Projection Runway

Rhonda Lieberman at the premiere of Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present

Left: Marina Abramović. Right: Marina Abramović with filmmaker Matthew Akers. (Photos: Scott Rudd)


On Thursday I was present at the latest mythologization of Marina Abramović at the Museum of Modern Art: a screening of Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present, the HBO doc chronicling the performance artiste as she prepared for her well-publicized MoMA show of the same name (which closed exactly two years ago). If you are a Marina cultist—like the fans who waited hours for a personal stare-down with the Artist who was indeed present in the MoMA atrium for the entire three-month run of the exhibition—you will eat up this classy reality show glamorizing, valorizing, and all but canonizing the performance-art pioneer as part diva, part mirror, part endurance contest winner. (Indeed, she compares herself to both Marie Antoinette—“ready to cut her head off” and Christ—“this my cross I’m carrying it’s insane.”)

If not, you might wonder, as did one veteran observer, if the doc is maybe “a sympathetic portrait of Marina, but also maybe a high-camp send-up of Marina disguised as a sympathetic portrait. In any case, lots of juicy revelations. For instance, did you know that after Marina and Ulay broke up she suddenly realized she was old and fat and unemployed and that her life had no meaning? Did you know that what saved her was shopping for luxury goods?” (Cutaway shot to a scene in the doc of Marina fingering Givenchy merch, personally assisted by Riccardo Tisci. “I was like wow,” said the Artist in her exotic Yugoslavian accent. “I feel good and wanted again. Since then I say thank god, that’s why I really love fashion.”)

“Did you know that she was considering having illusionist David Blaine pretend to disembowel her at MoMA rather than sitting in a chair for three months staring at people? And that her dealer (the only sensible person in the film, it seems) had to tell her how crazy that was?” (She invites Blaine up to her sleek SoHo loft for a “little drink.” He eats the wineglass. “Blaine is an ‘illusionist,’ gallerist Sean Kelly explains to the Artist. “Everything you do is about being ‘real’ . . . ”)

Ulay—her former life and work partner of twelve years with whom she created many of her “historic” pieces—makes a gracious appearance in the film, traveling to New York to see his ex’s apotheosis at MoMA and the trappings of her Success. Looking rather hippie-ish, he exudes the poignancy of the underachiever as he checks out her fancy digs and comments: “I guess I’m lazy.” The scene at the MoMA starefest—when he takes his former seat across from Marina (in the piece they originated together) and they lock gazes after twenty-four years of estrangement, then melt in forgiveness—is a moment of closure that is almost surreal in its tidiness. (“That was a story arc,” marveled a fellow viewer.)

In a film abounding in weirdness, histrionics, and inadvertent ironies (Marina protests that performance art is seen as “alternative” rather than “mainstream”: cutaway shot to naked Marina gyrating with a black hood over her head), I’ll just highlight one. The opportunity to sit with the Artist at MoMA—like visiting the Wizard of Oz—seemed to magnetize all kinds of acting out, and one young woman, who had waited for hours, seemed particularly rattled as security prepared her for her turn. She took her seat in front of the Artist and swiftly doffed her dress: Inspired by the Artist’s nude oeuvre, her idea was to make herself “as vulnerable as Marina was making herself to us” and sit there naked. Security quickly bundled her off as she burst into tears, utterly shamed.

“If someone told me there was a rule, I wouldn’t have done it,” blubbered the thwarted sitter. She thought that the piece was interactive, that “everyone had their turn,” and she wanted “to do something special for Marina.” (“When they’re sitting in front of me, it’s not about me anymore,” said the Artist. “I’m just a mirror of their own self.”)

Matthew Akers, Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present, 2012, color film, 105 minutes. Production stills. Left: Marina Abramović (left) and Matthew Akers (right) Right: Marina Abramović (far right).

The central weirdness of the doc’s “durational” encounter with Marina’s work—like the MoMA extravaganza—is how it makes a spectacle of what is at base a meditative, inner project. (She says a lot of groovy things to her staff, handlers, and entourage about how hard it is to work with “your own energy and nothing else.”) Despite professions that the work is not about the Artist—that rather it provides a screen for the audience’s projections—her mission to make performance art “mainstream” and not merely “alternative” seems to be carried out by lionizing Marina’s persona, by promoting her as a celebrity brand.

I’m so glad the day I went to the MoMA show was the day the performance artist doppelgänger was sitting there in a long, dark braid and the same blue robe as the Artist. I asked the guard, “Does everyone wear the same robe to sit?” (I was a newbie.)

They said, “No, this young lady just showed up.”

I thought it was a hilarious satire. I took it that she was undercutting the Artist’s superspecial unique “presence”—you know, twitting her in a Derridean fashion. But I later read that people were deeply moved by this profound display of homage, and the young performance artist–disciple was emotionally shattered by the whole thing: sitting in the presence of the Master.

As she exudes Presence to every sitter in the line (many of whom break into tears at the unvarnished contact)—then “clears out” their energy to make room for the next—it’s like watching a performer seduce an audience one by one, instead of en masse.

Klaus Biesenbach, MoMA’s chief curator at large, comments: “Marina’s connection to the audience comes out of this extraordinary lack she feels—felt as a child. She desires to be loved. She desires to be needed [. . .] When I met her I thought, ‘Oh god, she’s in love with me,’ and it took me a while and I realized she’s in love with the world. So it’s not personal. I realized she’s repeating this misunderstanding with every single person in the atrium.”

Getting back to my pal who wondered if the doc was a stealth-camp send-up of an Artist’s hagiography, I think it’s more like straight-up art-world kitsch. Marina Abramović is where irony goes to die. The earnestness celebrated here takes this somewhere Oscar Wilde addressed when he said: “All bad poetry is sincere.”

That’s my projection, at any rate.

Marina Abramović The Artist Is Present has its US theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York on Wednesday, June 13. The film will be broadcast on HBO at 9 PM on Monday, July 2.