The oddest moment in this riveting documentary comes when Marina Abramovic, the performance artist, meets David Blaine, the illusionist.
A theatrical, narcissistic, controlling, but unaccountably likable woman known for her masochistic feats of endurance-as-art, Abramovic is preparing at the time for a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
She is plainly intrigued by Blaine. And Blaine, for his part, seems keen to seduce her. He makes this explicit when he takes a bite out of the wine glass he is drinking from and proceeds to crunch it into small pieces in his mouth.
Blaine wants somehow to elbow his way into Abramovic’s show. He suggests a stunt involving an ax. Abramovic, herself a connoisseur of gruesome stunts, is plainly interested. It’s left to her dealer, Sean Kelly, to nix the idea. He does it in no uncertain terms: Blaine is an illusionist, he says. You are . . .
What is Abramovic? She is an artist (she got her show at MoMA in 2010, and it was very much the talk of the town). More specifically, she is a choreographer of simple but extraordinary situations that somehow have to do with love. And — oh yes — she is a piece of work.
“She’s never not performing,” says one friend. And the documentary, “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present,” confirms it. The cameras were around Abramovic long enough for them to become part of the furniture. But she clearly had no shyness or scruples to overcome in getting used to them.
Abramovic specializes in candor, and in making of emotional commonplaces a kind of heightened, strip-poker aesthetic. If you’re susceptible and ready, it can be searing, profound. If you’re skeptical, as I am, it amounts to something less. But the mechanics of the Abramovic phenomenon — how she operates, how her admirers operate, how the art world around her responds — are fiendishly interesting to observe.
This film, directed by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre, has everything a documentary could want. A charismatic lead. Controversy (you call this art?). Suspense (will Marina make it through her three-month performance at MoMA, staring into the eyes of almost a million strangers for 7½ hours a day, six days a week?). And it even has an affecting love story.
The latter comes in the form of Ulay, the performance artist who was once Abramovic’s lover and collaborator. The two became famous for performances that were like Pina Bausch dances without the steps. They could all be categorized under the heading: “What men and women do to each other.” They involved, in other words, a lot of bruising.
The intense, 12-year relationship between Ulay and Abramovic ended after “The Lovers,” a three-month performance which involved them walking toward each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China.
After their acrimonious split (both, it seems, were unfaithful), Abramovic’s career — and her previously unsuspected love of haute couture — flourished. Her talent for self-promotion left Ulay languishing. “I’m just lazy,” he says at one point, not long after admitting, “I think I still love her.”
And he looks like he really does. The most affecting scenes in the movie show them reuniting after many years. Ulay is a good foil for Abramovic, and it’s hard not to come away feeling that they belong together.
Abramovic grew up the daughter of two World War II resistance fighters who were national heroes in the former Yugoslavia. She was starved, she claims, of her mother’s love. That left her vulnerable and needy. But she gained, she says, a spiritual wisdom, which transcended her emotional wants.
Who knows if that’s true. But her legions of fans certainly seem willing to believe it. And what the final half hour of the documentary reveals, as it films live encounters between Abramovic and visitors to MoMA, is just how much they need to believe it.
The Abramovic phenomenon is in many ways akin to a cult. (But then, so are many good things.) It’s all about love, and letting down one’s defenses, and going the extra mile in service to a noble cause. . . . But where is all this positive energy being channeled? Into “a feeling of beauty and unconditional love,” if we are to believe Abramovic, where there are “no borders between you and your environment.”
That sounds nice, and I’m prepared to believe it. Something powerful does seem to happen between Abramovic and those who sit opposite her. Many of them cry. But when she says (by way of explaining her mid-performance decision to remove the table separating her chair from the chair opposite), “Priest doesn’t need the cross,” you do begin to wonder.
If the utterance echoes Martin Luther, you have to balance that image with the scenes showing Abramovic in expensive bed clothes that are all a shade of red (because red gives her positive energy), or trying on clothes in an exclusive Paris fashion boutique. At which point you may think less of Luther and more of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
I liked this well-made film because I was attracted by Abramovic’s charisma. It’s undeniable. But I don’t think I’ll be alone in not caring for — and not entirely trusting in — what she does.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.