You don’t get much more intense than the work of Marina Abramović. Born in Belgrade, the performance artist’s work ranges from replicating a recorded 5-finger fillet game to laying abeyant while participants chose an object to use on her (offerings included honey, scissors, and a gun) -- and it’s this kind of risky, powerful work that eventually led her to her own exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, titled “The Artist is Present.” Aside from being a retrospective there was also a titular piece, one that involved Abramović sitting across from a willing participant for a certain amount of time. Yes, it’s much more restrained than her a lot of her previous works, but the piece holds an immense strength -- a number of patrons were moved to tears after taking the seat and participating in the performance.
All of this, including the lead up to the show, is documented in Matthew Akers’s “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present,” which also presents a stream-lined synopsis of her past work. We had the immense pleasure of discussing the documentary with Abramović herself, and below are the highlights from said conversation including how it all started and her philosophy on art. The film is now playing in limited release and will air on HBO starting on July 2nd.
The movie is a good, tight representation of Abramović's MOMA retrospective, but apparently the project came together very quickly -- and incredibly late in the game. "I was having a dinner at a friend’s house and there was Jeff Dupre, who was the producer," she said, painting it as a very casual, chance encounter. "So we spoke about what we were all doing. He had just come from shooting 'Carrier,' which detailed soldiers being taken to Iraq...and they interviewed 4000 soldiers. And then he was doing 'Circus' for 8 months...this was a hardcore documentary guy. So then I started talking about this thing at MOMA, and it just clicked -- why don’t we do the process?" But apparently Dupre and Akers weren't fervent fans of her work, as she explained that "they were both very skeptical about performance art, and I didn’t want to prove it to them, but I said follow the process and see what happens." With the amount of time they spent on it, hopefully they were convinced.
Being such a quick, serious decision, we wondered if giving up her privacy on a whim was worth it in the end. "I gave them the key to my apartment and they came in whenever they wanted, and it had to be unannounced. So they are there at 6 in the morning waiting for me to wake up, with my camera, and I wanted to kill them with my own hands," she exclaimed with a laugh. "But to have a film that shows what it takes to prepare for such a journey, and to have it be available to a large performance, this was all very important. People take performance art so lightly, they think that everything is fucking performance and there’s so much shitty stuff, and I can’t take it. But this is serious business, and I knew we could reach a large audience, so I put in the effort for the film."
Given her artistic mindset and previous ventures with cinema (she contributed to the omnibus projects "Destricted" and “Stories on Human Rights”), we wondered if she might have had some say in the entire process. "No, not at all. In fact, I was only asked to see the raw material twice to verify some facts." She also mentioned some of the cut material included her traveling to India and a three day interview with her elderly Aunt -- and while she misses it, Abramović is glad to not have any input. "But I wish we had some more money to edit three more movies out of it," she stated.