This is a self-portrait like no other. ln Matthew Akers‘ mesmerizing documentary, Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, one begins on a journey into a strange, fascinating world. Abramović began as a shock-installation performance artist in the 1970s and here, the viewer catches a glimpse of what that world looked like (with beautiful to disturbing portrayals of the human body caught in torment, in flux, with self-infliction put on transparent display). It’s no wonder she’s riled up people — both supporters and haters — for nearly four decades.
But this documentary isn’t about her fanatisicm as much as its about her love affair — with fellow artist Ulay and the art world — and her journey from finite human to art world Messiah. A feminine Jesus so to speak, sacrificing her body/her time in hopes of giving viewers, gazers, and lookers on the freedom to stop — really stop — and face their true self.
In her 2010 show at MoMA that shook the country, and shocked the world of (often ignorant) art outsiders — a pathetic editorial from Fox News inserted at the film’s midpoint shows a glimpse of this — consisted of Abramović sitting in a chair, with one civilian after another invited to sit in silent across from her, gazing for an uncomfortably long time. This went on from museum open to museum close, six days a week, for three straight months. And through the process, viewers are brought to an array of varied emotions — from anger, to confusion, to joy, to tears, it’s as if they’ve never had to sit and do nothing for so long. But why so much emotion? Is it because they’re not used to silence? Is it because they’ve never really looked at a person for this long, without speaking? Can any of us say we ever really do that (apart from those who live as monks and nuns in monasteries)?
Whatever your thoughts, one can’t deny the meditative power of this holy moment; a moment where (for the first time in history), the artist gets to gaze back at the viewer while the viewer is watching their art (here, the artist’s physical face and flesh) before their very eyes. And what’s most fascinating about this process is how Abramović’s gaze helps the viewer see themselves — if only for a few minutes — more wholly, and clearly. Stripped from the sounds and movement and hurried pace of our contemporary world, it’s as if the viewers are given a gift; the gift of silent, still presence.
It may seem like nothing to many, but watch this film and you’ll be convinced at how ‘nothingness’ can transform into transcendence — for the artist, and the viewer. And that lesson, friends, is one that’s been around for a millennium. It’s what the mystics called ‘presence,’ and it’s what Abramović does so dazzlingly well here. If the art world was into canonizing Artists, Abramović would be first in line to be named a Saint. For she gives time and space to simply ‘be,’ reminding us that it’s our ‘being’ (and not our ‘doing’) that makes us uniquely and utterly human. A