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DVD: Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present

She is stunning, seductive, fun and very determined, and for her last ever performance sat down on a chair for three whole months in the MoMA, devoting all her attention to the person in the seat opposite her, without speaking. It sounds mad but then again, Marina Abramovic is the ultimate performance artist who has wowed the art scene for over 40 years. Does Matthew Akers’ film about her leave the audience equally spellbound?

Never mainstream, always experimental, it is her biggest strength but Marina Abramović complains on camera that it was fun when she was 20, it was great when she was 30, it was fine when she was 40 but now that she is 63 she no longer wants to be branded ‘experimental’. Hence also why her last show, caught on camera by director Matthew Akers, is so important to her. Though she has reached world fame with her performances, now is the time for her to show the world how serious she is, how serious performance art should be taken, and that indeed there is a place for it in the current conventional art landscape.

At first we are led to believe we are ‘merely’ watching another profile about a rather extreme artist. Nothing, however, is further from the truth. Abramović is a true performer, even in her daily routine, and following her during her preparations for a retrospective of her work, taking place at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), is definitely not boring whatsoever. On top of that, you as a viewer, will be taken on a journey.

“She seduces everyone,” her ex-lover and current curator of the MoMA, Klaus Biesenbach says. And indeed, even the audience gets a hint of that. She is fun, loving, forgiving but really knows what she wants. An air of mystery surrounds her, a sort of peaceful calm that transfers to you.

Marina, however, has not always been this calm. Using her own body as a vehicle, pushing herself beyond her limits – and at times risking her life in the process – she has created performances that challenged, shocked, and moved audiences. In the film she is reunited with the German performance artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen, who travelled the world with her creating and performing many of her earlier works until they said their dramatic goodbye: setting out from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, walking toward each other for three months to meet in the middle, where they ended their relationship, never to return again.

A piece of art

Akers’ film is art in its own right. He worked on it over a period of three years time – shooting more than fourteen hundred hours of footage – and was able to edit it into a hundred and five beautiful minutes. He was definitely the man worthy to film Abramović’s incredible efforts.

But back to the subject, Abramović’s retrospective. It couldn’t have been a bigger success; the artist had trained 25 young artists to re-perform her earlier works (the training itself, followed in the film, was not a light affair). Abramovic herself, luckily, was also in remarkable form after being ill just a few days earlier.

Her final piece focused on transference, the artist would face a seat in an otherwise empty room, which could be taken up by anyone, for however long they wanted, and the sitter would be guaranteed her full attention. However, speaking or touching was not allowed – in fact Abramovic could not leave her chair all day long, she could not eat or drink and she could not leave to go to the toilet.

Of the 700.000 people who came to her performance, some had camped outside the museum all night for a place in the chair’s queue, and it remained that busy all throughout the three month period. One fan even managed sitting on the chair a whole day, “exchanging energy” with Abramovic by looking into her eyes. Though, as said, words were not allowed, the event turned into a very emotional one for many, some who left crying or laughing out of happiness.

It is hard to describe why, as it is hard not to dismiss this sentiment as just that, a sentiment. But once you have seen Akers’ work you will understand; the transference also takes place via the film. It wasn’t without a reason after all that this documentary can call itself the proud winner of the Sheffield Doc/Fest Special Jury Award. Be ready to be mesmerized.  


Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present is now out on DVD which shows great extras such as a short film by Akers, unseen interviews and industry responses. To buy the film and for more information please check out the film’s official website.


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Alexandra Zeevalkink is a Dutch-born journalist living in London who founded DocGeeks in August 2011 in order to have a legitimate excuse to watch every documentary under the sun. She freelances for various publications and writes mainly about documentaries and the film production industry. When she is not blogging or watching films, she enjoys theater, photography and reading loads of books. She is always on the look out for potential partnerships with other creative minds.

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