In one of those odd-seeming consequences cinema nevertheless regularly turns up, Willem Dafoe narrated a piece called The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, premiering in Manchester last year. While he stars on screen in The Hunter this week, she is now the subject of an excellent documentary about the staging of her own retrospective show,The Artist Is Present, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010.
Matthew Akers‘s fascinating film ponders not only the nature and validity of performance art but paints a somewhat hagiographic portrait of Abramovic as the movement’s “grandmother”. Charismatic and beautiful at 64, the daughter of two national heroes of General Tito’s Yugoslavia, Marina began her career in 1970s Belgrade – where many considered her insane – and continued when she met Ulay, another performance artist, in Amsterdam. The pair began a series now dubbed The Relation Works, examining the pain, power and physicality of love and coexistence. “I fell in love with her when I saw her cut a pentagram in her stomach with a razor blade,” recalls Ulay.For that show, she sat for seven and half hours, every day, for three months, on a chair, without food or water, gazing into the eyes, expressionless, of audience members and visitors who sat opposite her, gazing back. It was a staring contest of the sort kids do in the playground, but performed with utter seriousness and solemnity in one of the world’s great galleries. How, asks the documentary, was this art?
If their affair were ever made into a movie, Marina would be played byAnjelica Huston and Ulay by Jeremy Irons. “Theirs is one of the world’s great love stories,” opines the very cool, eloquent and English-bornWhitney Museum curator Chrissie Iles; and this documentary certainly probes that part of Abramovic’s life with great thoroughness, even engineering a reunion between the pair.
It is just one of many great scenes in an exhilarating, elegantly executed film that holds a mirror up to the art world, its protagonists and its devotees, forcing us to question the whole circus.