There is a hunger out there that cannot be fed by smirks, poses, and irony. In art, in film, hell, in anything. That hunger is why The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” drew Madison Square Garden-sized crowds in 2011 for four months straight. And it’s why believers from around the globe came to New York to mourn the early death and celebrate in a hush the incandescent genius of McQueen, a fashion legend already on his way to art stardom and now definitely a star post mortem.
The tens of thousands lining up on Fifth Avenue revealed an indefinable demographic. Elementary school kids who’d gasped over impossible McQueen women in dresses made of blood red laboratory slides from used library copies of Vogue, Wall Streeters who pored over McQueen videos while their wives and children slept. The Lady Gaga fans who saw his Alien/aqua-woman fusions in “Bad Romance”. As Robert Palmer sang, every kinda people. (The same need explains last year’s Tree of Life mania).
The McQueen phenomena was a stark relief from the last time someone tried to mint a new art star: the Guggenheim’s up-trading of Matthew Barney from Film Forum ur-hipster with “The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2003)” show, way back in 2003.
A collection of semen-toned sculptures surrounding five pop-tchotchke-glutted films that J. Hoberman brilliantly summed up as “narcotized self-satisfaction,” the root of the appeal of Barney’s was their cold, smooth, ironic hipster deadness—the idea of emotional response their anathema.
And so, the McQueen show solidified an appetite for a new art star. Someone personifying a natural disinclination to buy into an exhausted and drained self-cannibalizing post-modernism, for artists with the nerve to make indescribable emotional engagement their goal.
If McQueen was going to hand-apply tens of thousands of feathers to a dress that evoked the madness of Edgar Allan Poe (and not the stories), whoever came next would have to be literally or figuratively dirty. Or both.
If you tuned into HBO Monday, you know who she is: Marina Abramović. While stylistically McQueen’s utter opposite, she feeds the same need for an extreme in inexplicable emotional experience, and Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present feeds the need in spades. (And sure, she’s been around for decades, and yeah, the actual show took place in 2010, but the film, which is how most people will get to know of Abramović, hits us now, and so this modified timeline.)
Directors Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre have given us a sharp-eyed film with the affect of ambient music and the feel of a myth progressing in real time that hinges on and riffs off images of The Artist is Present’s endlessly fascinating main event:
It’s Abramović in a brightly lit space in at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, stock still in a series of structured/shapeless robes, sitting in a light-colored wooden chair, confronting one of what will come to be 1,565 strangers in a matching chair, saying nothing so long as those strangers need to say nothing back to her. Each trapped in the other’s gaze.
People of every age, race, creed, and yes, James Franco, take the chair (Lady Gaga came but just watched). Abramović sat motionless for 736 hours and 30 minutes over a period of three months, with no days off.
The people who come to see her—they’re actually called “sitters”—often smile, frown, try to out-stare her (forget it) but just as often, they break into helpless tears. Sometimes, Abramović weeps with them.
Even as the body-breaking pain of the project—although she eerily looks half that age, Abramović was 63 at the time of this piece—becomes alarming, her dedication grows more heroic. No wonder young people in the audience want to be like her.
Structurally, Akers and Dupre’s film works as a constant interweaving of multiple stories and themes building up to the show itself.
There’s the prepping of the MoMA space: the endless daily maddening minutiae of putting together a show that included approximately fifty works spanning over four decades of video works, installations, photographs, and collaborative performances made with ex-lover Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen).
There’s Abramović decamping to her Hudson Valley home with a troop of young people who will re-enact her pieces within the show.
She puckishly treats them to a Spartan Zen/Marines regime of shock troop performance art training during which they learn how to not move, eat or do anything but exist in the moment for days on end, motionless. (For people still unclear on what performance art is, one talking head brusquely explains that it’s just like painting, except with living bodies.)
I had the sense that Abramović was using the film to re-write her biography, to make a better myth.
The daughter of World War II Serbian partisan heroes, Abramović speaks of being under the influence of her fiercely militaristic mother and paints a life defined by The Work and one Great Love: Ulay, the German performance artist with whom she lived and crafted performance art’s basic syntax. This love story’s arc packs an incredible emotional gut punch one isn’t prepared for in a film on art. Which, one assumes, is the reason it’s here.
We see and hear of pieces where Abramović invited people to use any of the 72 implements surrounding her body—a whip, scissors, scalpel, gun, etc—on her, and came out of it with thorns in her flesh, death barely averted.
Other works involved cutting her flesh, whipping herself, walking the Great Wall of China, and pushing her body to extreme limits of pain and suffocation. The Artist Is Present is eventually about the limits of human giving. If they exist.
She says she recalls each person, communicates with each sitter. And yet the filmmakers never address the 800-pound Christ subtext in the room. Would simple boredom with excess Christian yada-yada explain this aversion? Probably. I wonder what the crying sitters think.
The film does suffer from a couple of crises of courage. It gets jittery at Abramović’s embrace of high-end couture in the 80s. As her art becomes more rapturously theatrical, the film quick-cuts away, as if anxious that more surface-pleasing pieces might somehow be less artful.
Lady Gaga, the artist who most obviously mirrors Abramović in terms of absolute dedication, political engagement/fashion-passion, and near-crazy work ethic (think two full CDs, five videos and hundreds of live performances in one and a half years) is alluded to, but only in a dippy Fox News clip that feels like a way to deny the connection, in case Artforum is off Gaga this season.
But that’s small beans. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present is one of the film events of the year, carrying forward the needed romance of the artist as a creature owned by a mission which is carried out by an incomprehensible extreme work ethic that would literally kill anyone less devoted than she is. Abramović helps us remember that anything less should simply not be acceptable.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.