Monday, June 16, 2014

CAPSULE!: Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present

Over a dozen years (and at least one career) ago, I worked at a multidisciplinary arts center. Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing - a television series centered on the staff of fictional US President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet (Martin Sheen) - was airing at the time, and I often mused that there was enough political and interpersonal drama happening in the arts center where I worked to fuel a similar program. The documentary Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present often resembles the show I'd imagined, realizing a number of storylines orbiting its main thread: performance artist Marina Abramović at work on both a retrospective of her works and a powerful new piece, The Artist is Present.

For the duration of her retrospective, Abramović would engage viewers, one by one, as they'd sit facing her in quiet communion. The movie captures Abramović as she coaches a young group of artists tasked with re-enacting her earlier works, and prepares herself for the dueling work necessary for The Artist is Present. What emerges is a compelling overview of the life and work of this woman who defined so much the physicality of performance art as we know it. And the ongoing drama surrounding The Artist is Present - the journeys undertaken by the young artists as they prepare & perform these (often historic) works; the spiritual experiences of those who engage Abramović within The Artist is Present; the growing crowds attending and bearing witness; the museum staff who seem to embrace their work on the show's periphery as a kind of holy duty - is vividly, emotionally captured. In addition to the portrait it paints of the artist present at its center, the movie makes a powerful case for the social and spiritual aspects of creating, engaging, and experiencing art.

Note/Nag: A clip from the movie, in which Ulay, an artist and former lover of Abramović, sat in the piece, made the rounds of sites like Upworthy. As powerful as the moment is, it's best experienced in the context of the movie that surrounds it. No movie should be experienced in excerpts, especially one with as compelling and far-reaching a story as this.

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