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Seductive, fearless and outrageous, Marina Abramović has been redefining the meaning of art for nearly 40 years. Using her own body as a vehicle, pushing herself beyond her limits, and at times risking her physical safety, she creates performances that challenge, shock and move. From first-time director Matthew Akers, MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ THE ARTIST IS PRESENT follows “the grandmother of performance art” as she prepares for a major retrospective of her work at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2010, highlighted by a new exhibit that is breathtaking in its simplicity: two chairs facing each other, with Abramović sitting in one and audience members taking turns sitting in the other, gazing into each other’s eyes in silence. In true Abramović style, she remains in the chair for seven and a half hours each day – every day the museum is open for three months – without eating, drinking or moving, a feat of mental and physical endurance that is challenging even for a veteran of such performances.
MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ THE ARTIST IS PRESENT debuts MONDAY, JULY 2 (9:00-10:45 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO, as part of the HBO Documentary Films summer series. The film had its world premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Other HBO playdates: July 5 (12:45 a.m.), 10 (12:30 a.m.) and 18 (2:45 a.m.)
HBO2 playdate: July 4 (8:00 p.m.)
Other July films in the summer series include: “Hard Times: Lost on Long Island” (debuting July 9); “Birders: The Central Park Effect” (July 16); “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” (July 16); “Vito” (July 23); and “About Face: Supermodels Then and Now” (July 30).
Known for her extreme performance-art installations, many involving nudity and punishing bodily deprivation, Marina Abramović is one of the few artists of her generation still active in the field. A glamorous art-world icon, a lightning rod for controversy and a myth of her own making, she’s tired of the “alternative” label after four decades of skepticism, and happy that the retrospective is the crowning achievement of her career, providing her the best opportunity to put performance art on the mainstream map. “Performance art has never been a regular form of art,” she says. “It’s always been alternative since I was born, so I want it to be a real form of art and respected before I die.”
In addition to Abramović herself, the film features interviews and scenes with collaborators, art commentators, friends and fans, including: art critic Arthur Danto; Chrissie Iles, curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Abramović’s gallerist, Sean Kelly; writer Tom McEvilley; illusionist David Blaine; and actor James Franco.
MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ THE ARTIST IS PRESENT also includes extensive archival footage and images of her life in the year leading up to the MoMA extravaganza. Revisiting her controversial beginnings in the early 1970s, the film features documentation of her earlywork, including video of Abramović driving a van around a public square while shouting numbers from a megaphone, taking psychoactive drugs to challenge social attitudes towards female mental illness, and mutilating and flagellating herself.
The MoMA retrospective exhibit occupies several floors of the museum, most of them dedicated to earlier chapters in Abramović’s career, with images and videos of installations, many involving fellow performance artist and former romantic partner Ulay. She also trains 41 young artists to “re-perform” some of her early installations. For example, in “Imponderabilia,” two artists stand face-to-face, completely naked on opposite sides of a doorway, which others can only squeeze through by brushing against the couple’s naked flesh, a piece originally performed by Abramović and Ulay.
In the new exhibit, Abramović sits in a chair under bright spotlights opposite an empty chair, where members of the public can sit as long as they want, gazing into her eyes. A seemingly endless number of people line up for the opportunity to sit with her, many sitting multiple times on different days, several for as long as ten hours, some even after waiting all night. It is the longest-duration solo work of her career, and by far the most physically and emotionally demanding one she has ever attempted. When she conceived it, Abramović says she knew instantly it was the right piece, because the mere thought of it “made me nauseous.” Exceeding the museum’s and the artist’s own expectations, the exhibit becomes a blockbuster, must-see event.
One of the most emotional scenes occurs when Ulay, the man with whom she shared an intense and colorful history spanning more than 12 years, occupies the seatopposite Abramović. The two lived in a van in Europe and performed together before their relationship ended in suitably dramatic fashion: They walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, met in the middle after covering over 1,500 miles apiece, and then said good-bye.
Sitting opposite each other in the MoMA exhibit, neither can hold back tears. Eventually, to cheers from the crowd, she reaches across and extends her hand to touch him, something none of the other sitters are permitted to do, and they hold each other. This moving moment highlights the two sides of Marina Abramović — the flesh-and-blood woman and the art-world icon — who is driven by passion, hungry for admiration and riven by contradictions.
MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ THE ARTIST IS PRESENT received the Panorama Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival. It will open at the Film Forum in New York City onJune 13 and the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles on June 15, courtesy of HBO Documentary Films and Music Box Films.
Matthew Akers was the producer and a lead cinematographer on the series “Circus,” a producer and camera operator on the Emmy(R)-winning series “Carrier,” and a producer and camera operator on the Peabody-winning series “Nimrod Nation.” His previous HBO credits as cinematographer include “Back in the Hood: Gang War II,” “Heir to an Execution” and “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.”
MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ THE ARTIST IS PRESENT is an HBO Documentary Films presentation of A Show of Force production; directed by Matthew Akers; produced by Jeff Dupre and Maro Chermayeff; director of photography, Matthew Akers; co-directed by Jeff Dupre; edited by E. Donna Shepherd; co-edited by Jim Hession; original music by Nathan Halpern. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.