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Performance artist Marina Abramovic and a landmark piece she created at New York’s Museum of Modern Art are the subject of a documentary, ‘Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present,’ being screened tonight in Great Barrington as part of Berkshire International Film Festival.
Friday June 1, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON

Performance artist Marina Abram ovic once put herself on display in a New York City gallery for 12 days, with visitors invited at all hours to watch her eating, showering, and simply existing. She’s performed marathon works in which she’s shouted into a video camera until her voice was gone, or repeatedly run head-on into a partner.

With her history of provocative pieces that often took a physical toll on the performer, one might think it would be a breeze for her to be followed by a documentary filmmaker for a year. But
not so.

"At six in the morning they’re already there and they’re ready to shoot you and have the camera onto your face. I don’t think anybody would be comfortable. But the reason why I’m doing this, it was much more important than my comfort," Abramovic, 65, said on the phone from Brazil.

Rather than a simple victory lap celebrating her career, she viewed the film as another hurdle to be cleared in the service of a broader mission.

The resulting film, "The Artist is Present," is one of the centerpieces of the seventh annual Berkshire International Film Festival. It screens tonight at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, followed by a question-and-answer session with Abramovic and director Matthew Akers.

"The Artist is Present" takes its name from the 2010 retrospective of Abramovic’s work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art -- that institution’s first-ever career-spanning show devoted to a performance artist. The film is an outgrowth of Abramovic’s goal for the show: to finally move performance art itself from the margins of the art world into the mainstream. She’s tired of being asked, as she’s shown musing in the film, "why is it art?"

"I really wanted to show the process to make a performance like I do," the Yugoslavian-born artist said.

"It’s really not a simple thing. It has a huge amount of preparation. It’s all about how to come to the right state of mind and concentrate. Also to create the film so that the large public can have access to the performance [art] world and understand what performance is."

Akers came to the project with skepticism. He was aware of Abramovic’s work, he said in a telephone interview from New York, but unconvinced about its merits and impact. At the outset, he made it clear he was not interested in filming a simple love letter to the artist and her work.

"I’m really going to have to follow my nose on this and see where it leads me. I don’t want to be trapped by some sort of preconceived structure," he said of his mindset at the beginning of the shoot.

"I am skeptical of performance art. If this leads me down a path of debunking the myth of her in some way, I want to be able to go there. I don’t want to make a hagiography."

The film depicts Abramovic as she prepares for the retrospective, which included as its centerpiece a brand new performance piece.

About half of the film is concerned with this performance, possibly the greatest test of endurance with which the artist had yet challenged herself. Over the entire two-and-one-half month run of the exhibition, she sat in the museum’s atrium whenever it was open to the public, facing a chair left open for the public to use. Museumgoers waited in line for hours (and, toward the close of the exhibition, for days) for the chance to sit across from Abramovic as she stared forward, sitting still.

In one sequence of the film, Akers shows a succession of patrons who were moved to tears during the experience. Particularly moving is an appearance from someone in Abramovic’s past, but drama also comes from anonymous participants, including one who appeared devastated after being removed by security for what she ostensibly intended as a bit of self-baring continuity with Abramovic’s past work.

The director, who began shooting footage fully prepared to "debunk the myth" of performance art, instead found himself an enthusiastic convert.

"I think that it was a masterpiece," he said of the titular performance. "It’s going to be very hard for her to top that. It was the pinnacle of her whole life and I feel so lucky to have been at the right place at the right time to capture that."

Before the retrospective, in which some of her older works were re-created by other artists, Abramovic is also seen training a group of young performance artists during a retreat at her home in Malden Bridge, in New York’s Columbia County. Her ties to the area are deepening as she periodically announces ever-more-detailed plans for her envisioned Institute for the Preservation of Perform ance Art in a 20,000-square foot converted theater in Hudson.

The facility will be dedicated to hosting long-duration works as well as passing along Abramovic’s time-honed techniques she has dubbed "the Abramovic method."

"I have so much experience that I really think I can help a younger generation of artists to understand how to prepare themselves for the performance work," she said.

"But also, I’m so incredibly focused on the public because until now there was not any kind of situation where we can teach the public how to watch long durational performance. It doesn’t exist. This kind of school will be the first one in the world."

She’s beginning an intensive fundraising process, as well as creating satellite institutes in galleries and museums around the world to build awareness and momentum for the Hud son effort.

If there’s one thing her career has made clear, it’s that one should not underestimate her tenacity.