Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present  by Marina Abramović, Music Box Films, 2012.
I’ll begin this review by mentioning what it won’t address: I won’t talk about Marina Abramović’s long career of performance or about how she’s often referred to as “the grandmother of performance art;” I won’t discuss my reservations about the less savory aspects of her personality, such as the pathological need to be loved and her rather unabashed fascination with fame. I won’t raise her famous collaborations with her former partner, Ulay, nor will I frame her (as so many others do), as a simple provocateur, because to do so is to diminish the real importance of her work.
I won’t do this because the documentary does a far superior job of providing the necessary context. What I will discuss is the performance from which the documentary takes its name: The Artist Is Present, which was recently unveiled as part of a retrospective exhibition of Abramović’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is a deceptively simple, yet unexpectedly complex piece. On the surface, the premise of The Artist Is Present is absurdly simple: Abramović sits in the main exhibition gallery opposite an empty chair for all the museum’s opening hours (about eight hours per day), for the entire length of the exhibition, which runs a total of three months. Patrons of the museum can sit opposite her and look at her. People line up by the thousands, with many camping out overnight for the chance to sit in the chair across from her. There is no time limit: people can sit for as long as they’re able. Some sit for hours, others for only a few minutes. There are other guidelines: no one can speak to or touch Abramović – they can only look at her, and have her look at them. One participant says that Abramović slows down people’s minds, and in doing so, transforms them.
The second half of the documentary (which, to my mind, is the most interesting part of the film), shows Abramović struggling with the physical demands of sitting completely still, for hours each day and for months on end, yet still having the presence of mind to give her full, undivided attention to each of the thousands of people who came to sit before her. In the documentary, she says that attentiveness is one thing you can’t fake: “people know if you’re not paying attention,” she says at one point.
The reactions of the audience (all of whom are also participants) are equally fascinating. Some appear angry or intense; many others (an astonishing number, in fact) weep. “So many of the people carry around so much pain,” says Abramović at one point in the film. During the exhibition, there was actually a Tumblr page called Marina Abramović Made Me Cry, in which people who had very emotional reactions to the performance would discuss their experiences.
Even patrons who don’t sit opposite Abramović are shown staring from the boundaries of the room, often for long periods, at her and others as they search one another’s faces. As months pass, and the exhibit goes on, there is a real question whether Abramović’s body will tolerate the strain of sitting for so long and even MOMA’s curatorial staff and security guards begin to worry that she won’t be able to finish the performance. Says one curator: "The Artist Is Present is revolutionary precisely because it could fail.” And risk, as anyone will tell you, is central to any successful artistic endeavor. If the viewer is able to risk a bit themselves, they’ll find The Artist Is Present more than repays their attention.