOCA benefit, beefcake models carried in life-sized cakes modeled on Abramović’s naked body (along with another in the form of Debbie Harry). And then there’s Abramović’s $15 million OMA-designed monument to her own style of performance, the Marina Abramović Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art, projected to open in 2014. Hopefully the documentary will add nuance to our knowledge of the grandmother-diva, though it probably doesn’t resolve any of her contradictions.
Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present opens June 13 in New York at Film Forum and June 15 in Los Angeles at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, followed by a national release.