A fully nude woman suspended on a wall, perched on a bicycle seat.
Is it art?
A man lying on the floor with a skeleton reclining atop his naked body, perhaps as if his sexual partner.
Is it art?
A couple stands facing one another, nary a thread, and museum visitors must squeeze through them to continue through the exhibition.
Again, is it art?
Your inclination may be to answer “no,” yet your mind may be changed over the course of 106 minutes that make up Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, a dynamic documentary available on DVD Oct. 16 from Music Box Films.
Its Serbian-born subject, today 65, has spent four decades confronting public notions through controversial pieces of performance art — often violent, always provocative, sometimes putting her own body at risk.
The film follows her in the weeks before and the months of her 2010 retrospective at New York’s iconic Museum of Modern Art. While the above acts are among those being “re-performed” at the show by a specially selected cast of 30, the big draw is Abramović’s presence.
Her participation lends a dual nature to her exhibition’s title borrowed by the doc: She is to sit in a chair in front of a table, for the entirety of The Artist Is Present’s run. Visitors can take the seat opposite her in 15-minute intervals to stare, never to speak. (Mind you, she once shouted random numbers through a megaphone as she drove a van in circles for 16 hours straight.)
Co-directors Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre manage to capture an alarming amount of emotional outpouring from such a seemingly inert act, and that’s part of Abramović’s point: using herself as the artistic medium. “It’s hard to do something close to nothing,” she says.
Many visitors are reduced to tears, lending the film both tangible beauty and the power to disturb. Others react in unpredictable, increasingly dangerous ways, coating the final act with unease as the exhibition ticks near its end and MoMA patrons grow crazier — ironic, since would one expect the brave person sitting for 736 hours to be the one to lose her sanity.
Taken as a whole, the portrait is challenging, lovely and unexpectedly moving.
But is it art? Yes, I think so. —Rod Lott