Marina Abramovic, The Artist Is Present: Silent Stare, Vanity Movie

MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ THE ARTIST IS PRESENT is now present in movie theaters. The release comes after a long victory lap on the festival circuit following the reverential film’s premiere at Sundance 2012, and its sales to territories all over the world at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival. I expect the elegantly made documentary to do well at the box office, just as Abramovic’s performance/exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art did last year.  I also expect fashion commercials to sell clothes.

The Artist Is Ready for Her Close-Up

Back in December, when an excerpt of the film screened at Art Basel Miami Beach, I called the film an infomercial in The Art Newspaper, while noting that it will probably make money. (The director, Matthew Akers, wrote an angry letter to the editor, and warned her that I couldn’t be believed, since I had been fired from National Public Radio. Now that A. O. Scott of NY Times has offered the same judgment, will he rail at the Times or its critic?)

The doc is no less an infomercial today – for Abramovic and for Sean Kelly Gallery —  and also a product placement for the Museum of Modern Art, where Abramovic’s exhibition last spring invited visitors to pass through a tight gate formed by two of her nude acolytes or to sit across a table from a silent stern Abramovic for 15 minutes. The lines were long. Andy Warhol could have told you that the demand for those 15 minutes would have been high.

Now Talk for the Movie

The film is a “making of” doc. Like those films, it glorifies its subject, a one-time daring performance artist whose performances now feature her dressed in couture gowns. She doesn’t speak, but the dresses do.

If the doc is another chapter in the cult of personality, what better source than post World War II Eastern Europe, where Abramovic began her journey to stardom.

The filmmaker’s worship of Abramovic probably won’t hurt this doc at the box office. It didn’t happen with Pina!, Wim Wender’s ode to the late choreographer Pina Bausch. Like it or not, celebration is the accepted approach to films about artists.

“Performance has never been a regular form of art – it’s been “alternative” since I was born. I want it to be a real form of art before I die,” Abramovic declares in the film. The scenes at MoMA may remind you of a coronation, but the doc also returns to Abramovic’s Yugoslav roots, which merit watching far more than her apotheosis at MoMA. Imagine an artist who mixes satire with sado-masochism, under a Tito regime that didn’t welcome parody or any challenges to its supremacy in cultural matters. She took it I to what we might call Euro-S & M in her collaborations with the performer Ulay (Uwe Laysieper), with whom she’s reunited in the documentary. For these archival sections, Marina Abramovic – The Artist Is Present should be seen.

Performance Angst -- Cupid's Arrows in Black and White - Abramovic and Ulay in the 1980's

The art crowd is likely to rush to this one, just as it stalks any Matthew Barney films, and packed into MoMA when offered a chance to walk between two of the artists’ nude minions. And there’s cross-over potential here. Abramovic turned 65 in December. She is the best-preserved person of that age since Catherine Deneuve. We may never learn the secret of her success, but all can observe and envy it here.  Forget about art. Here looking good is the best revenge.

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