Monday, 20 February 2012
'Marina Abramović the Artist is Present' Berlinale (Panorama) review:
It's difficult to review some types of documentary film without tending towards reviewing their subject. This HBO produced look at the life and work of pioneering Yugoslavia-born performance artist Marina Abramović is one such example. The film itself is extremely competent: well paced, with access to interesting people, making compelling use of archive material, and coming across as authoritative in regards to Abramović's experimental, provocative pieces (exploring their context and meaning). Yet enjoyment of it will hinge far more on whether or not you buy into the art and the artist herself than on the documentary's own merits.
For my part I found 'Marina Abramović the Artist is Present' fascinating and strangely moving in some places, though frustrating in others. It certainly raises questions. The film's focus is on the titular MoMA exhibition, "The Artist is Present", which saw Abramović sit still in the middle of a room during the gallery's opening hours for three consecutive months, with members of the public invited to sit opposite and look into her eyes. Around 750,000 visitors took the opportunity over that period, with the film showing how many people were moved to tears by the poignancy of it all. Abramović suggests that in gazing into another's eyes participants are really looking at themselves, laid bear in a mirror.
It's a compelling idea and an interesting exhibition - however much it hinges on a distracting central "stunt" (it's not entirely incongruous for David Blaine to appear as one of the artist's friends). But it's odd that people felt the need to queue for 16 hours (and overnight) in order to experience this mutual stare-fest with the artist. Surely the point that there's inherent power in silently gazing into another person's eyes, as opposed to Abramović's in particular? Indeed the most moving sequences occur when former colleagues and lovers of Abramović take the chair, implying that there is something more profound about the experience of looking deep into the soul of someone you have a connection to. Instead many of the participants here seem like art groupies, engaging with a "must-see" happening or high-brow cultural celebrity. Fodder for dinner party conversation.
The MoMA's director, a former husband of the artist, speaks about how radical the exhibition is because Abramović is treating everybody as though they were the same (though one suspects special guest James Franco didn't have to wait too long). He says some of these members of the public seem to feel "entitled" to that equality, which they of course are. This statement speaks to a thinly-concealed elitism behind this section of the art world. For instance members of the public are hauled away from the viewing area if they (as happens in one case) decide to take their clothes off, even though Abramović's own art has frequently used nudity as a way of exploring vulnerability, sex, gender dynamics and voyeurism.
Why is it alright for an artist to do something that is socially unacceptable for anybody else? Who decides the viewer is not entitled to become part of the art - to dress funny, or pull a face or take their clothes off? What sort of ego does it take to initiate this one-way exchange, inviting hundreds of thousands of people to look at you - and pay for the privilege? The early experimental pieces of Abramović's that we see are so much more daring and conceptually interesting than this. Especially one earlier work (1974's "Rhythm 0") which saw the artist lie naked in a room full of props (guns, knives, a whip, coloured paints etc), with viewers encouraged to use these objects to interact with her creatively.
A study of what people choose to do when given this social permission is very interesting. Who is it that chooses to draw on her breast and what is it they choose to draw? What does that say about the nature of being a spectator? Why might somebody reach for a weapon rather than a hat? And so on. Yet here this interaction is diminished and the artist's place has become rarefied, commodified and controlled. Her former partner in art, Uwe Laysiepen, jokes that the life of a performance artist is poverty, but that Ambramovic has moved profitably into something closer to theatre. Elsewhere her manager talks candidly about the business model that enables her to buy €300,000 designer clothes. The struggling artist indeed.
Yet whether it's down to the inherent power of looking another in the eye, or to a mix of social expectation (or even a natural impulse to justify a day of queueing), it's fascinating to see how "The Artist is Present" really moved people to tears. The film's exploration of Abramović's loveless communist upbringing, body of exceptional 70s work and subsequent growth as an art world business powerhouse is likewise compelling.