Watching an artist sit doing nothing might not sound particularly compelling. And a documentary about the three-month-long performance art project may certainly seem like a less than thrilling prospect. However, as it turns out, Marina Abramović is no ordinary artist and Matthew Akers’ film, Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, makes for utterly absorbing viewing.

Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present Matthew Akers film documentary

Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović has been pushing herself to the limits using performance art throughout a career that has spanned over three decades. In 2010, aged 63, she staged yet another ambitious piece titled The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, in which she sat on a wooden chair for every hour that the museum was open, inviting members of the public to come and sit opposite her.

As is said in the film itself, “The Artist is Present is a hugely courageous piece because it’s a piece that can fail.” The nothing-ness of her performance, particularly in comparison her her earlier more outrageous and energetic works, does appear a little risky. Marina admits that all her life she has been asked the question, “Why is this art?” – and, at first, The Artist is Present appears to invite similar cynicism.

During the run of her performance, MoMA also hosted a retrospective of Abramović’s earlier work, including recreations of some of her most famous performance pieces. Director Matthew Akers takes much the same approach, he begins by presenting a incredibly fast-paced back-story, highlighting just how prolific Abramović has been over the years. The film lingers on her romantic relationship with fellow artist and former collaborator, Frank Uwe Laysiepen (who went by the name Ulay), who turns up at the exhibition and as a talking head within the documentary.

It is Ulay’s encounter with Abramović during the filmed segments of her performance that proves to be one of the most powerful. The latter half of  Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present is more focused on the event itself, complete with a cello-heavy score to build tension surrounding the question on everyone’s lips: Will she pull it off? Fortunately, the visiting members of the public provide the filmmakers with a myriad of emotive shots as they come in their thousands to sit, transfixed, and let one perfectly choreographed tear roll down their cheeks. Capturing on film the energy-exchange which Abramović claims takes place at the table is no easy task, but Akers does a good job of conveying the emotive aspect of her performance without so much as a hint of pretension, making it a joy to watch.

Despite the intensity of the performance itself, the documentary is kept relatively balanced. From the woman determined to sit naked in front of Abramović, to an amusing cameo from actor James Franco, we are given snippets of more light-hearted incidents surrounding the event. A well-placed clip featuring a newsreader’s zealous comparisons between Abramović and Lady Gaga as fellow provocateurs provides an interesting aside into the cultural context in which Abramović has gained such popularity, as impressive crowd shots of the exhibition’s final days play out.

For those who have seen it, it will come as little surprised that this film was awarded the The 2012 Special Jury Award at the Sheffield Doc/Fest, and has performed impressively at other film festivals around the world. What is perhaps most interesting is that fact that Abramović proves to be just as affecting when cloaked in a theatrical cape of a dress and simply sitting as she is with her more provocative works. If you thought that her presence alone couldn’t possibly prove as arresting as 1975’s The Lips of Thomas (in which Abramović cut a five-pointed star into her stomach using a razor blade), then this documentary might be about to prove you wrong. This is a film which asks its audience to pause and reflect, much as Abramović does with her performance. In short, if you weren’t one of the many who camped on the steps of the MoMA for a glimpse of the ‘grandmother of performance art’ in person, then this is probably as close as you’ll ever get.

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