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film response: Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present



Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present
Directed by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre

Documentaries about art and artists strike me as being more necessary than most subjects for film-makers to tackle. Although almost every modern cultural worker has benefited from instantaneous global communications networks — the writer, the musician, even the photographer — most other artists have not. While photos of impressive buildings do the architect some justice, and there are plenty of architecture-porn blogs, how does someone experience the effects of space on the body and in the mind when it’s on the other side of the world?

So My Architect goes farther than any YouTube video could, but I’d wager walking inside the Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban itself would bowl me over, just as the first time entering the Joan Miró room at MoMa stunned me into heavy, wide-eyed silence.

And Henry Darger could never go viral and that really, is some comfort.

The Internet is absent for a reason in the documentary The Artist is Present. Marina Abramović — the self-described grandmother of performance art — spent three months, 7.5 hours a day, 6 days a week, sitting in a chair in the Museum of Modern Art’s atrium, inviting to sit in front of her in silence and stare anyone who wanted to. What Abramović does in this not-really solo, not-at-all virtual performance, depicted in some detail in this film, is to suggest that the Internet, this filter that is supposed to efficiently focus the world’s attention on what’s important and valuable, to provide solace and connection, is not enough.

It’s no wonder so many who engaged with Abramović in this way ended up with tears streaming down their faces. As curator Klaus Biesenbach suggests, for many who sat in front of Marina it was an opportunity to experience the full attention of another human being, and points out just how rare such an event is, despite the constant offer of attention that social media promises. There are no false likes or pluses, however, just simple regard: The artist is present, really.


I watched the film twice trying to assess the quality and origins of my own responses to it — not as moved as those shown weeping but affected nonetheless — and decided that, while the “charismatic space” Abramović created could be critiqued from several different positions, what I couldn’t deny was its power and her affirmation of what I have always considered as the essential role of artists in human societies — as shamans, oracles, to be living lenses we can look in the eye and find ourselves mirrored, reflecting back our suppressed experiences, our common pain.



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