Settling herself wordlessly in a MoMA gallery for ten weeks in 2010, the Serbian-born Marina Abramovic threw down a gauntlet for all who would submit to her gaze. Did her installation represent the thrilling omega of art—the ultimate expression of “putting yourself out there”? Or, in her serene, holier-than-thou countenance, were viewers observing an exotic empress with no clothes, sucking up attention (and in turn, becoming a conduit for Western spiritual desperation)? To the enormous credit of Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, a Sundance documentary of exquisite openness, no definitive answers are given. We see the crowds lining up around the block, the teary breakdowns of attendees, the endurance test of the performer, and we reckon with it without explanation.
That’s about as honest as an art movie can be; director Matthew Akers sets the stage and generously turns over his project to Abramovic’s intention, creating an alluring, confrontational mood that’s unshakable. By the time the show opens, the chronological doc has also imparted a taste of the exciting life of two outsiders: the title subject and monomonikered Ulay, her onetime German collaborator and boyfriend. Together, they lived off the grid in a bus, chronicled their impulses and brought their mobile weirdness to the ends of its usability. These days, it seems Abramovic trains nubile devotees in the practice of openness on a rural farm in upstate New York—very close to a cult. Rare is the profile that captures so much oddness with so little judgment. You owe yourself a chance to be challenged.
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