The first time I met the legendary, radical performance artist Marina Abramović, I was immediately surprised and seduced by her warmth and charm. More astonishing was her unconditional willingness to open up her entire life to my camera – a rarity in the documentary world. On the other hand, I also knew that her openness posed a peculiar sort of challenge. Marina is someone who has spent her whole career blurring the lines between life and art. How would I know when she was performing for the camera or not? Additionally, I was skeptical of performance art. Though I was well acquainted with Marina’s place in art history, performance by its very definition is ephemeral and only a first-hand encounter can allow you to experience its full transformative power. I had to rely on historical texts, video documentation, and eyewitness accounts of her work in order to learn about it. It was one thing to be seduced by her as a subject and another thing to allow myself to be seduced by her myth.
The two main goals I set for myself in the beginning were to figure out how to make the subject appeal to a wider audience than just the rarefied art world and to avoid the trap of making a plodding biopic-style film. Right away I discussed my views on performance art with Marina, and not only did she seem to admire a skeptical approach, but she seemed totally energized by the challenge. After all, this is someone who has spent nearly four decades unfazed by the question, as she states in the film, “…but why is this art?”
Throughout the next ten months, I documented nearly every waking moment of Marina’s life. I followed her to six countries, shooting hundreds of hours of her encounters with colleagues, friends, critics and her reconnection with Ulay – her lover and collaborator of 12 years. I also captured the entirety of a new performance that she did in the Atrium of MoMA.
One thing that was clear after studying Marina’s oeuvre was how integral the public had often been in the completion of the work. I figured that, if nothing else, the sheer potential for spectacle or conflict in this new work could be mined for drama. The museum, understandably, worked hard to minimize the chaos. They were not always successful, however, as the public could be quite persistent in “punking” the performance. Fortunately for Marina, her life never seemed genuinely threatened. Over the course of the three months, it gradually became clear to me, and the rest of the filmmaking team, that the potential physical risk of the performance had less resonance than some of the more philosophical, emotional, and intellectual concepts.
Vulnerability, human connection, projection, sacrifice, and perception of time were some big ideas that came into focus. Marina talked about it as a culmination of everything she had been striving for her whole life – a statement that I initially found confusing, since the work involved what she also stated was “something that was close to nothing.” Was she striving for nothing?
It took me a while, but eventually I did begin to grasp what was going on in the performance. It was like a slow burn. I had to spend an enormous amount of time simply watching and thinking. We live in such an overly mediated world and the notion of simply slowing down and doing literally nothing is unfortunately a radical concept. Ulay talks about how disturbing people found their performance “Night Sea Crossing,” as it involved silence, fasting, and motionlessness – three things discredited in the Western world.
It’s as if our daily electronic rituals – surfing the web, watching television, etc. – are working to construct a barrier between us and the present. It takes a while to simply deconstruct that edifice before one can understand how profoundly simple it is to exist in the moment. I had to retrain my brain.
My initial concern about Marina’s more theatrical side creeping in and fueling my skepticism was quelled by the sheer austerity of the performance. Also, the work, while absolutely grounded in Marina’s persona, simultaneously and paradoxically had nothing to do with her. Instead of looking into Marina’s eyes and seeing the artist, the participants were often seeing what they would refer to as projections of themselves. It became clear to me that “The Artist Is Present” was undeniably valid and, moreover, very powerful.
When it came time to edit and figure out how to incorporate all of these ideas, it was a bit tricky. Fortunately, I worked with a great team of people. We went back and forth weighing the pros and cons of building an artifice for those concepts through editing and sound design, versus a starker observational approach. In the end, we tried to strike a balance somewhere between both worlds. We realized that since we could never truly represent the experience of witnessing the performance first-hand, the raw footage was not necessarily an accurate representation anyhow. It became necessary for us to attempt to make a separate work of art altogether.
It’s always hard to leave material on the cutting room floor, but I found it especially heartbreaking on this film. However, just as Marina figured out a way to pare down and simplify in this new performance, we eventually were forced to do the same in the edit. We chipped away until what emerged surprised me. There are many truths to this tale and this is simply one. Instead of a strictly critical examination of the different aspects of Marina’s life and this new performance, the film took on a more impressionistic lyrical quality.
In my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined what a sensation the performance would become. My hope is that the film’s audience will have an experiential encounter with the concepts in Marina’s work in a way that might reveal something about themselves, as it certainly did for me.