Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present

Marina Abramovic as seen in MARINA ABRAMOVIC: THE ARTIST IS PRESENT, a film by Matthew Akers. Picture courtesy Show of Force. All rights reserved.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (2012)

Opened: 06/13/2012 Limited

Film Forum/NYC06/13/2012 - 07/05/201223 days
The Nuart06/15/2012 - 06/21/20127 days
Cinema Village...07/20/2012 - 08/16/201228 days
Downtown Indep...08/31/2012 - 09/06/20127 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Facebook

Genre: Biographical Documentary

Rated: Unrated


Seductive, fearless, and outrageous, Marina Abramovic has been redefining what art is for nearly 40 years. Using her own body as a vehicle, pushing herself beyond her limits -- and at times risking her life in the process -- she creates performances that challenge, shock, and move us. MARINA ABRAMOVIC THE ARTIST IS PRESENT follows the artist as she prepares for what may be the most important moment of her life: a major new retrospective of her work, taking place at The Museum of Modern Art. To be given a retrospective at one of the world's premier museums is the most exhilarating sort of milestone. For Marina, it is far more: it is the chance to finally silence the question she has been hearing over and over again for four decades: "But why is this art?"

Director's Statement

The first time I met the legendary, radical performance artist Marina Abramovic, I was immediately surprised and seduced by her warmth and charm. More astonishing was her unconditional willingness to open up her entire life to my camera -- a rarity in the documentary world. On the other hand, I also knew that her openness posed a peculiar sort of challenge. Marina is someone who has spent her whole career blurring the lines between life and art. How would I know when she was performing for the camera or not? Additionally, I was skeptical of performance art. Though I was well acquainted with Marina's place in art history, performance by its very definition is ephemeral and only a first-hand encounter can allow you to experience its full transformative power. I had to rely on historical texts, video documentation, and eyewitness accounts of her work in order to learn about it. It was one thing to be seduced by her as a subject and another thing to allow myself to be seduced by her myth.

The two main goals I set for myself in the beginning were to figure out how to make the subject appeal to a wider audience than just the rarefied art world and to avoid the trap of making a plodding biopic-style film. Right away I discussed my views on performance art with Marina, and not only did she seem to admire a skeptical approach, but she seemed totally energized by the challenge. After all, this is someone who has spent nearly four decades unfazed by the question, as she states in the film, "...but why is this art?"

Throughout the next ten months, I documented nearly every waking moment of Marina's life. I followed her to six countries, shooting hundreds of hours of her encounters with colleagues, friends, critics and her reconnection with Ulay -- her lover and collaborator of 12 years. I also captured the entirety of a new performance that she did in the Atrium of MoMA.

One thing that was clear after studying Marina's oeuvre was how integral the public had often been in the completion of the work. I figured that, if nothing else, the sheer potential for spectacle or conflict in this new work could be mined for drama. The museum, understandably, worked hard to minimize the chaos. They were not always successful, however, as the public could be quite persistent in "punking" the performance. Fortunately for Marina, her life never seemed genuinely threatened. Over the course of the three months, it gradually became clear to me, and the rest of the filmmaking team, that the potential physical risk of the performance had less resonance than some of the more philosophical, emotional, and intellectual concepts.

Vulnerability, human connection, projection, sacrifice, and perception of time were some big ideas that came into focus. Marina talked about it as a culmination of everything she had been striving for her whole life -- a statement that I initially found confusing, since the work involved what she also stated was "something that was close to nothing." Was she striving for nothing?

It took me a while, but eventually I did begin to grasp what was going on in the performance. It was like a slow burn. I had to spend an enormous amount of time simply watching and thinking. We live in such an overly mediated world and the notion of simply slowing down and doing literally nothing is unfortunately a radical concept. Ulay talks about how disturbing people found their performance "Night Sea Crossing," as it involved silence, fasting, and motionlessness -- three things discredited in the Western world.

It's as if our daily electronic rituals -- surfing the web, watching television, etc. -- are working to construct a barrier between us and the present. It takes a while to simply deconstruct that edifice before one can understand how profoundly simple it is to exist in the moment. I had to retrain my brain.

My initial concern about Marina's more theatrical side creeping in and fueling my skepticism was quelled by the sheer austerity of the performance. Also, the work, while absolutely grounded in Marina's persona, simultaneously and paradoxically had nothing to do with her. Instead of looking into Marina's eyes and seeing the artist, the participants were often seeing what they would refer to as projections of themselves. It became clear to me that "The Artist Is Present" was undeniably valid and, moreover, very powerful.

When it came time to edit and figure out how to incorporate all of these ideas, it was a bit tricky. Fortunately, I worked with a great team of people. We went back and forth weighing the pros and cons of building an artifice for those concepts through editing and sound design, versus a starker observational approach. In the end, we tried to strike a balance somewhere between both worlds. We realized that since we could never truly represent the experience of witnessing the performance first-hand, the raw footage was not necessarily an accurate representation anyhow. It became necessary for us to attempt to make a separate work of art altogether.

It's always hard to leave material on the cutting room floor, but I found it especially heartbreaking on this film. However, just as Marina figured out a way to pare down and simplify in this new performance, we eventually were forced to do the same in the edit. We chipped away until what emerged surprised me. There are many truths to this tale and this is simply one. Instead of a strictly critical examination of the different aspects of Marina's life and this new performance, the film took on a more impressionistic lyrical quality.

In my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined what a sensation the performance would become. My hope is that the film's audience will have an experiential encounter with the concepts in Marina's work in a way that might reveal something about themselves, as it certainly did for me.

-- Matthew Akers

About the Production

Even when encountering masterpieces like the Mona Lisa, museum-goers often spend as little as 30 seconds pondering the work before moving on. But in the case of "The Artist is Present," a hugely popular exhibit by performance artist extraordinaire Marina Abramovic at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), many attendees stayed for hours -- some after waiting all night. Even more remarkable, the exhibit was breathtaking in its simplicity: two chairs facing each other, with Abramovic sitting in one and audience members taking turns sitting in the other, gazing into each other's eyes in silence. In true Abramovic style, she remained in the chair for seven and a half hours each day -- every day that the museum was open for three months -- without eating, drinking or moving from her seated position, a feat of mental and physical endurance that is challenging even for a veteran of such performances.

Part of a blockbuster retrospective exhibit of Abramovic's controversial work, which took place from March to May 2010 at MoMA, the work and the artist are now the focus of a captivating new HBO feature-length documentary, MARINA ABRAMOVIC THE ARTIST IS PRESENT. From first-time director Matthew Akers, the film is an exclusive, behind-the-scenes portrait of Abramovic, who some affectionately call "the grandmother of performance art." It will have its world premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

MARINA ABRAMOVIC THE ARTIST IS PRESENT is by no means a typical "art film." With total access granted by Abramovic and MoMA, MARINA ABRAMOVIC THE ARTIST IS PRESENT is a mesmerizing cinematic journey inside the world of radical performance, and an intimate portrait of an astonishingly magnetic, endlessly intriguing woman who draws no distinction between life and art.

Known for her extreme performance-art installations, many of them involving nudity and punishing forms of bodily deprivation, Abramovic says she is one of a tiny number of artists of her generation still working in the field. She is also a glamorous art-world icon, a lightning rod for controversy and a myth of her own making. But after 40 years of facing skepticism about the artistic merit of her work, she says she's tired of the "alternative" label: "I'm 63! I don't want to be alternative anymore!"

It is for that reason that the MoMA retrospective exhibit carried such intense personal and professional significance for Abramovic. Not only is it the crowning achievement of her career, but she also sees it as an opportunity -- perhaps her last -- to finally put performance art on the mainstream map. "Performance art has never been a regular form of art," she says in her trademark broken English and Yugoslavian accent. "It's always been alternative since I was born, so I want it to be a real form of art and respected before I die."

Based on interviews with Abramovic, her collaborators and a variety of art commentators, friends and fans, the documentary weaves archival footage of Abramovic's early works with images of her personal and professional life in the momentous year leading up to her MoMA extravaganza. Revisiting her controversial beginnings in the early 1970s, the film includes footage of her driving around a public square in a van while shouting numbers from a megaphone, taking psychoactive drugs to challenge social attitudes towards female mental illness, and mutilating and flagellating herself.

MARINA ABRAMOVIC THE ARTIST IS PRESENT features interviews and scenes with commentators and public figures, including: Klaus Biesenbach, MoMA's Chief Curator at Large, who conceived, titled and organized The Artist is Present; art critic Arthur Danto; Chrissie Iles, curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Abramovic's gallerist, Sean Kelly; writer Tom McEvilley; illusionist David Blaine; Oscar®-nominated actor James Franco and Ulay, Marina's early partner and creative collaborator.

The retrospective exhibit occupied several floors of MoMA, most of them dedicated to earlier chapters in Abramovic's career, with images and videos of installations, many involving fellow performance artist Ulay. The exhibit also features 41 young artists enlisted and trained by Abramovic to "re-perform" some of her early installations. For example, in "Imponderabilia," two artists stand face-to-face, completely naked on opposite sides of a doorway that the public can only squeeze through by brushing against the couple's naked flesh--a piece originally performed by Abramovic and Ulay.

The main focus of the retrospective, however, is the new exhibit, in which Abramovic herself sits in a chair under bright spotlights opposite an empty chair in which members of the public are invited to sit for as long as they want, gazing into Abramovic's eyes. A seemingly endless parade of people lines up for the opportunity, many of them returning to repeat the experience, sitting multiple times on different days. Some sit for as long as ten hours.

The experience is astounding as a social leveler, drawing people of all ages, races and walks of life. As the exhibit nears its end, the lines grow longer and the numbers of would-be participants swell. To guarantee time with Abramovic, some camp outside MoMA to get a number, rushing to the exhibit as soon as the museum doors open. As a result of the "direct energy dialogue" between Abramovic and the public, an emotional breakthrough occurs, Abramovic says. And so it seems to, with numerous sitters shedding tears or beaming transcendent smiles. In all, an estimated 750,000 people see the show.

For Abramovic, the piece is the longest-duration solo work of her career, and by far the most physically and emotionally demanding she has ever attempted. When she conceived it, she says, she knew instantly that it was the right piece, because the mere thought of it "made me nauseous." Says MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, "When she had this idea, I thought, 'God, she's going to kill herself.'" But despite the palpable pain and exhaustion that set in as the weeks turn to months, she never even considers giving up, he says.

Perhaps the film's most moving scene occurs when Ulay occupies the seat opposite Marina. The two artists shared an emotionally intense and colorful history spanning over 12 years, living in a van in Europe and performing together, before their relationship ended in suitably dramatic fashion: each walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, met in the middle after covering over 1,500 miles each, then said good-bye. Sitting opposite each other in the MoMA exhibit, neither can hold back the tears. Eventually, to cheers from the crowd of spectators, they reach across to hold each other -- something none of the other sitters is permitted to do. It's a beautiful and deeply moving moment. From the story of their relationship and their intensely charged reconnection in the runup to the MoMA retrospective, a parallel Marina emerges -- a flesh-and-blood foil to the art-world icon -- a woman who is driven by passion, desperate for admiration, and maddeningly riven by contradictions.

Matthew Akers is an accomplished producer, director, photographer and cinematographer known for his expertise in shooting cinema verite. He was the producer and a lead cinematographer on the six-part PBS television event "Circus," and was a producer and camera operator on "Carrier," a ten-part Emmy® Award-winning PBS television series (2008). He was also a producer and camera operator on "Nimrod Nation," an eight-part Peabody Award-winning documentary series. Akers also worked as a cinematographer on numerous films, including the HBO documentaries "BACK IN THE HOOD: GANG WAR II," "HEIR TO AN EXECUTION" and "ELAINE STRITCH: AT LIBERTY."

MARINA ABRAMOVIC THE ARTIST IS PRESENT is an HBO Documentary Films presentation of A Show of Force production, directed by Matthew Akers; Produced by Jeff Dupre and Maro Chermayeff; Director of Photography, Matthew Akers; Co-Directed by Jeff Dupre; Edited by E. Donna Shepherd; Co-Editor Jim Hession; Original Music by Nathan Halpern; Co-Produced by Francesca von Habsburg and Owsley Brown III; For Dakota Group, Ltd: Executive Producers Stanley Buchthal, Maja Hoffman & David Koh; For HBO: Senior Producer, Nancy Abraham; Executive Producer: Sheila Nevins.

About Marina Abramovic

Since the beginning of her career in Belgrade during the early 1970s, Marina Abramovic has pioneered performance as a visual art form, creating some of her most important early works. The body has always been both her subject and medium. Exploring her physical and mental limits in works that ritualize the simple actions of everyday life, she has withstood pain, exhaustion and danger in her quest for emotional and spiritual transformation. From 1975 to 1988, Abramovic and the German artist Ulay performed together, dealing with relations of duality. Abramovic returned to solo performances in 1989. She has presented her work at major institutions in the U.S. and Europe, including: the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1985; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1990; Neue National Galerie, Berlin, 1993; and the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1995. She has also participated in many large-scale international exhibitions, including: the Venice Biennale (1976 and 1997) and Documenta VI, VII and IX, Kassel (1977, 1982 and 1992). Her recent performances include: House with the Ocean View at Sean Kelly Gallery, New York in 2002, and the Performance of Seven Easy Pieces at The Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2005.

In 2008 she was decorated with the Austrian Commander Cross for her contribution to Art History. In 2010 she had her first major retrospective in the United States at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, performing for more than 700 hours.

In 2011 Abramovic was awarded with the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts by Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. In the same year a theatre piece by Robert Wilson, entitled The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, premiered in Manchester.

In 2012 the HBO documentary film, MARINA ABRAMOVIC THE ARTIST IS PRESENT will premiere at Sundance Film Festival, Utah and The Canadian Film Premiere, Toronto. Upcoming exhibitions of Abramovic's work in 2012 include shows at PAC and Lia Rumma Galeria, Milan, The University of Chicago and Kunsthalle, Vienna and solo shows at La Fabrica Gallery, Madrid and Galleri Brandstrup, Oslo.

About the Filmmakers

Matthew Akers (Director/Cinematographer)

Akers is the Director and Cinematographer of MARINA ABRAMOVIC THE ARTIST IS PRESENT, a feature documentary about the legendary performance artist that will have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and air on HBO in 2012.

He was the cinematographer of the award winning documentary film LEMON, about the pioneering poet, three-time felon, and one-time Tony award winner Lemon Andersen.

Akers produced and was the cinematographer of CIRCUS, a six-part documentary series that aired in November 2010 on PBS.

Matthew was a producer and a camera operator on CARRIER, the 10-part Emmy Award-winning PBS television series that premiered in April 2008.

In addition, he has been the cinematographer of numerous other feature documentaries including the HBO documentaries, BACK IN THE HOOD: GANG WAR II, HEIR TO AN EXECUTION and ELAINE STRITCH: AT LIBERTY.

Jeff Dupre (Producer/Co-Director)

Jeff Dupre conceived and is Producer and Co-Director of MARINA ABRAMOVIC THE ARTIST IS PRESENT a forthcoming feature documentary on the legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic that will air on HBO in 2012.

Jeff and Maro Chermayeff are partners in Show of Force, a film and television production company. Show of Force is currently producing HALF THE SKY, a four-hour documentary series for PBS based on the eponymous book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

To commemorate its 50th Anniversary, Amnesty International recently commissioned Jeff to direct and produce AI50, which distills the organization's illustrious history into a 15-minute short film.

Dupre and Chermayeff are the executive producers, creators and directors of CIRCUS, a six-part documentary series that aired in November 2010 on PBS. The New York Times called it "beautifully filmed," "truly affecting" and "quietly addictive," asking readers to "think of it as investing six hours in an elegant eavesdrop-on-our-family reality show that puts all the noisy, obnoxious examples of that genre to shame." Entertainment Weekly said that "running away and joining the circus has never seemed less glamorous -- or more vividly thrilling and real. What's fascinating here is the deeply empathetic storytelling."

He was a producer of CARRIER, the Emmy® Award-winning ten-part documentary series that premiered on PBS in April 2008 to widespread critical acclaim. Entertainment Weekly called the series "honest and engrossing" and said it is "mandatory viewing." Newsday described it as "frank and intimate, hard-hitting and heart-rending."

Dupre produced BROADWAY: THE AMERICAN MUSICAL, Michael Kantor's six-part series that premiered on PBS in October 2004 to widespread critical acclaim. Variety called the series "engrossing" and "illuminating" and said "this lovingly crafted six-part series is in itself a milestone." The series won the 2005 Emmy® Award for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series.

His directorial debut, OUT OF THE PAST, won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. The New York Post called OUT OF THE PAST "eye opening and moving" and The New Yorker described it as "an emotionally textured treatise on alienation and marginalization which is intelligent and entertaining." The film also garnered the Audience Award at Outfest '98; won a GLAAD Media Award for Best Documentary of 1998 and aired on PBS in October 1998.

Maro Chermayeff (Producer)

Maro Chermayeff is a producer, director and former television executive whose numerous documentary films and television programs have toured the world in prestigious festivals (Sundance Telluride, London, Berlin), played theatrically, been broadcast on primetime television and won multiple awards. She has made films and event television series for PBS, HBO, A&E, TLC, Bravo, Discovery, France 2 and Channel 4 UK. Maro is Founder and Chairman of the MFA Program in Social Documentary at The School of Visual Arts in New York City and is a former faculty member of NYU's Graduate School of Film and Television.

Maro is currently Executive Producer and Project Director of HALF THE SKY, a groundbreaking transmedia initiative based on the book HALF THE SKY: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. At the heart of HALF THE SKY will be a multi-part documentary series for public television. The series follows Kristof and WuDunn and six activist actresses -- Eva Mendes, Olivia Wilde, Meg Ryan, America Ferrera, Gabrielle Union and Diane Lane -- to nine countries in the developing world. Utilizing the PBS broadcast as well as an extensive website, games and education modules, HALF THE SKY is poised to tip the scales and create a movement that empowers women and girls around the globe through individual stories of courage and overcoming adversity. Narrated by George Clooney, HALF THE SKY will air on PBS in fall 2012 and will also be distributed internationally.

With her partner, Jeff Dupre, Maro is producer of the feature documentary MARINA ABRAMOVIC THE ARTIST IS PRESENT, which will premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and will debut on HBO in 2012. She also recently produced and co-directed with Micah Fink the feature documentary MANN v. FORD, which aired in July 2011 on HBO. In 2010 she directed and produced with Christine Le Goff the feature documentary PARASOMNIA, which premiered in Nov 2010 on France 2.

Maro and Jeff are the executive producers, creators and directors of CIRCUS, a six-part documentary series that aired in November 2010 on PBS. Maro was co-creator, an executive producer and director, and Jeff the producer of the Emmy® Award-winning ten-hour PBS television event CARRIER that premiered in April 2008 to success both critically and in the ratings, with close to five million viewers on broadcast, download and DVD sales. In 2001-2002, she was a producer and director of the six-part multi award-winning PBS series FRONTIER HOUSE for Thirteen/WNET and Channel Four UK. FRONTIER HOUSE is one of the highest-rated programs in the history of PBS. In 2002, she produced, wrote and directed the feature documentary special ROLE REVERSAL for A&E. In 2000, she produced, directed and wrote the two-hour feature documentary AMERICAN MASTERS: JUILLIARD that aired as part of the Emmy® Award-winning PBS series AMERICAN MASTERS. She is co-author of the companion book, JUILLIARD, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. In 1998, she produced, directed and edited the feature-length documentary THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS. Produced in conjunction with James Redford and Christine Le Goff, the film premiered at the 1998 Telluride Film Festival and aired on HBO in October 1999. In 1997, Maro produced and edited NASHVILLE: CROSSING THE LINE for the award-winning series TRAUMA: LIFE IN THE ER for New York Times Television. Over the last ten years, she has worked as a consultant and editor on more then 15 one-hour CHARLIE ROSE specials. In her early career Maro worked in feature and trailer promotion as a staff member of R/Greenberg and Associates and The Kanew Company.

Additionally, from 2002 to 2004, Maro served as a senior programming executive and network consultant for A&E Television Network, and was nominated for the Emmy® in this position. She is partner and co-owner with Jeff Dupre of the New York-based production company Show of Force.