Early in Matthew Akers’ documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, an interviewer apologizes for asking Abramovic questions she must have been asked a hundred times before, but the Serbian-born, sexagenarian New York performance artist tells him she’s disappointed he hasn’t asked the one big question she used to get asked constantly: “Why is this art?” Few serious arts journalists are as skeptical of Abramovic as they once were, which is a testament to her endurance, and to the decades she’s spent touring the world, exhibiting her work and herself. (Not that there’s any real difference between the two.) Abramovic first rose to prominence in the ’70s with pieces that involved her wounding her own naked body. Then she found a partner in art and life, a German artist who calls himself “Ulay,” who joined her in pieces that explored gender roles and relationships. After she and Ulay split—via a piece that saw the two of them walking toward each other atop The Great Wall Of China—Abramovic’s work moved in a more theatrical direction, and she became increasingly entrenched in the larger artistic community.
The Artist Is Present surveys Abramovic’s career through the context of a wildly successful 2010 Museum Of Modern Art retrospective, during which she performed the titular piece: a sort of living sculpture/self-portrait that involved Abramovic sitting silently and motionless in a chair, from opening to close, while art-lovers and lookie-loos from around the world lined up for the chance to sit across from her. Akers’ footage of “The Artist Is Present” is often tense, as some participants weep openly, while others try to stir Abramovic by taking off their clothes, or attaching a mirror-mask to their heads. But just as fascinating are all the scenes of Abramovic and her team preparing for the exhibit: by hiring some fearless souls to recreate other well-known Abramovic pieces at MOMA (such as the one where two nude people stand in a doorway, forcing people to squeeze past them), and by developing a chair that can double as a toilet, just in case.
The documentary seems a little structureless and unfocused at times, as Akers moves from dramatic moment to dramatic moment, not always taking care to connect them. (Particularly frustrating is how The Artist Is Present notes in passing some of the controversy surrounding the MOMA show, but fails to contextualize it. Was this a huge outcry? Or just some Fox News jabber? And what does it say about how far Abramovic has come that she’s even well-known enough to outrage the national media?) But Abramovic’s pieces themselves remain exciting to see, and though Ulay insists that his ex is “never not performing,” The Artist Is Present does at least seem to capture moments where Abramovic seems genuine, whether she’s throwing up because of pre-show nerves, or laying bare the mundane reasons why she and Ulay broke up. There’s a reason why one of Abramovic’s advisers suggests she turn down a proposed collaboration with David Blaine: because what she does is “true,” not an illusion. Though given how much work goes into each of her pieces, maybe the question to ask of her now isn’t, “Why is this art?” but “What is ‘real?’”