Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present Reviews

  • Oct 30, 2017

    It's hard to decide which is more depressing: the state of American film criticism or the current quality of mainstream documentaries.  In "Marina Abramovic - The Artist is Present" HBO Documentaries and Matthew Akers have made a film that undermines the power of her seminal career, and that's a considerable feat. Critics are lauding "The Artist is Present": Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles times calls it "A riveting portrait".  It's easier for them to conflate subject with film, than it is to analyze what does and doesn't work in this piece. The truth is that t.v. director Akers has cobbled together a couple of bad Lifetime t.v. episodes, called it a documentary and done Abramovic a disservice. Marina Abramovic is a hard-core performance artist whose best work has brought "negative" elements such as stillness, grief, hunger, pain, and isolation into sharp focus, through works that often involve great endurance and physical suffering.   "In 1997 she performed Balkan Baroque at the Venice Biennale. It involved her scrubbing clean 1,500 cow bones six hours a day for four days and weeping as she sang songs and told stories from her native country" (Sean O'Hagan, Guardian UK). In "Rhythm 0" she lay quietly next to 72 objects, including a loaded gun, scissors, and a whip, and let museum-goers do whatever they wanted to her.  As time passed the audience became more aggressive, cutting up her clothes and poking her with thorns. "The Artist is Present" is organized around the event of her eponymous 2010 MoMA exhibition.  There she sat silent and immobile for 7 hours a day while museum spectators took turns sitting opposite her.  As the exhibition continued, Abramovic's rock-star status began to grow - people would camp out overnight for the chance to sit with her.  Eventually she became so popular that tight controls were placed on spectators, they could only sit for 4 minutes at a time, whereas before the time was unimited, they could not make any gestures or sounds.  There is a touching scene where a young woman removes her dress as she sits down and is swiftly escorted away by the security squad.  This is jarring because most of Abramovic's work involves her being nude, we get very familiar with her body.  Witnessing young fan shut down for that act of emulation is ironic and telling, but this goes unexplored. Instead the focus is on the crying.  Many attendees tear-up when looking at the impassive queen-bee-like Abrmovoic, in her religious-looking smock.  The soundtrack repeats the sins of  "March of the Penguins", a cloying musical score, telling us dummies that "it's time to feel now".  A montage of artfully-focused ethnically-and-age-balanced faces, in varying stages of composure, felt like a Benetton ad.  Akers should have been smart enough to realize that viewers can't help but intuit the tarnished corporate halo in this aesthetic.  Too many t.v. ads are like this, especially ones for big "faceless" corporations.  It's about as far from cleaning bloody bones as you can get. Focusing on a singlular event feels like a panicky move by documentarians.  Sure there are some films where the event is the event ("The Last Waltz"), but here it's used as a way to expose the artist, and honestly I did not know much about Marina after 2 hours than I did after 15 minutes. And the fact that the film literally ends with her final bow at MoMA makes me think that Akers didn't have the curiousity to explore the question "What is it like to enter the normal world after that intense level of communication with thousands of people?" As I've suggested before, the way to make documentaries interesting is to show themes, to then illustrate patterns within those themes, and then to identify when and why those patterns are broken.  That is all the event you need.  And indeed the audience wants something to happen in any performance.  Focusing on an orchestrated "happening" can cover up the actual personal changes that make for narrative. What are some of those themes that could have been explored?  In the beginning of the film we see Marina in her huge NYC loft, also at her beautiful Hudson Valley farmhouse.  Later she enters a truck that she livd in for 5 years in Europe (it has been brought to MoMA as an exhibit) and begins weeping, saying that this was the simplest, happiest time of her life.    She is visited by her former lover, Ulay, with whom she lived in the truck.  He is deflated by her wealth, you can see he longs for that level of material success. So to me a central question raised by the film was "What does success mean and what has it done to the artist?"  Is she less successful now that she is "successful"?  What is the significance of the change from allowing the audience to do anything they want  ("Rhythm 0") to being prohibited from make a simple gesture ("The Artist is Present")? Another theme is artist vs. art. Marina admits to craving attention, to using performance as a way of getting the love she didn't as a neglected child.  Does this minimize the value of her statements about war and suffering?  If she were to find love, would her art suffer?  She says that when her performances with Ulay were at their best, their personal relationship was at it's worst.  What does this say about art? There are many other areas in this artist's life that would have been fruitful to explore.  Instead, by the end, I felt like an audience member denied my time across from Marina.

    It's hard to decide which is more depressing: the state of American film criticism or the current quality of mainstream documentaries.  In "Marina Abramovic - The Artist is Present" HBO Documentaries and Matthew Akers have made a film that undermines the power of her seminal career, and that's a considerable feat. Critics are lauding "The Artist is Present": Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles times calls it "A riveting portrait".  It's easier for them to conflate subject with film, than it is to analyze what does and doesn't work in this piece. The truth is that t.v. director Akers has cobbled together a couple of bad Lifetime t.v. episodes, called it a documentary and done Abramovic a disservice. Marina Abramovic is a hard-core performance artist whose best work has brought "negative" elements such as stillness, grief, hunger, pain, and isolation into sharp focus, through works that often involve great endurance and physical suffering.   "In 1997 she performed Balkan Baroque at the Venice Biennale. It involved her scrubbing clean 1,500 cow bones six hours a day for four days and weeping as she sang songs and told stories from her native country" (Sean O'Hagan, Guardian UK). In "Rhythm 0" she lay quietly next to 72 objects, including a loaded gun, scissors, and a whip, and let museum-goers do whatever they wanted to her.  As time passed the audience became more aggressive, cutting up her clothes and poking her with thorns. "The Artist is Present" is organized around the event of her eponymous 2010 MoMA exhibition.  There she sat silent and immobile for 7 hours a day while museum spectators took turns sitting opposite her.  As the exhibition continued, Abramovic's rock-star status began to grow - people would camp out overnight for the chance to sit with her.  Eventually she became so popular that tight controls were placed on spectators, they could only sit for 4 minutes at a time, whereas before the time was unimited, they could not make any gestures or sounds.  There is a touching scene where a young woman removes her dress as she sits down and is swiftly escorted away by the security squad.  This is jarring because most of Abramovic's work involves her being nude, we get very familiar with her body.  Witnessing young fan shut down for that act of emulation is ironic and telling, but this goes unexplored. Instead the focus is on the crying.  Many attendees tear-up when looking at the impassive queen-bee-like Abrmovoic, in her religious-looking smock.  The soundtrack repeats the sins of  "March of the Penguins", a cloying musical score, telling us dummies that "it's time to feel now".  A montage of artfully-focused ethnically-and-age-balanced faces, in varying stages of composure, felt like a Benetton ad.  Akers should have been smart enough to realize that viewers can't help but intuit the tarnished corporate halo in this aesthetic.  Too many t.v. ads are like this, especially ones for big "faceless" corporations.  It's about as far from cleaning bloody bones as you can get. Focusing on a singlular event feels like a panicky move by documentarians.  Sure there are some films where the event is the event ("The Last Waltz"), but here it's used as a way to expose the artist, and honestly I did not know much about Marina after 2 hours than I did after 15 minutes. And the fact that the film literally ends with her final bow at MoMA makes me think that Akers didn't have the curiousity to explore the question "What is it like to enter the normal world after that intense level of communication with thousands of people?" As I've suggested before, the way to make documentaries interesting is to show themes, to then illustrate patterns within those themes, and then to identify when and why those patterns are broken.  That is all the event you need.  And indeed the audience wants something to happen in any performance.  Focusing on an orchestrated "happening" can cover up the actual personal changes that make for narrative. What are some of those themes that could have been explored?  In the beginning of the film we see Marina in her huge NYC loft, also at her beautiful Hudson Valley farmhouse.  Later she enters a truck that she livd in for 5 years in Europe (it has been brought to MoMA as an exhibit) and begins weeping, saying that this was the simplest, happiest time of her life.    She is visited by her former lover, Ulay, with whom she lived in the truck.  He is deflated by her wealth, you can see he longs for that level of material success. So to me a central question raised by the film was "What does success mean and what has it done to the artist?"  Is she less successful now that she is "successful"?  What is the significance of the change from allowing the audience to do anything they want  ("Rhythm 0") to being prohibited from make a simple gesture ("The Artist is Present")? Another theme is artist vs. art. Marina admits to craving attention, to using performance as a way of getting the love she didn't as a neglected child.  Does this minimize the value of her statements about war and suffering?  If she were to find love, would her art suffer?  She says that when her performances with Ulay were at their best, their personal relationship was at it's worst.  What does this say about art? There are many other areas in this artist's life that would have been fruitful to explore.  Instead, by the end, I felt like an audience member denied my time across from Marina.

  • Aug 17, 2017

    Very bad documentary

    Very bad documentary

  • Nov 21, 2015

    Appreciate it. Zen displayed through Art.....

    Appreciate it. Zen displayed through Art.....

  • Oct 22, 2015

    Surprisingly moving. Marina is the canvas. One of the more powerful documentaries that I've seen of late.

    Surprisingly moving. Marina is the canvas. One of the more powerful documentaries that I've seen of late.

  • Jul 22, 2015

    The brisk editing, intimate photography and Abramovic's own seductive personality elevate the film and make it somewhat watchable for me, despite not understanding what all the fuss is about regarding her famous, bizarre performance art. Still, I found it impenetrable, bizarre and sometimes unintentionally hilarious, as ignorant as that might make me sound to the modern art crowd.

    The brisk editing, intimate photography and Abramovic's own seductive personality elevate the film and make it somewhat watchable for me, despite not understanding what all the fuss is about regarding her famous, bizarre performance art. Still, I found it impenetrable, bizarre and sometimes unintentionally hilarious, as ignorant as that might make me sound to the modern art crowd.

  • May 22, 2015

    Marina Abramovi? isn't generally a name that rolls off your tongue when listing your favorite artists, but after viewing "The Artist Is Present", she may as well be the very first person that comes to mind. When classifying "artists", most point in the direction of Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein - we forget about performance artists, as most of us aren't pretentious enough to consider ourselves a part of the "art" world. Save for Portland hipsters and eclectic New Yorkers, most don't know who the hell Marina Abramovi? is or why she is so damn interesting. I had never heard of her until a few days ago, when she made national headlines accusing Jay-Z of failing to donate to the Marina Abramovi? foundation after co-starring in his "Picasso Baby" music video. "The Artist Is Present" is a fascinating watch for both newcomers and Abramovi? admirers, giving us an inside look into the process of her 2010 exhibit of the same name while providing a background, or, an introduction, if you will, to her performing art past. Touching on her controversial "Rhythm" series of the 1970s and her artistic and personal relationship with Ulay, the documentary is as educational as it is emotionally satisfying. We can appreciate Abramovi?'s contributions to our culture just as much as we can connect with her as a vulnerable human being doing what they love. Abramovi? has made a career out of using her body as means of artistic expression, testing her physical and intellectual limits on a regular basis. She has run into walls (for hours), cut, whipped and mentally disabled herself, exposed her naked body to the world - and yet, these are only a few characteristics of her long career (and vaguely detailed I might add). Abramovi?'s willingness to submit to inescapable pain for the sake of performing is startling. One might initially cast aside her experiments, considering them to be laughable, strange, perhaps even an excuse to commit self-harm. The documentary, though, adds a dimension unseen by most, making her projects all the more admirable. "The Artist Is Present" has a plentiful number of interviews to add to our reverence, and goes just deep enough into Abramovi?'s past to give us a sort of idea as to why she does what she does. But the most enjoyable aspects of the documentary are not the clinical studies nor the final act, which focuses on the bewildering exhibit. Most gratifying is seeing Abramovi? behind the scenes, living as a normal woman, with a sense of humor, to boot, who just so happens to have a job most would never dream of. This is a hugely pleasurable documentary, yet I want more. I want to delve into Abramovi?'s unhappy childhood with more gusto, to get an even closer look into the mind-blowing years spent with Ulay. For now, though, this will have to do, and that isn't a bad thing.

    Marina Abramovi? isn't generally a name that rolls off your tongue when listing your favorite artists, but after viewing "The Artist Is Present", she may as well be the very first person that comes to mind. When classifying "artists", most point in the direction of Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein - we forget about performance artists, as most of us aren't pretentious enough to consider ourselves a part of the "art" world. Save for Portland hipsters and eclectic New Yorkers, most don't know who the hell Marina Abramovi? is or why she is so damn interesting. I had never heard of her until a few days ago, when she made national headlines accusing Jay-Z of failing to donate to the Marina Abramovi? foundation after co-starring in his "Picasso Baby" music video. "The Artist Is Present" is a fascinating watch for both newcomers and Abramovi? admirers, giving us an inside look into the process of her 2010 exhibit of the same name while providing a background, or, an introduction, if you will, to her performing art past. Touching on her controversial "Rhythm" series of the 1970s and her artistic and personal relationship with Ulay, the documentary is as educational as it is emotionally satisfying. We can appreciate Abramovi?'s contributions to our culture just as much as we can connect with her as a vulnerable human being doing what they love. Abramovi? has made a career out of using her body as means of artistic expression, testing her physical and intellectual limits on a regular basis. She has run into walls (for hours), cut, whipped and mentally disabled herself, exposed her naked body to the world - and yet, these are only a few characteristics of her long career (and vaguely detailed I might add). Abramovi?'s willingness to submit to inescapable pain for the sake of performing is startling. One might initially cast aside her experiments, considering them to be laughable, strange, perhaps even an excuse to commit self-harm. The documentary, though, adds a dimension unseen by most, making her projects all the more admirable. "The Artist Is Present" has a plentiful number of interviews to add to our reverence, and goes just deep enough into Abramovi?'s past to give us a sort of idea as to why she does what she does. But the most enjoyable aspects of the documentary are not the clinical studies nor the final act, which focuses on the bewildering exhibit. Most gratifying is seeing Abramovi? behind the scenes, living as a normal woman, with a sense of humor, to boot, who just so happens to have a job most would never dream of. This is a hugely pleasurable documentary, yet I want more. I want to delve into Abramovi?'s unhappy childhood with more gusto, to get an even closer look into the mind-blowing years spent with Ulay. For now, though, this will have to do, and that isn't a bad thing.

  • Apr 12, 2015

    The movie didn't change my feeling that a lot of performance art is basically BS, but it's interesting to see the process, to listen to the people who definitely don't think it's BS, and to see the audience reaction. Unfortunately that's about all we get; I would have liked to see how she ended up doing this particular form of art in the first place and how it became to be taken seriously.

    The movie didn't change my feeling that a lot of performance art is basically BS, but it's interesting to see the process, to listen to the people who definitely don't think it's BS, and to see the audience reaction. Unfortunately that's about all we get; I would have liked to see how she ended up doing this particular form of art in the first place and how it became to be taken seriously.

  • Apr 07, 2015

    Once a skeptic of performance art (still most of it), this film changed my mind. Have patience if you are not a fan of conceptual performance art.

    Once a skeptic of performance art (still most of it), this film changed my mind. Have patience if you are not a fan of conceptual performance art.

  • Dec 09, 2014

    A 2012 documentary about the 2010 retrospective exhibition "THE ARTIST IS PRESENT" held at MoMA, New York, by the Serbia-born Marina Abramovic, the performance-art spearhead, who has been active for over 40 years and namely the "grandmother of performance art". keep reading my review on my blog here: http://wp.me/p1eXom-1KJ

    A 2012 documentary about the 2010 retrospective exhibition "THE ARTIST IS PRESENT" held at MoMA, New York, by the Serbia-born Marina Abramovic, the performance-art spearhead, who has been active for over 40 years and namely the "grandmother of performance art". keep reading my review on my blog here: http://wp.me/p1eXom-1KJ

  • Oct 29, 2014

    Unbelievably moving documentary. I absolutely loathe performance art and the pretentiousness that comes with it. If fact, aside from movies and some abstract pieces, I am not all that interested in art. However, it is impossible not to like this film. Abramovic is hypnotic throughout and the film editors do a great job of cutting out virtually all of the annoyances that sometimes plague these types documentaries. I am a simple-minded person who enjoys beer, boxing and cars. I do not know my wines nor am I an avid NY Times reader. But, one thing I am sure of is that you will love this film. Just give it 15 minutes and you will be hooked.

    Unbelievably moving documentary. I absolutely loathe performance art and the pretentiousness that comes with it. If fact, aside from movies and some abstract pieces, I am not all that interested in art. However, it is impossible not to like this film. Abramovic is hypnotic throughout and the film editors do a great job of cutting out virtually all of the annoyances that sometimes plague these types documentaries. I am a simple-minded person who enjoys beer, boxing and cars. I do not know my wines nor am I an avid NY Times reader. But, one thing I am sure of is that you will love this film. Just give it 15 minutes and you will be hooked.