“The first time I met the legendary, radical performance artist Marina Abramović, I was immediately surprised and seduced by her warmth and charm. […] It was one thing to be seduced by her as a subject and another thing to allow myself to be seduced by her myth. […] Throughout the next ten months, I documented nearly every waking moment of Marina’s life. […] It’s always hard to leave material on the cutting room floor, but I found it especially heartbreaking on this film.” –Matthew Akers [emphases added]
Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present is Matthew Akers’s directorial debut. He does a fine job, which doesn’t come as a surprise given his credentials as a cinematographer. But something keeps the film from being “a separate work of art altogether” (these quotations are all taken from Akers’s statement in the HBO press packet, by the way), an aspiration that echoes the one fulfilled by Corinna Belz with Gerhard Richter Painting (TMT Review). I’m not going to beat around the bush here: I think Akers fails to make a truly compelling, visually interesting film because he’s less attentive to the work of filmmaking in this case than to the work of mythmaking. He has a boner for Marina.
Marina Abramović feels like half publicity, basically, which is especially unfortunate given how wide an audience Abramović’s performance for her show at MoMA, The Artist is Present, reached. I think Akers fails to realize what the curator of The Artist Is Present realized: that Abramović’s power of seduction is impersonal, or at least universalizable. Akers is seduced by Abramović “as a subject,” when what he should really be obsessing over, if he wants to avoid making “a plodding biopic-style film,” is her work. The messy problem in this case being that Abramović’s work is, to some extent, Abramović-as-subject (or -object).
I don’t hold seduction against Akers. Far from it: I think seduction and communication are necessarily imbricated. Maybe communication is seduction. But while I’m sure Marina would seduce me in person, too, on film it’s not so difficult to look at her, rather than at a projection or an idea or an ideal. A lot of what Marina communicates to everyone she meets (if we’re to believe those she’s seduced) gets lost in representation.
“We live in such an overly mediated world and the notion of simply slowing down and doing literally nothing is unfortunately a radical concept. […] We could never truly represent the experience of witnessing the performance […].”
If you haven’t seen it before, go ahead and flip through the six pages of the Marina Abramović Made Me Cry tumblr. (Additionally, check out Marina Abramović Hotties for an even weirder inversion of the visual logic of the performance.) This is as close as we’ll get to the experience of sitting down across from Abramović. Those people did something which was close to nothing — time slowed for them. We are doing nothing which is close to something — the durations the sitters inhabited are flattened out and condensed for us: 10 min., 28 min., 3 min., 164 min.
It’s hard not to talk about the performance rather than the film. The film is another mediation, another document that perpetuates the work without extending the work. One exception, a moment of contact: two young children lying on their stomach’s, chins in their hands, smiling and staring into each other’s eyes. Akers knows enough about cameras… I wonder if he could have penetrated the screen if only he’d been less diligent an observer, more forgetful, more devious.