There are artists—they exist in all media, but most obviously in those that involve performance and duration—that heighten our awareness to the passage of time to the point where the veneer of civilized time/idiot time/drudgery-time/channel-surfing time falls away completely and you feel your own organs at work, the thoughts of those around you, and the breath of every leaf on every tree. The Serbian, New York-based performance artist Marina Abramović holds a place on that list of artists, which might include Andrei Tarkovsky, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Jorge Luis Borges. But those artists work in cinema, photography and literature respectively. Abramović is a performance artist, and Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, Matthew Akers’ documentary on Abramović’s recent MoMA Retrospective (in which she hired 30 young artists to re-perform her earlier work) and new work of the same name, is partly about legitimizing performance as a serious form. It isn’t theatre, it isn’t sculpture (though one could argue that it’s kinda both) and there’s nothing you can buy; it’s people doing stuff, stuff that at a glance might seem absurd, silly, self-absorbed or merely provocative. But, in the case of Abramović’s work, a glance won’t suffice. You need to be present, to pass time. (What else did you come for?) Or you can watch Akers’ film, which, made very much from the inside of the work, very unapologetically from the inside of Abramović’s carefully cultivated mythology, goes a long way toward getting a sense of being there.
From Relation in Space, 1976
After spending much of her career working and living in a marginal sort of way (the retrospective includes the van that she lived in for years with her former partner and collaborator Ulay, with whom she performed a piece entitled Lovers, in which she and he walked the entire Great Wall of China so to meet in the middle—and then broke up!), Abramović reached a point where legitimacy became important. “I’m 63,” she says early in the film, “I don’t want to be alternative anymore.” I think she got her wish.
From The Artist is Present, 2010
During the 700 hours she spent sitting in a chair staring at people in MoMA’s atrium in 2010 (she sat, without ever getting up, every hour that the museum was open for three months, her body a mountain, her face a porous wall radiating emotion, agony and rapt interest), an estimated 750,000 visitors sat with her. What is some ways could be read as a self-portrait or an aestheticized stunt (so much of Abramović’s work has pushed the limits of, and brutally punished, her body) actually functions as a mirror—The Artist is Present is about the audience. They are half the piece, the key to its revolving symbiosis. And it is, or was, or seems to be as captured in this film, an overwhelmingly moving experience. Art can be this: presence, an invitation, a reflection, a way of being still, of feeling your entire life happen all at once, of sensing everything (as in Borges’ ‘The Aleph’), there, in a public space, with people watching, as this crazy, courageous, hungry, radiantly charismatic woman sits before you and lets it all be.