out of Five
Running time: 105
Any preconceptions about artistic documentaries being dry and ardently educational will be swept away by this intimate film profile of Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic.
What’s it all about?
The candid and charismatic protagonist of this documentary is the grandmother of performance art, 63 year old Marina Abramovic, who has been fighting for performance art to gain equal footing with painting and sculpture in the eyes of a suspicious public all her life. Filmmaker Matthew Akers surveys her career on the eve of a retrospective at New York's MOMA, following the artist as she prepares a troupe of young performers to reenact her arduous, body-taxing acts in the museum’s galleries. Abramovic meanwhile readies herself for her own endurance test: for the entire duration of the three month exhibition, she will sit silent and totally immobile and invite one audience member at a time to sit opposite her and meet her gaze.
As a film that introduces Abramovic's work to a larger audience Aker's documentary offers a fascinating peek behind the scenes, letting us observe the artist at work, rest and play. The overview of her career is also equally riveting; Abramovic’s arresting, early performances which explore humankind's darker impulses are detailed with archive film footage and photographs (such as when she lay naked next to a table of objects, among them a knife and loaded gun, and invited her audience to use them on her if so desired). Meanwhile Akers also explores the stamina-testing feats Abramovic performed with her ex-husband and fellow artist Ulay with whom she collaborated for 12 years before their divorce – and commemorated it with a performance piece on the Great Wall of China.
Certainly Akers has himself a perfect documentary subject – utterly at home in front of the camera. But, when it comes to recording Abramovic’s solo performance at MOMA, while he clearly spent many hours filming it (with too many shots of tearful sitters and a soundtrack that errs on the sentimental side), he never quite nails what it might have felt like to sit across from the artist and stare into her eyes.
Blockbuster art exhibitions, no longer content with just an accompanying catalogue, are now moving into cinemas. But this insightful, rather than uncritical, documentary justifies its place on the big screen.