By James O’Barr
In an understatement of epic proportions, the press kit for Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, showing at the Philipstown Depot Theatre on Friday, Nov. 30, says that Abramovic is “certainly not like anyone you’ve ever met before.”
That would be more than enough justification for a documentary, but Mathew Akers and Jeff Dupre, the film’s co-directors, have created a seriously spellbinding, strangely and mysteriously moving piece of work, not unlike its subject, the self-styled “grandmother of performance art.”
At once an artist’s life and an homage, the film is framed by Abramovic’s first U.S. retrospective, held at the Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 2010. The camera follows her through the 10-month period of the show’s preparation, and then again, via archival footage, through 40 years of personal and performance history.
From Serbian Yugoslavia, where she grew up, studied and taught art, and did her first solo performances, Abramovic moved on to become an increasingly celebrated if eccentric outlier on the international art scene, from eastern and western Europe to the U.S. to Japan. For 12 years, from 1976 to 1988, she partnered and collaborated with the German performance artist Ulay, a relationship that was brought to an end with a performance piece called The Lovers, in which they each walked over 1550 miles on the Great Wall of China, starting from opposite ends, and meeting and saying goodbye in the middle.
For the MOMA retrospective, with young artists doing the earlier works, Abramovic created the titular performance piece, in which the artist was literally present in the MOMA atrium seven and a half hours a day, six days a week, for more than three months. During that time, she sat motionless, gazing silently at whoever came to sit in the chair opposite.
More than 750,000 museum-goers did, a great many of them moved to tears in the process (so many that there is a website called “Marina Abramovic Made Me Cry,” with photographic portraits of people so moved). It is here that the questions that hang over the film and the life — Just what is it that we find so riveting about this strangely beautiful, mysteriously compelling woman? and, is it art? — resolve into irrelevance. She’s not like anyone we’ve ever met before, and we can’t take our eyes off of her.
Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present will be shown at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 30 —the artist’s 66th birthday — at the Philipstown Depot Theatre. The screening will be followed by a Q&A and reception with producer and co-director Jeff Dupre and producer Maro Chermayeff. For more information and to purchase tickets, call the theatre at 845-424-3900, or go to philipstowndepottheatre.org.