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Marina Abramovic: In The Name of Art
July 1, 2012  | By Eric Gould

In 1988, realizing that her 12-year relationship with partner and collaborator Ulay was coming to a close, performance artist Marina Abramovic took on a three-month, 1500-mile walk to meet him at the center of the Great Wall of China. He walked the same distance to meet her and mark the ending. It is only one example of many extreme acts the artist has undertaken throughout her career in the name of human endurance and art.

As cryptic as modern art can be, Abramovic's ephemeral brand of performance art can be the most challenging. And it can be the most moving. Both sides of the artist's work are revealed in the HBO documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, which debuts Monday, July 2 at 9 p.m. ET.

Abramovic (pronounced A-BRAM-o-vitch) is often referred to as "the grandmother of performance art." She emerged out of communist Yugoslavia in the '70s, and was a force of nature almost from the start.

Early in the documentary, sitting with Klaus Biesenbach, a curator of New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), she listens as he recounts a list of her early projects: "You were driving a van around a square for sixteen hours and shouting numbers through a megaphone; you substituted your personae with that of a prostitute; you took psychoactive drugs to challenge social attitudes toward female mental illness; and you lay inside a five-pointed wooden star set on fire and fainted from the lack of oxygen."

They are all examples of radical acts that are intentionally outside the realm of painting and sculpture. Performance art is art that cannot be hung on a wall, a form of art where the human body, the artist, is the medium. Human acts are the technique, and it's meant to make you feel or understand something.

Abramovic has enjoyed a long career of provocation and notoriety. Many of her works involved full frontal nudity and acts of real or implied physical violence. (As did others, including Chris Burden, who had himself nailed — actually, crucified — to a Volkswagen in 1974.) Galleries made limited edition photographs of her work, which were expensive and sold well. Those sales made her financially comfortable.

The HBO documentary covers her arduous journey from a performance artist vagabond in Europe to a celebrated icon, culminating with her 2010 one-woman retrospective at New York's most prestigious museum. The documentary is at times as challenging to stay with, but the payoff is there.

Some of the film's more memorable moments occur at the Museum of Modern Art. The van that she and Ulay lived out of for five years in Europe was on display in the show, and it's a touching moment when she sees it again after almost thirty years.

But the centerpiece of the Abramovic retrospective was the artist herself (hence the title of the show and the documentary, The Artist is Present). She sat in one of the main galleries each day when the museum was open, visible to all. Museum goers who wished to could sit silently across a minimalist table from her, gazing into her eyes. The idea was to create a moment of absolute clarity, free from electronics and media, allowing the visitor to directly access the artist with nothing in between.

"In performance it's an emotional approach. You have to have a direct connection between the public and the performer," Abramovic says in the film. "And if you are performing in that way, that you are there 100 percent, there's an emotion that arrives for everybody. There's no way out. Everybody feels it. Artists have to be warriors. They have to have this determination, this stamina to conquer, not just new territory, but themselves."

Abramovic sat continuously for seven-and-a-half hours a day, seven days a week, for three months — a monumental work if there ever was one. Most days, she sat in a flowing, yet ascetic scarlet red robe that gave her the simultaneous air of a holy official and a satanic priestess.

The most compelling footage shows two people, motionless in chairs, gazing into one another's eyes. These moments make some visitors smile. Others are impassive; still others well up with tears. As the thousands go by, some sitting for a few minutes, others for hours, you see the entire spectrum and you understand the power of the artist performing in public as a method.

There is a particularly riveting moment when, after years apart, Ulay arrives at the museum to sit across from her (above).

Talking about the gallery visitors, Abramovic  says, "Soon, I am just a mirror of their own self."

As word spreads about Abramovic's presence in the museum, the crowds grow to capacity, with people sleeping on the sidewalk overnight to be first in line to sit with her. For some it becomes a personal pilgrimage, and there is almost a cult-like rock-star aura around her as the show nears its closing.

As Biesenbach points out, the work is like "kind of scientific experiment that reveals human nature.  But what is art other than revealing human nature?"

"The exhibition is a self-portrait," Biesenbach says. "That's her. There she sits. She gives it all."

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present premieres on Monday, July 2, 9 p.m. ET. It repeats on July 5 (12:45 a.m.), 10 (12:30 a.m.) and 18 (2:45 a.m.) It airs on HBO2 on July 4, at 8 p.m. ET.

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