Marina is a performance artist who dedicates her life to her work. At 63 years old she is still pushing her mental and physical health to the extreme, undertaking a gruelling 3 month performance that is documented throughout the film.
Bradshaw, writing for The Guardian, summarises the piece as follows:
The piece consisted simply of Abramović, seated at a table … onlookers were invited to become part of the exhibit by coming into the performance space and, seated opposite, gazing into her eyes … before being moved on: the performance would continue all day every day for three months.
Marina’s desire to attempt this piece comes from the lack of recognition of performance art as respected or regular. Continuing to use her body as her medium, Marina challenges her audience, (rightly) using MOMA as the platform in which to establish performance art as something other than ‘alternative’.
Describing performance as life, Marina sets the difference between theatre and performance art. She uses the analogy that performance involves holding a knife and drawing your own blood, whilst acting involves a plastic tool and ketchup. The honesty within Marina’s work is partly what makes her so captivating. There is a very human understanding of the physical and emotional spaces that she creates. Making herself completely vulnerable, she becomes a kind of sacrifice to her audience, like an offering or symbol. The result, particularly in ‘The Artist is Present’, is a strong connection of a shared experience between performer and audience.
Becoming ‘limitless’ as Lady Gaga describes, Marina’s ‘Rhythm O’ exhibits her commitment to her work. Potentially putting her life in danger, she presents an audience with various objects, including a loaded gun and razor blades. She tells her audience they can do what they please to her; she will accept full responsibility. When granted such permission the audience members quickly become brutish, attempting to sleep with her, shoot her and cut her.
Older now, and still willing to put her body through incredible physical trauma (for as Marina says, the most demanding thing is when you are closest to doing nothing), Marina continues this honesty and courage in her new performance for MOMA. Acknowledging the potential for failure and coupling this with the mental and physical effort it takes to be so still for so long, Marina invites the audience to engage with her once again.
What I found incredible about this performance, even more than Marina’s ability to complete it, was the reaction of the audience. Marina sits calmly and quietly, raising her head to each audience member who sits in front of her, gazing at them softly and intently. It is important to note that she gives everyone the same peaceful and equal attention. I think it is this that seems to spark something. The film documents numbers of people who are moved to tears. Many make a gesture (perhaps subconsciously) of touching their heart with their hand, whilst others smile in thanks. It is as though Marina has created an environment that everybody yearns for without knowing it. A place filled with her own feelings of beauty, unconditional love, lightness and harmony. It is a state of mind that she has created through her honesty and vulnerability, which is translated to every member of her audience. Marina seems to slow time, demanding that we exercise our lazy attention spans. Using time as a weight on her shoulders, using time as a measure of value, using time as an immoveable object, we are encouraged to sit and acknowledge these human feelings. As a result we are transformed, for I strongly believe that every person who sat in front of Marina left with a feeling of peace and contentment.
These notions of unconditional love and harmony develop from Marina’s experiences of these, as she sits and waits for each encounter, but also I think from the action of gazing intently into another human face. How often do we stop and really look into someone’s eyes, acknowledge their features or study their composition? More importantly perhaps, how often do we experience this kind of devoted attention from another? These sound like the actions of lovers, and in a way, the audience becomes Marina’s lover and she becomes ours. As quoted in the film, ‘Marina needs her audience like air to breath’. She thrives on human attention and desires to create a space where human interaction can take place. It is a profound interaction though, like a communication of energy or expression. The recognition and familiarity we find when looking into the face of someone like us, and more than this, the love and validation we feel when another gazes at us, reminds us of humanity and reminds us of our needs as humans. I think that the space Marina creates here and the attention she pays her audience is the reason viewers find themselves crying, loving and thanking her. She reminds them of their self-worth, she reminds them that they are loved and she encourages them to love, simply through the act of looking.
It is perhaps worth mentioning here my use of ‘Marina’ instead of ‘Abramović’. Typically, when writing about a figure I would use their surname. However, when I began writing this it felt natural to use Marina’s first name. In fact, using her surname felt incredibly clinical and inappropriate. Watching the film, I identified with Marina as if I were one of the audience members, as if she had shown me the kind of love she showed others. Unconsciously, as I have been writing this I have adopted her first name, as though we are familiar, friends even. Much like the other audience members, I have been captivated and invited by her. Her vulnerability encourages me to treat her gently, hence avoiding the detachment that is suggested by use of a surname. Described by her assistant in the film, Marina is said to ‘fall in love with everyone and everyone falls in love with her’; my subconscious use of a familiar writing style evidences this.
Finally, and perhaps as Marina’s greatest achievement, ‘The Artist is Present’ begins to answer the life long question she has been faced with. This question has led people to believe she was of unstable mind, that she should be locked in a mental institution and that her actions can only be used as evidence of her being a ‘witch’. After 40 years, Marina is finally receiving acknowledgement and attention. So, what is that question? Well of course, ‘…but how is this art?’
Marina says that she ‘only acts as a mirror to [the audience’s] true selves’. Whether the bestial nature of humanity is exposed, whether exploring the complicated dynamics between male and female relationships, or whether revealing a human desire of the need to love and to know that you are loved, Marina creates work, which in its honest nature, provokes a response and reveals truth.
And what is art, if not a way of provoking a response; a way of revealing the truth about human nature?