There were some disappointed patrons at Sunday evening’s screening of “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” at the Watermill Center who mistakenly thought the artist herself was going to be there. Instead the center, which had clearly announced this in its listings, hosted a panel discussion after the screening with three of the performers who participated in the 2010 exhibition of the same title at the Museum of Modern Art.
This was actually a much better choice, whatever the limitations of Ms. Abramovic’s schedule may have been. The documentary, produced by HBO and directed by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre, provides such a thorough and intimate glimpse into the artist’s life, process, and preparation for the MoMA show that there is little room left for question or discussion. The insider experience of the exhibition performers Brittany Bailey, Abigail Levine, and Elke Luyten, offered an instructive alternate viewpoint in the context of the film.
While often described as charismatic, Ms. Abramovic can seem guarded and sphinx-like in performance. Her various projects have been physically and psychologically harrowing. Her endurance and willingness to accept pain and chance in her encounters with her audience have been recorded on film showing the stoicism that no doubt comes from the military discipline she grew up with in Tito’s Yugoslavia.
In the film, she is warm and emotionally available and vulnerable. Part of the key to the popular success of her exhibition was re-envisioning an old work she did with her longtime partner and collaborator Uwe Layseipen, known more commonly as Ulay, whom she worked with from 1976 to 1988. The piece, “Nightsea Crossing,” consisted of the couple sitting opposite one another for hours, not eating or speaking. On film, Ulay said that after 14 days he could feel his ribs pressing on his spleen and the pain of sitting became too much for him. Although he got up, she continued to sit. “I’m lazy,” he said in the film. “She works much harder than I do.”
In the 2010 show, she recreated that singular experience in allowing museum patrons to participate by sitting across from her. It became a performance endurance trial, with the artist at the seat for every hour that the museum was open — no breaks — for the entire three-month span of the show. The film demonstrates how the piece became a kind of pilgrimage for fans, curiosity seekers, and those eager for the chance to participate in art. People often sat outside the museum doors overnight, particularly as the show came closer to its conclusion.
One of the more intimate parts of the film involves Ms. Abramovic’s reconnection with Ulay after two decades of silence. The viewer learns the back story of some of their pieces. The old van that the couple spent five years driving across Europe in while presenting their collaboration was included in the show and prompted emotional reactions from each of them. In their climatic work, “The Lovers,” a three-month trek along the Great Wall of China from opposite points that was supposed to conclude in marriage when they met at the middle, the couple instead broke up after mutual infidelities. After hearing both sides of their story, the film shows the two communicating in a friendly and supportive manner, which ends in a surprisingly touching moment at the MoMA opening.
The exhibition (often considered a failure by critics) was conceived as a way of preserving performance not only with filmed documents but also with other artists taking the positions that Ms. Abramovic did in her earlier works. As she sat for hours on end on the second-floor atrium, up on the sixth floor, 30 young performers, hand-selected by her, reenacted works such as “Imponderabilia,” in which she and Ulay stood naked in a museum doorway and forced patrons to walk between them.
This piece attracted much tabloid attention during the show’s run, but just as challenging were recreations of the artist lying naked underneath a human skeleton, attempting to make it appear to breathe, and one where she sat on a bicycle seat naked with arms and legs spread. These were physically demanding works as well, and those engaged to perform them attended a boot camp of sorts several months before the show at Ms. Abramovic’s country house in Hudson, N.Y. There, they fasted, meditated, communed with nature, and did not speak for three days. The effort was to have them “slow down,” in the words of the artist, in order to withstand the hours of stillness they would need to endure for the show.
The three artists present on Sunday each said their “auditions” with Ms. Abramovic were unusual, quick interactions with selections based on mutual chemistry and trust. According to Ms. Bailey, “it felt right to trust her from the very first moment.” Aside from a few perfunctory questions about prescription medications, very little was asked of them.
Ms. Levine noted that the training she offered them differed from dance preparation, where one repeats a piece over and over in rehearsal. Instead “we were set up to take her method of performing, the slowness and direct contact with the audience, and use it to interpret her work.” For “Imponderabilia” the instructions were thus: “stand opposite your partner, when someone passes through you can look at them, and then look back at your partner.” She said that during the run of the show she did the piece 40 to 50 times, “each time discovering what it meant.” She agreed that the physical demands were challenging and that she has lingering back, neck, and feet issues from standing still on the hard cement floors for so long. Despite the rigors, only two people from the original 30 left the show during its run. One for personal reasons, the other was asked to leave because he couldn’t stand still.
Ms. Abramovic has yet to ask the performers back for a promised reunion at her country house, they said with some regret. The film can be seen on HBO Go for HBO subscribers, but has no upcoming scheduled airings on the network’s various channels.