(This review is an extended version of our write-up from Day 3 of Sheffield Doc/Fest).
Documentaries on artists can easily fall into one of two traps: they either focus on their glamorous personal and love life, or they lionise their body of work to the point that they become the most significant person in their field. With a subject like performance artist Marina Ambramović, the personal and the professional is almost indivisible, a fact which Matthew Akers’ documentary demonstrates from very early on.
Ambramović is renowned for pushing herself in her work, not only baring her body and her soul but also putting herself through intense physical strain. Starting with the build up towards her three-month long show at New York’s MOMA, Akers spends the first half showing us how her work has developed over the years, from her two-handers with her ex-lover and collaborator Uwe Laysiepen (Ulay) to her expansion into more theatrical performances. Akers spoke in a Q&A after the film about not wanting to present a hagiography and during this first half he justifies her reputation as “The Grandmother of Performance Art” with clips of her most famous pieces.
We weren’t too familiar with her work before watching the film and it was fascinating to see archive footage of her challenging and often bizarre performance art. Friends and contemporaries discuss works such as Rhythm 0, in which she presented the public with 72 harmless and harmful objects and allowed them to do whatever they wanted to her, and another in which she drove a van around a square for 16 hours while shouting random numbers through a megaphone. Clearly there is enough archive material to fill a documentary, but the focal point of this film is her show The Artist is Present, which takes up the bulk of the second half.
It’s certainly a fascinating piece. Abramović sat motionless (except to look up and down) in the Museum of Modern Art all day for three months, looking at whoever sat opposite her. During the course of the show we see the physical and emotional strain she endures, and the often-hysterical reactions it provokes in the audience. One wonders if anyone (with the exception of James Franco) wasn’t reduced to tears.
The problem with the second half is that, by necessity, Abramović figures less. The focus is shifted to observing the effect The Artist is Present has, rather than the artist herself. It’s tricky to depict something that is so much about endurance and restraint and, for the most part, Ackers does a good job, but after such a lively, engrossing first half, we found ourselves missing the artist. It’s a well-made look at a fascinating subject but it is, finally, a little uneven. However, the charisma, strength, and creativity of Abramović makes it a film that’s definitely worth a look.