At first look, a documentary about a Serbian performance artist might not sound like a lively bums-on-seats Friday night cinema triumph. But take it from us, even if you know nothing about Marina Abramović, if you’re even slightly interested in contemporary art, powerful women, fearless passion or idiosyncratic creativity, you’ll be mesmerised by this fascinating and moving film. We left with tears streaming down our faces – brought on by a mixture of admiration, sadness, shock, and awe.
The film follows the 65-year-old Abramović as she prepares for a major retrospective at New York’s MoMA, an occasion which prompts an intimate look back at her career and life. As she works with a group of young artists to recreate some of her most ground-breaking live art pieces exploring violence, sex, physical endurance and passion (which the artists go on to perform during the exhibition), you feel the visceral intensity of the focus and commitment needed to perform each piece, and are reminded of why she is a such a revered and celebrated artist. All her pieces are extreme. Many involve nudity, fire, knives and the audience themselves. One of the most simple but affecting pieces involves a naked couple standing opposite one another, almost close enough to touch, and between whom gallery visitors have to squeeze in order to get to the next room. It’s powerful, dramatic and controversial. But is it art? That’s the central question that propels the whole film and Abramović’s oeuvre.
Abramović herself sits immobile in a chair for the duration of the retrospective, her continued presence the origin of the exhibition’s title (as well as of this documentary). Like those on a pilgrimage to see a queen or oracle, one by one visitors come and sit opposite her, staring deep into her eyes. They camp out for days for their chance for an audience with her. Some strip off in homage. Many weep uncontrollably. All the while she remains still, looking intently ahead.
However you react to the work or the artist; whether you think Abramović and her pieces are art or exhibitionism, this is a provocative and extraordinary film that’s completely unforgettable – as you can see even from the trailer, below. Do see the film if you can.