“The hardest thing is to do something which is close to nothing” reads the tagline on the stop-you-in-your-tracks publicity image for HBO Documentary Film’s Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present. In this documentary we are permitted to follow, and fall in love with, Marina in the lead up to her retrospective show in MoMa, as well as being taken back to the period when she and Uwe Layseipen’s turbulent love story and performances were taking the art world by storm.
Retrospective shows are generally a time for the artist and the fans to take stock of what has come before, and can sometimes suggest potential retirement or slowing down. Seeing as Marina Abramovic has long been one of the art world’s most extraordinarily controversial, sexual, fiery stars, it comes as no surprise that her retrospective was going to be rather different to those before her and that, more importantly, the artist is showing no signs of slowing down yet.
Early on in the documentary, we watch as a naked Marina parades about in front of wide-eyed photographers in countless studios, bathtubs and galleries. In front of the camera she is dazzling – a confident woman of 63, completely at ease with her body, and unlike many, at her most comfortable when in front of the lens.
We are told early on about her incredibly strict mother who, in fear of spoiling her, gave her minimal encouragement, but unlike many articles and documentaries, the film does not dwell on this, choosing instead to concentrate on what came later, and what is happening now.
Even though the film is largely centred around the infamous 2010 MoMa retrospective, in which Marina takes centre stage and offers the general public the chance to sit opposite her and stare into her eyes – an experience that leaves the majority of them in tears, see marinaabramovicmademecry.tumblr.com/ – the most compelling aspect is the reunion of Marina and Uwe Layseipen, or ‘Ulay’.
Upon meeting in 1976, Ulay and Marina formed an almost prophesied bond. Feeling that they had each met their soulmate, artistically and physically (even their birthdays are the same), they set about making performance art together as one unit, beginning a 12-year relationship fuelled by passion that could rival the greatest lovers in history.
When they finally agreed to part ways forever, they decided to each walk 2,500 miles from either end of The Great Wall of China, and meet in the middle to say their goodbyes (the walk was, of course, filmed, and is heartbreaking.) The 2012 documentary chooses to reveal the moment when Ulay and Marina are reunited in New York on the days leading up to her show.
Now living separate lives, the chemistry between them is still palpable. On the opening night of her show, when she begins her three-month stint in the wooden chair, staring people in the eyes, Ulay turns up and sits opposite her, creating a seriously epic, utterly real interaction between two past soulmates, brought together again by the art that joined them when they met.
This film showcases the woman whose art was questioned for the entirety of her career, finally brought to an explosive head at a show that saw people traveling from across the world and will go down in history. To now deny the work she has produced consistently and passionately throughout her life is not art is no longer valid, and anyone who sees this incredibly moving and inspirational documentary would agree.