Marina Abramović isn't generally a name that rolls off your tongue when listing your favorite artists, but after viewing "The Artist Is Present", she may as well be the very first person that comes to mind. When classifying "artists", most point in the direction of Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein — we forget about performance artists, as most of us aren't pretentious enough to consider ourselves a part of the "art" world. Save for Portland hipsters and eclectic New Yorkers, most don't know who the hell Marina Abramović is or why she is so damn interesting. I had never heard of her until a few days ago, when she made national headlines accusing Jay-Z of failing to donate to the Marina Abramović foundation after co-starring in his "Picasso Baby" music video.
"The Artist Is Present" is a fascinating watch for both newcomers and Abramović admirers, giving us an inside look into the process of her 2010 exhibit of the same name while providing a background, or, an introduction, if you will, to her performing art past. Touching on her controversial "Rhythm" series of the 1970s and her artistic and personal relationship with Ulay, the documentary is as educational as it is emotionally satisfying. We can appreciate Abramović's contributions to our culture just as much as we can connect with her as a vulnerable human being doing what they love.
Abramović has made a career out of using her body as means of artistic expression, testing her physical and intellectual limits on a regular basis. She has run into walls (for hours), cut, whipped and mentally disabled herself, exposed her naked body to the world — and yet, these are only a few characteristics of her long career (and vaguely detailed I might add). Abramović's willingness to submit to inescapable pain for the sake of performing is startling. One might initially cast aside her experiments, considering them to be laughable, strange, perhaps even an excuse to commit self-harm. The documentary, though, adds a dimension unseen by most, making her projects all the more admirable.
"The Artist Is Present" has a plentiful number of interviews to add to our reverence, and goes just deep enough into Abramović's past to give us a sort of idea as to why she does what she does. But the most enjoyable aspects of the documentary are not the clinical studies nor the final act, which focuses on the bewildering exhibit. Most gratifying is seeing Abramović behind the scenes, living as a normal woman, with a sense of humor, to boot, who just so happens to have a job most would never dream of. This is a hugely pleasurable documentary, yet I want more. I want to delve into Abramović's unhappy childhood with more gusto, to get an even closer look into the mind-blowing years spent with Ulay. For now, though, this will have to do, and that isn't a bad thing.