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Preview: HBO’s “The Artist Is Present” documents “grandmother of performance art”

Performance artist Marina Abramović sits . . . and sits and sits and sits . . . in HBO's "The Artist Is Present." (Photo by David Smoler)

There’s a superhuman fearlessness to artist Marina Abramović, but it’s her surprising vulnerability (like her fearlessness, larger than life) that draws us into the world of the so-called “grandmother of performance art” in the new documentary “The Artist Is Present,” premiering Monday, July 2, on HBO. The film centers on Abramović’s preparations for and execution of her blockbuster 2010 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, especially the exhibition’s central work, in which she sat silently at a table for the entire length of the show (three months, seven hours a day, every day) and viewers were invited to sit across from her one at a time and gaze into her eyes.

Director Matthew Akers offers us a number of perspectives on Abramović before delving into the MoMA exhibit, which dominates the second half of the film. There’s Abramović the art-world celebrity, having her picture taken for magazine covers and photo spreads; there’s Abramović the aging artist, full of concerns about how her fleeting work will be preserved. There’s Abramović the teacher, doling out Zen tasks to young artists, even as she’s convinced they’ll hate her for it. Best of all is the Abramović we see in archival footage, developing as a performance artist using her body as medium.

Akers covers these diverse subjects quickly and well; almost any one of them could have been developed into a full-length documentary of its own. Things never feel terribly rushed, though a lot of territory is covered: family life and background; early work; life with performer and partner Ulay and their subsequent split and present reunion. One never feels a lingering stillness in the documentary, which is odd considering the subject: a durational performance artist.

The movie really picks up a sense of focused drama in its second half, as Abramović comprehends the daunting physical and mental challenge she has set before herself. “There is no story, there is no escape,” she says of the new work in which she must sit perfectly still from winter to spring. We see the genuine toll, mental and physical. “This is a lot, even for me,” the woman who once carved a pentagram into her stomach admits at the end of a long day. And it’s the people who sit across from her — rapt, often moved to tears — who complete the drama. There is no medium, no model, no material to master, no finished object in this art. The artist simply gazes directly at the viewer, and the viewer gazes back.

“The Artist Is Present” retains a strange fascination with celebrity (does anyone really need to see Hollywood actor James Franco sitting across from Abramovic?) and often seems more promotional than analytical. Akers is a bit too willing to dive into the cult of artistic celebrity; and, oddly, we gloss over the artist’s journey from outsider to insider, from black sheep to stylish cultural darling, far too quickly. One moment she is living in a van milking goats in the former Yugoslavia; the next she’s joining the glitterati at Paris Fashion Week. It’s a fast evolution.

But the focus always remains in the right place: the passionate, striking artist herself, with the terribly cruel, urgent drive. Abramović is undeniably a fascinating subject; she’s spent much of her life and energy ensuring that she is one. Narrative and drama might not be the most salient elements of her work, but they’re everywhere in her life and person. Both, too, are present in this new documentary about this fascinating artist.

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