The Filmmaker is Present
As you watch this extraordinary documentary, whether or not you are an Abramovic fan, you are likely to become a fan of Matthew Akers, who made the film. It can’t have been easy, but I’d say–judging from the results–it must have been one hell of a ride.
Spending the kind of time necessary to create this masterpiece with an international maverick has brought out the best in Akers, who previously distinguished himself as a producer and cinematographer of (among other films) Carrier, a 10-part PBS series that remains a benchmark of what a reality series can be when it stretches itself. Carrier required shooting thousands of hours of film, and sharpened Akers’ keen eye for what was important to the story once it was pieced together afterwards. Carrier was long and hypnotic, balancing complex personal and political themes that in lesser hands would have been messy and much less compelling. In other words, Akers was the perfect choice for Marina Abramovic.
While Abramovic has polarized art-lovers, in The Artist is Present she is gradually revealed as True North for film-lovers. The inciting incident for the film was her retrospective at MoMA; her interns would reenact some of her notable performances from earlier years, while the artist herself would remain seated in a chair for seven-and-a-half hours a day as visitors (standing in ever-longer lines as the exhibition caught on) inched forward for a chance to sit opposite her, one-on-one. There was no talking, and no moving. Only unbroken staring. There were tears and beatific smiles. But those who had their own performances in mind were quickly removed from the arena and banned from further participation.
Much of Abramovic’s work over the decades involved stressing and mortifying her body, up to and including drawing blood and expressing bodily fluids. It was extreme performance art, a genre not always popular with the general public, but very much of the era that generated it. But there is always something to be learned by opening yourself to new information. Here, it is delivered by art historians, curators, gallerists, Abramovic’s collaborators, and by the artist herself. No one is more persuasive.
What Akers accomplishes in this elegant film about Abramovic’s work is to present not only the work, but the whole artist—who grows ever more artful, articulate and mesmerizing with time—as an original with a rich and compelling story to tell, and the imagination to express it in ways that are increasingly seductive.
This is where Akers really shows his mettle; his net is cast both deep and wide. He had access to not only Abramovic’s huge archive of films and stills, but was able to shoot over 700 hours of footage to document her development of the current project, the performance of it, and (thanks to HBO), lavish post-production time to explore how best to structure The Artist is Present. There is no way to create a story out of so much detail unless you have a lot of time and a lot of talent. Akers has both.
The results are as seductive as the artist. She makes a case for her work that becomes—if not ironclad—definitely comprehensible. And, as the chapters of her life are revealed, the film accrues substance to balance its style. Its emotional linchpin is Abramovic’s 12-year collaboration with fellow-artist and life partner, Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen), which ended when each of them walked toward the other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, met in the middle, then said goodbye. Years later, Ulay arrives at MoMA for a brief encounter with Abramovic that leaves both of them (and most of the onlookers) weeping. Ultimately, you may not become an acolyte, but you will struggle to remain untouched, and, perhaps, finally arrive at your own answer to the question “But why is this art?”