Marina Ambramović: The Artist is Present
The Museum of Modern Art in New York is open 6 days a week and for the duration of Marina Ambramović’s retrospective which was on view there from March 14 – May 31, 2010, when the show was on view, so was she. Inspired by the title of her exhibition, The Artist is Present, Ambramović mounted her 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium, while visitors were invited to take turns sitting in front of her. When curator Klaus Biesenbach coined the title of her show, Ambramović was hit by the idea for this performance which she knew was right because the mere thought of it “made me nauseous.” It is with this brutal honesty that Ambramović seduces the audience in Matthew Akers’ fascinating documentary. As Biesenbach says, Marina makes everyone fall in love with her.
“Performance is all about state of mind” says Ambramović and Akers’ is able to capture just that as she prepares for her solo exhibition at MoMA, the pinnacle of any artist’s career, working with curators, museum staff, her assistant and gallerist. Charming, funny, raw and compellingly human, Ambramović allows the camera and audience to be privy to her inner world and workings. She explains frankly that her parents, both involved in political careers, had little time for her as a child. She cites her Communist upbringing in which her mother did not kiss or hug her for fear of spoiling her as determinative in her life, perhaps explaining her need for an audience and its adoration. The film follows Ambramović to her house on the Hudson River as she trains several performers who will recreate her earlier works for the duration of her show. She demands that these young artists surrender themselves to her, asking them to fast, remove their clothes, and confiscates their mobiles devices, facilitating a process in which they let go of themselves, slow down, and become empty so they can be in the present. Watching this proceure gives the viewer some insight into the intensity involved in creating the mental space that is a prerequisite of Ambramović’s performances.
Akers is the lucky beneficiary of the nature of Ambramović’s work which has always been physical and dramatic. He expertly builds the audience’s knowledge of Ambramović’s career by including footage of her riveting and ground-breaking early performances, which established her body as her media of choice and demonstrate her punishing mental, emotional and physical stamina. The extremes to which she submits herself are legendary, literally risking her own life for her work. In one of her most famous performances, Rhythm 0, 1974, she remained passive while allowing the audience to manipulate her body using a variety of objects she had placed before it for a period of six hours. These included a rose, a feather, honey, a whip, scissors, a scalpel, a gun and a single bullet – one person held a gun up to her head as the artist, still stationary, shed tears. Her twelve-year personal and professional relationship with fellow artist Ulay is also explored – their intense communion in both realms, allowing them to investigate ideas around ego, identity and male-female relationships, clearly remains a defining force in Ambramović’s life. She readily credits him and romanticizes their nomadic life and work together. Their relationship ended in a beautiful and monumental performance called The Lovers in which Ambramović and Ulay started at opposite ends of the Great Wall of China and walked towards each other, meeting in the middle to say good-bye.
“The hardest thing is to do something which is close to nothing because it is demanding all of you,” says Ambramović, explaining the difficulty of her MoMA work, but somehow not quite conveying the incredible discipline it required. On her first day, realizing the grueling nature of what was in store for her, Ambramović says she feels like Marie Antoinette headed for the guillotine. Ulay explains it simply by saying she’s the hardest working artist he knows. And her dedication is extreme. Since she must stay seated for the period the gallery is open, should she need to relieve herself, a hidden plastic container is put in a drawer under her chair. Some days into the work, when she begins to experience intense physical pain from remaining motionless for hours on end, Biesenbach asks her to consider ending her performance – this is completely unthinkable to her.
Three-quarters of a million people went to see the show, and towards the end of its run, crowds queued overnight jockeying for position to commune with Ambramović. If you were one of the many people who were not able to sit across from Ambramović and gaze deep into her eyes, this film captures some of the transcendental power of this experience in which men, women and children laughed, cried and were most notably were all intensely, profoundly moved. When someone sits in front of her, Ambramović states, the experience no longer becomes about her, but about them, she is just a mirror to their emotions. When magician David Blaine approaches her about a collaboration, Ambramović is initially excited about the prospect until her long-term gallerist, Sean Kelly, talks her out of it saying that her work is not theatre or illusion. The power in her work is that it’s all real.