by Seth Rogovoy
The choice to screen Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present at the Berkshire International Film Festival (BIFF) was perfect, as it crystallizes in so many ways the best of what the festival is about. Just as the name of the festival implies, the documentary film is about a legendary international performance artist – international in reputation, scope, and heritage, having been born and raised in Yugoslavia, shaped by that Communist nation’s unique politics (which her parents were wrapped up in); worked there and across Europe with her German partner, Ulay; making a world splash with a walk on the Great Wall of China; and then relocating to the U.S., first New York – the international art city – and then to the outer edges of the Berkshires (hence, the Berkshire aspect of the subject), in Chatham, N.Y., where she lives, and more recently, in Hudson, N.Y., where she recently announced plans to establish a world-class museum of performance art.
To go along with the screening, BIFF scored an appearance by the film’s director, Matthew Akers, and the artist herself, who isn’t easy to pin down, as she lives a virtually Gypsy-like life, as she put it, constantly on the go, criss-crossing the world, lately to promote the film; sometimes to perform; and other times, as she revealed, to immerse herself in native cultures in South America, where she studies shamanism in the Amazon jungle, and in East Asia, where she has long had an abiding interest in traditional cultures and spiritual disciplines.
None of this came as a surprise after viewing the film, which ostensibly documents the gallery installation/performance of the title, which took place two years ago as part of the first major retrospective of Abramovic’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That three-month-long performance was nothing if not a shamanistic ritual, as well as a spiritual discipline, for the artist, the viewers, and the sometimes-unwitting, sometimes-not participants, or foils, who spent a few minutes seated across from Abramovic, in the artist’s presence, enveloped in her steady gaze, often reduced to tears or otherwise moved or inspired, in what the film makes clear was a performance of superhuman proportions, requiring herculean athleticism, Zen equanimity, and dogged creative perseverance on the part of the artist.
And as the film sets out to accomplish, and succeeds at winningly, there is no doubt that, as Abramovic humorously complains about having to prove for the last forty years or so, performance art is indeed art, and worthy of a museum retrospective – at least as much as any show of painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, video and film. As Abramovic’s astute gallerist/curator says on several occasions, what the artist accomplished with this monumental live exhibition was nothing less than a self-portrait, and, as Abramovic is oft-heard to discuss, a self-portrait across time, slowed-down time being the essential, distinctive element that performance art, at least in her hands, boasts, what makes it differ from other media, and what Abramovic hopes to educate and train an audience to appreciate at the future museum of this form in Hudson.
While focusing on the considerable effort and preparation that went into the MoMA exhibition – including re-creations of her earlier performances, staffed by other artists whom she trained at a retreat at her home in Chatham, as well as for her new title work, which functions in the film, and so far, in her life’s work, as the culmination of all that has gone before, so stripped down to its essence, so minimalistically perfect it was in conception and execution, down to its title – the film also provides viewers with a pitch-perfect review of Abramovic’s life and work, giving just the right amount of backstory and context, including archival footage and talking-head narration – so that it serves as the perfect starting point for anyone to appreciate what Abramovic is all about, what her museum in Hudson will be all about, and what performance art can be all about.
Surely there is more to the story, but this nearly two-hour film packs a gripping tale and serves as a winning document at a peak of the artist’s career. That it served as one of the showcase screenings at this year’s BIFF, with director and subject on hand, just a 35-minute drive away from what Abramovic hopes will be her next and most lasting achievement, at the gloriously preserved and revived Mahaiwe Theatre, simply made this all the more perfect an evening, one of the best events ever to come out of the BIFF.